Sometimes the studio system and visionary filmmakers simply don’t mix and never has this been more evident than with Terry Gilliam who seemingly has made an entire career of going to war with studio executives in order to get his eccentric worlds onto the screen
Sometimes Gilliam’s epic battles bear fruit, with his near legendary struggle with Universal eventually ending with a director’s cut for his masterpiece, Brazil – and other times you end up getting The Brothers Grimm.
Featuring a production that saw the famously incendiary director locking horns with the Weinstein Brothers who seemed to disagree on almost every single decision Gilliam wanted to make, there was still a chance that his distinctive style would probably yield something memorable – however, The Brothers Grimm seemed destined to be as muddled as some of the tall tales told by the Grimms themselves.
During the French occupation of Germany in the early 19th Century, brothers Will and Jake Grimm make a dishonest living by conning villages to pay them for vanquishing the very fake monsters that they themselves have orchestrated. Utilizing Will’s gift of the gab and Jake’s knowledge of folklore, we’re introduced to them as they round off one of their signature scams, but as they celebrate their latest payday they are rousted by the sadistic Italian torturer, Cavaldi, in the name of French General Delatombe. It seems that the young girls of the village of Marbaden are turning up missing and the Brothers Grimm have been ordered, on pain of death, to go there and figure out what kind of trickery is afoot.
However, for once it seems that the jokes on them as, with the help of glowering trapper Angelika, they soon discover that Marbaden is a village living in such fear of the next disappearance, they’ve taken to disguising their young girls up as boys in an attempt to hide them from whatever force is plucking them in such nightmarish ways be it being swallowed by a horse (?) or having their face stolen by gingerbread man made of mud (!?). While Will vehemently clings to the hope that there may yet be a rational explanation for evil ravens, werewolves, magic axes and living trees, Jake suspects that they may living an actual, real life fairy tale.
The culprit turns out to be a 500 year-old Thuringian queen who is using her talents of black magic to harvest young girls in order to make herself young again and if she isn’t stopped by the upcoming eclipse, she’ll once again be at full strength at the cost of twelve young lives – however, adamant that this is all some sort of japery, Delatombe insists on stamping all this nonsense out once and for all; starting with the Grimms.
Gilliam is truly in a league of his own when it comes to anarchic, challenging world building, with such movies as Brazil, Time Bandits and Twelve Monkeys presenting us with cruel, yet beguiling universes that are as utterly unpredictable as they are pristinely realised. However, due to the dark, absurdist humour of his Monty Python days, the eccentric author frequently comes a cropper when it comes to trying to manufacture these off-beat realities when he has bean counting money-men to answer to and they simply aren’t understanding what their director is trying to achieve. While this obviously means that Gilliam’s had some notches in the loss column when it comes to box office returns, that doesn’t necessarily mean that his flops haven’t deliriously fascinating (I, for example, have always had warm feelings for the deranged chaos of The Adventures Of Baron Munchhausen) – however, the same can’t be said of The Brothers Grimm.
Even though Gilliam busts out some memorable moves for isolated sections of the film and the production values (aside from some underachieving 2000’s era CGI) are genuinely high, the movie is not much more than a damn mess which highlights the continuing battle of wills that was raging behind the scenes. Perverting fairy tales with pompous frauds as leading characters is something of a Gilliam speciality, but the movie sits uncomfortably in the expansive void between blockbuster and quirky indie movie as it rumbles from one rambling setpiece to another.
The main problem, gallingly, is the performance of leads Matt Damon and Heath Ledger as the bickering brothers that doesn’t so much gel as collide like the vehicles of a couple of drunk drivers. Seemingly focused chiefly on maintaining their english accents and repeatedly talking over one another, they’re both obviously jazzed to be in a Gilliam movie – and good for them – but it all ends up being less of a polished double act and more like endless noise. Elsewhere Lena Headey, forced to play the serious-action-heroine role, literally seems flown in from another movie which probably wasn’t that far from the truth as she wasn’t the director’s choice for the role. However, Jonathan Pryce is obviously having a ball while ruthlessly going way over the top as General Delatombe, unleashing a ludicrous french accent/lips combo and Peter Stromare takes to slots into Gilliam’s world like he was born to it, attacking his Italian torturer like a man possessed. Is he massively over the top? Oh certainly – but he also feels he’s wandered in from the director’s Monty Python/Jabbawocky phase as he spits on peasants and shreds kittens with an unhinged sense of Grand Guignol.
While Tim Burton pretty much nailed the same subject matter with Sleepy Hollow back in the 90’s, this attempt to create a twisted fantasy adventure crashes and burns pretty much from the get-go, when Gilliam is allowed to flex his outrageously dark sense of humor, the resulting instances of nightmare fuel tantilisingly hint at the film that might have been. Be it the the truly brain-warping sight of of a horse ensnaring a child by disgorging spider webs and then swallowing its victim whole (the shot of the screaming girl lodged in the nag’s is truly unsettling) or another child wiping mud off her face only to find she’s erased her features right along with it only for them to appear on a humunculi that crawls from the muck, it’s obvious that the director hasn’t lost his touch for the darkly surreal, but their trapped within a movie that literally has no clue what it’s trying to be in its hopeless attempt to please its many masters.
Gilliam completists may argue it’s virtues (or not as the case may be), but anyone else will no doubt be bamboozled by its fluctuating tones, gargantuan performances and confusing action sequences – puzzled as to why the movie is either too grim, or not grim enough.