All I wanted was a little order.
— General Delatombe (Jonathan Pryce)
Once upon a time, in 1796, the brothers Grimm were children, poor and living with their kind, much put upon mother. When one brother comes home with a packet of “magic beans” in exchange for the family cow, he’s left an infant sibling crying in hunger and his brother disappointed in him, apparently not for the first time.
Cut forward in time, and little Wilhelm has grown up to be a bookish Matt Damon and Jacob a slightly more dashing Heath Ledger. And now, in Terry Gilliam’s sometimes clever, mostly discombobulated The Brothers Grimm, they are following in the footsteps of that bean-selling con artist, scamming peasants and rich folks alike, regarding magic, hauntings, and their ability to vanquish scary creatures from the diurnal realm.
Their first wowza trick — busting a witch in a barn — comes replete with wires and wind, as well as mirrors (to “reflect evil”), swords, and tricked out suits of armor and all manner of violent shenanigans. Exposing the gizmos and actual labor that go into making elaborate, special-effected illusions, a dual project — creating and deconstructing magic — this opening set piece speaks to interests that have long preoccupied Gilliam, that grand spinner of tales and lover of subjective truths. Somewhat too conveniently, his characters here occupy the positions that might be imagined within this duality, Will the practical skeptic and Jake the sincere wannabeliever.
Their next assignment, however, will put both these attitudes to the test, and, much like a typical X-Files episode, each must compromise to achieve some semblance of resolution. Called to a remote village surrounded by forest, they learn of a sustained crisis, where 10 young girls have been stolen away over several years (among the missing: Gretel [here Greta] and Little Red Riding Hood, whose scarlet cape is left hanging on a tree branch). One girl’s sister, the very game, very distrustful Angelika (Lena Headey), agrees to guide them to a certain scary spot, where they hope to put on a show and pretend to solve a puzzle they can’t imagine would actually be real. Their company, assigned by a snooty French military bureaucrat, General Delatombe (Jonathan Pryce), includes the completely unhinged Italian executioner Cavaldi (Peter Stormare), who alternates between simpering and aggressive, never quite predictably.
Their initial journey through the Marbaden forest is suitably spooky: trees’ roots reach out to grab at them (“Don’t trust the trees,” warns Angelika), an awkwardly assembled wolf shadows them (and engages in a little confrontation with Angelika, reasons to be discovered later), and a horse, affected by the swirling black magic, literally gulps down a child, a violence depicted in horrendous, bloated silhouette. The fact that the very land is rising up against invaders is of a piece with the film’s interest in occupation — of bodies as well as locations. The French have pushed their way into the German countryside, and their efforts to maintain order are cramped by the scary stuff — hence Delatombe’s demand to curtail the threat against the country folks he hardly cares about. Jake and Will are at first equally disinterested, of course, but soon find themselves not only intrigued and thrilled by the materiality of the foresty menace, but also find themselves fearful and empathetic, increasingly worried about the missing girls (partly a result of their increasing interest in Angelika, for whose attention they are soon competing).
Out in the woods, they find a site of mysterious power, a tower with no access except by a window at the very top (so very Rapunzel). Inside resides the evil Mirror Queen (Monica Bellucci), who’s casting spells and seducing young men in order to secure her own domain. The battle engaged by the brothers has them looking through their work-cases of props and gimmicks to find objects of some use, and suddenly, their gadgets of pretense have become a matter of survival. As the apparatus is exposed, then, it also becomes potent, at least for a minute, before the Mirror Queen discovers what’s up and begins to whomp them back.
The film is as much about the process of creation, of spinning yarns and contexts, as it is about any particular yarns. Ehren Kruger’s script teases together any number of references to the Grimm’s tales, some obvious fits, more often weird. When Will complains that Jake needs to stay focused on “the story,” and not the Queen, encouraging him to maintain control over the shape and outcome, rather than give in to larger and plainly odious forces. When Will worries, “It’s not our world,” that is, not the world of magic tricks and fakery, Jake lays claim to part of it anyway: “We can give it a happy ending.” That involves waking up, being responsible to a broader community, and realizing their own part in the initial problem.
As he prepares Jake to confront the Queen, with the homemade armor that’s not really magic (“It’s just shiny,” he confesses), Will worries out loud to Angelika, “Nothing makes sense here, it’s like being inside Jake’s head.” Indeed, in this story of art, the turns often don’t make much sense. Whether that has to do with the much-noted disagreements between Gilliam and his producers (over casting, editing, and cinematographer), or whether such skewed contours are precisely what the filmmaker had in mind is almost beside the point. Adventurous and odd, The Brothers Grimm connects politics and storytelling, showmanship and persistence, connections that make almost too much sense.