Directed by Terry Gilliam
Dress Patterns by Terry Gilliam and Tony Grisoni
Written by Ehren Kruger
Starring Matt Damon, Heath Ledger, Lena Headey, Peter Stormare, Jonathan Pryce
My Advice: Matinee.
It’s the early 19th Century in French Occupied Germany. Two brothers, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm (Damon and Ledger) make their way across Europe, helping out villagers who are plagued with beasties, witches and spooks of all sorts. Well, sorta. Really they’re mining Jacob’s knowledge of European folklore and going to where the legends say the beasties, witches and spooks are–because chances are very good they’ll find superstitious people there willing to believe anything (like, for example, Kansas) and thus, willing to pay handsomely to have their fears dispatched. Because there are people willing to pay for such services, the Grimms are justified in their minds to relieve the people of the necessary coin. Only what if it’s not all just heebee jeebie bullshit? What if there’s a forest somewhere in France where Some Really Weird Shit is actually going down? And what if they were…compelled (psst–it involves being on the wrong end of guns) to go there?
[ad#longpost]It’s simplistic to say that this is a period-piece X-Files meets Ghostbusters but where the characters are charlatans. What this really is, in my humble opinion, is something that would make fans of the Fables comic book wish that Gilliam was adapting it for the big screen. Because this winds up being twice as coherent as Sleepy Hollow wishes it was, and twice as entertaining as Van Helsing thought it was going to be.
The cast is in fine form. Ledger is the most able of the two brothers, more comfortable in his accent and more easy to accept in his role. It’s hard to believe this guy was just recently a surfer/skater dude, let’s put it that way. Damon, though, gets no disrespect because he, in my mind, actually has the harder of the two roles. He’s the straight man. He’s the Scully, for those of you who don’t have any other frame of reference. Ledger gets to go with the flow and his character knows what the hell’s up, but Damon has to play dumb…and it’s a hard sell at times, but he makes it work.
The biggest problem with the film is that it’s obviously not completely Gilliam’s film. There has been much hubbub about the interferences of the studio and we’ve never seen the struggle between the forces of good and evil (behind the camera, I mean, of course) in a fashion this pronounced before. Perhaps the most unnerving thing about the film is that the opening sequence doesn’t feel like a Gilliam film at all. Prologue, their first “case,” and even the first Bad Thing That Happens–all of it feels like we’re in a film that could have been directed by…well, anybody. It’s only when the scenery chewing duo of Peter Stormare and Jonathan Pryce arrive that we suddenly feel fully grounded in Gilliam’s mad universe. Stormare is one of the best character actors out there these days when you need a go-to guy for Just Nucking Futs. More about Pryce in a moment.
Once Gilliam has taken the reins, though, it’s pretty much smooth sailing. And perhaps the most delightful thing about Gilliam’s work in this is that there’s a lot of really screwed up horrific stuff happening on the screen–I mean some genuinely creepy shit, folks. But at no point do you leave the Gilliamverse. It’s just Gilliam doing horror. And it works. Same thing with the action sequences (the first one aside). They have that indefinable madness and mayhem that goes with running around in Gilliam’s head–and again, they work. All of this leaves me with a burning desire to see Gilliam tackle an action movie or a just really small, indie horror flick. Terry Gilliam, after all, created one of the most horrific villains of all time in Jack Lint. Imagine what he could do if he really worked at it.
For true Gilliam fans, the fun is looking at how the film resonates with other bits of Gilliam’s work. Because essentially, where Baron Munchausen was a light movie dealing about fantasy vs. reality, this is a very dark movie, albeit with some high comedy, in which reality is not only fighting fantasy, but fantasy equals the bad guys. Who are trying to kill your ass with great gusto. Also making this a mirror image of Munchausen is Pryce, playing what’s essentially a version of the same character: the guy whose job it is to walk and say, “Wait, goddammit, this is all bullshit. All total bullshit.” And of course, to also ruin everybody’s day. Also striking is how Gilliam films always seem to end buried in rubble. I won’t say too much more about that, because Gilliam films can emotionally pulverize the landscape just as well as literally, but I thought a lot about the end of Time Bandits just as far as scenery goes.
One last cast bit I should mention is Monica Bellucci. She’s the evil queen, and there’s honestly not much for her to do. It’s a situation where they said, “Hmm…we need somebody who can play wicked and also be somebody you could believe ‘Start Me Up’ was written for. I know!” Anyway, she fills that role quite well, let me tell you.
The bottom line in all this is that it’s fun. It’s entertaining. Is it going to be as deep a viewing experience as something like Twelve Monkeys or Fisher King? No, nor was it really meant to be. It’s a dark forbiding Gilliam-led adventure where you really want to watch where he’s swinging that machete. If anything, it’s a testament to just how much this man needs to get the hell away from the studios and concentrate on low-budget, high-quality indie fare. Because I would have loved to have seen this film if Gilliam had been unshackled. It would have gone from good to great. And all of this makes me desperate to see Tideland.
If you’re a Gilliam freak, grab this film however you can. But for everybody else, it’s at least worth a matinee.