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Dimension Films

Official Site

Director: Terry Gilliam

Producers: Daniel Bobker, Charles Roven

Written by: Ehren Kruger

Cast: Matt Damon, Heath Ledger, Lena Headey, Peter Stormare, Jonathan Pryce, Monica Bellucci, Mackenzie Crook


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.

—Vadim Rizov

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