by Rob Gonsalves
When discussing a Tim Burton film, you want to go on and on about the mood and look of the piece, because the story is never much to write home about.In Sleepy Hollow, based glancingly on the Washington Irving story, Burton and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki give us a world of fog and chill; the blacks are blacker than midnight in a coal mine, and the whites -- well, there isn't much white, just gradations of gray. Burton doesn't wallow in gloom; he luxuriates in it, and the result, for all its drabness, is a work of great morose beauty. One almost wishes that there were no script at all -- that the film were silent, even.
"Visually stunning; should have tossed the script."
Working for the third time with Burton (after Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood), Johnny Depp steps forward out of the mist, hair mussed and dark, clothes also mussed and dark, flesh paler than anything else around -- once again, he's Burton's onscreen surrogate. This time he's Ichabod Crane, a New York constable (not a schoolteacher as in Irving) religiously devoted to "sense and reason." It's 1799, the dawn of a new century, and Crane espouses the future of detective work: new scientific advances, the strenuous use of logic and deduction. In response, his superiors disdainfully assign him to Sleepy Hollow, a bleak town where people have been mysteriously turning up minus their heads.
Crane slouches into town, which is full of some of the great eccentrics in modern movies, along with some veterans like Michael Gough, who played Alfred in Burton's two Batman movies. (If Sleepy Hollow were an utter dud, which it isn't, it would be worth seeing just to hear Gough intone, in answer to what became of the missing heads, "Taken ... taken by the Headless Horseman ... taken back to Hell.") There's the usual pious reverend (Jeffrey Jones, always fun to watch), a gossipy magistrate (Richard Griffiths), and a prosperous couple (Michael Gambon and Miranda Richardson) with a blond, angelic daughter named Katrina (Christina Ricci). Crane keeps hearing the local legend of the Headless Horseman, which he discounts out of hand. Surely, he says, there is a logical explanation for the murders.
There is, and that's where Sleepy Hollow falls down. Burton isn't, nor should he be, a man of logic. He's an artist of spooky intuition, painting with bullet-gray skies and gnarled branches reaching towards us like skeleton's fingers. The movie, experienced solely with the eyes, enfolds us in mesmerizing atmosphere -- a mood poem in tribute to the dark, gory, campy Hammer horror movies Burton devoured as a kid. (A familiar Hammer legend turns up in a cameo, and Christopher Walken in his scenes as the pre-headless horseman is like the spirit of Hammer incarnate.) "I'm pinioned to logic," says Crane at one point; unfortunately, Burton is pinioned to the rather banal logic of Andrew Kevin Walker's script (reportedly doctored by Tom Stoppard), which explains everything and takes all the mystery out of what we've been watching.
Sleepy Hollow is two-thirds of a masterful gothic horror-comedy -- for long stretches, it plays like an Edward Gorey tale in live-action. But as it winds down, characters start spinning around in ecstasies of exposition (which barely makes sense anyway), and the movie begins to feel cheesy; an overlong stagecoach chase, a recap of similar bits in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Bram Stoker's Dracula, is the mold on the cheese. The film doesn't fully recover after its haphazardly conventional climax, but everything leading up to it -- the tormented woods, the deep thuds of hooves, the nightmarish splendor of the Headless Horseman himself -- is superb. So I don't really have the heart to dwell much on Sleepy Hollow's eleventh-hour loss of magic.I just wish Tim Burton had trusted more in his own brand of logic -- the dream logic of horror and fantasy, the unaccountable imagination that gives us a villain who doesn't bleed and a tree that does.
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originally posted: 01/14/07 14:27:12