The last seven years have been nervous ones for Terry Gilliam
fans. The man’s made few movies per decade ever since the
’80s—given the enormous difficulties of getting backing
for his frequently outlandish projects, and the financial debacle
of The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen continually hanging
over his head—and the collapse of The Man Who Killed Don
Quixote in 2001 after a mere six days of shooting looked unnervingly
like a capstone. Finally, Gilliam did what he’d done the last
time he couldn’t get any work: become a director for hire.
After Munchausen came The Fisher King, but fortunately,
The Brothers Grimm—especially as re-written by Gilliam
and Tony Grisoni (credited only as “Pattern
Dress Makers” thanks to disputes with the Writers Guild of
America), with presumably little thanks to the inexplicably ubiquitous
Ehren Kruger (Scream 3, The Skeleton Key)—is
far less bland than that earlier work.
The Brothers Grimm is purest, undiluted Gilliam—which
is say that it’s frequently loud, overbearing, and obnoxious.
(Gilliam may be the only director whose work is actually improved
when watched on a TV, where the constant frantic onrush doesn’t
bludgeon you nearly as much.) There are bird-shit jokes and villagers
sliding through mud. At one point, Lena Headey
skins a rabbit to stop an unwanted conversation (it works). Better
(worse?) yet, Gilliam tramples upon any and all notions of treating
members of other nationalities with respect. He casts the American
Damon and Australian Ledger as
British-accented Germans, the British Jonathan Pryce
as a villainous Frenchman with Pepe le Pew inflection, the Swedish
Peter Stormare as a broadly-accented Italian (sample
slice of dialogue: “Grimmi! Grimmi!”), and a whole bunch
of Czech extras as German villagers.
But the flip side of Gilliam’s overkill is a power for mythical,
captivating visuals, and the motherlode of fairy tales here delivers.
Damon and Heath are the titular brothers, who preside over a traveling
con-artist circus that installs fake witches in villages, then exorcises
them for a fee with a good show. When the occupying French catch
up with them, they’re sent to a village where nine girls have
disappeared. It’s presumed that similar snake-oil merchants
are responsible, but the forest is alive. Cue the Big Bad Wolf,
Sleeping Beauty, et al. (and maybe some giggly memories of The
Evil Dead’s tree rape). After a long, somewhat tedious
exposition, the first moment of true magic comes when Damon’s
horse gets transformed into the Wolf: It bares its incongruous teeth,
but no one notices. Later, it consumes a child in one gulp and gallops
off, with a huge bulge in its stomach. It only gets better.
The prologue succinctly sets up the usual Gilliam dichotomy: dreamer
vs. non-believer (see also: dreamer vs. officious, oppressive bureaucrat).
Young Ledger is sent off to sell a cow to get money for medicine
for his ill sister, but he falls for a stranger’s tale of
magical beans instead. Fifteen years later, it’s Ledger’s
belief vs. Damon’s non-belief, and both brothers fighting
for romantic rights over Headey (a triangle which remains refreshingly
unresolved by film’s end) and against the decidedly non-believing
French. The Dreamer Oppressed is Gilliam terra firma, especially
when—as here—most of the dreams are nightmares. Other
marks of his authorship: an establishing title card (“Once
upon a time:…1796”) not as amusingly precise as such
other opening classics as “The Age of Reason—Tuesday”
but still consistent, and a usage of the old joke where a heroic
speech accompanied by soaring music abruptly cuts off as matters
suddenly take a turn for the more earthly and less idealistic (not
to mention the whole film’s Python-esque
insistence—as in Holy Grail and Life Of Brian—on
depicting the past as grubby, muddy, and brutish).
Grimm’s trade-off, then, is a familiar one to Gilliam fans:
an oppressive opening of increasing hysteria (at one point, Gilliam
cuts from a girl screaming to a flock of geese running straight
at the camera) that suddenly expands into moments of genuine wonder,
alternating consistently with shrill overkill. How the uninitiated
will respond is totally impossible to tell. In 1981 Time Bandits
was an unexpected hit; despite this movie’s generally inept
promotion, you can at least hope for the same, even if it’s
not quite as good. It’s so good to have Gilliam back.