Chickens, chickens! More chickens!
— Terry Gilliam, commentary track, The Brothers Grimm
That’s the terrible thing about films. You keep moving forward, you can’t stop.
— Terry Gilliam, commentary track, The Brothers Grimm
“Not only did we build the barn, but we built the village, later,” says Terry Gilliam. “We were able to make sets that looked like they’d been there for years, centuries hopefully in some cases. Because it’s always seemed to me that if you’re doing silly things like this with silly armor, the world has got to be believable, it’s got to be real. Then the jokes work better, the illusion works better.”
Illusion is fundamental to all Gilliam’s films, of course. In this case, he’s talking about The Brothers Grimm, his commentary track reminding you not only of his brilliance, but also of his tendency for thoughtful risk-taking. He’s that rare moviemaker who likes to wrangle with ideas and fears and fantasies, in complex and innovative images. The brothers in Gilliam’s vision are difficult and wily, competitive but also loyal to one another. They are comic and weird, traumatized by an impoverished childhood and frighteningly imaginative (they also “shriek like girls” when they’re alarmed, a point Gilliam finds quite amusing: “It makes it more real, it makes ’em funnier, the audience loves it,” he insists).
Watching his film’s brief introductory sequence, Gilliam remarks that Steven Soderbergh suggested it (the original start featured Red Riding Hood, a sequence that shows up later in the film). In this version, the brothers Grimm first appear as children: Jake trades away money he’s supposed to use to purchase medicine for a small sack of magic beans and his older brother Will is so bothered by this choice that he comes back to it repeatedly throughout the rest of their saga.
This takes part some 15 years later, with Jake played by Heath Ledger and Will by Matt Damon. They’re riding round the countryside, conning villagers and rich folks spooked by supposed ghosts and witches; the brothers vanquish said haunters for fees. Will, not incidentally, takes care to write down all their adventures, embellished and not, compiling the characters will become the Grimms’ most famous legacy, including Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, the Gingerbread Man. As the film becomes a delightfully perverse sort of origin story (with the brothers, in Ehren Kruger’s script, forming a schematic duality, with Will the cynic and Jake the wannabeliever), it also lays out a world of jaunty, sometimes frantic possibilities, less instructive than ballsy.
The brothers are deposited in a universe of upset, trickery, and abuse, though they are hardly innocent. Even the politics of the situation is complicated: as the brothers ride into a town where a German sign is being replaced by a French one, Gilliam says, “I love the idea of French-occupied Germany because always the Germans were busy occupying France and everywhere else; that’s all in our current memory, but there was a time when the world was different.”
Into this different world steps a stable boy to greet the brothers as they enter a village overseen by the regional French magistrate in Germany General Delatombe (Jonathan Pryce). Spotting this boy in his full-on shadowy, wet bedragglement, Gilliam announces, “This is my son,” who in this first part, “got to act with Matt and Heath and I’ve probably ruined his life. Now he wants to be an actor.” Alas, and no doubt he’ll want to make clever, ambitious movies too.
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 artifice, at once creating and deconstructing magic, this set piece goes to Gilliam’s long-time interests in the intersections of mechanics and myths, universal tales and subjective truths. He is also a director very much devoted to and impressed by his coworkers: watching Ledger fiddle with a toy in one scene, he says,
Little things I love. I love actors like that, who just are constantly inventing. You write a sequence, you write characters, and then they come along and elaborate and keep the character alive and fresh. And while I’m just trying to get the shots done and move through work during the day, they say, “Well, what about this?” And either I can say, “Piss off,” or “God, that’s a good idea! I hate you!”
Damon and Ledger deliver terrific bits throughout the film, as the Grimms argue with one another over tactics repeatedly. Called to a remote village surrounded by forest, Will and Jake 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 skeptical 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. The three go forth, along with Delatombe’s guy, a completely unhinged Italian executioner named Cavaldi (Peter Stormare: “He’s a great scene stealer,” notes Gilliam), who alternates between simpering and aggressive, never predictably. In the woods, they run into creepy-crawlies (CGI-ed bugs and birds), plus a toad that Angelika licks for information (Gilliam reveals that he licked it first, as he would never ask an actor to do something he wouldn’t do).
When Angelika notes that the trees are changing positions to confuse them (“Don’t trust the trees,” she warns), it seems the very land is rising up against them. This notion is of a piece with the film’s interest in occupation — of bodies as well as locations: the enchantments to be revealed have to do with the disappeared girls’ usefulness for one evil witch, called the Mirror Queen (Monica Bellucci), who means to recover from a curse cast upon her via their innocence and youth.
The crew finds the site where this bewildering magic is being worked, a tower with no access except by a window at the very top. Inside, the Queen awaits them, ready to battle them back to get what she wants and then some. At a loss when real magic starts whirling around them, the brothers rifle through their work-cases of props and gimmicks to find objects of some use, and suddenly, their pretense gives way to survival strategies. (Again, this is related to Gilliam’s own thinking, as he points out in one scene that the extras appear and disappear, because on some shooting days, the budget didn’t allow for them to be on set: “You’re not supposed to do this for these [commentary tracks], but this is why I love DVDs: I can completely destroy the illusion of my film.”)
The trick here is that as soon as the apparatus is exposed, it also becomes potent, at least for a minute, before the Mirror Queen delivers her own punishment on these meddlers. And so 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. 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 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. As Gilliam tells it, the film’s production was troubled. “There’s always that problem of running out of time. Although there were plans to do this thing properly, you run out of time and money, and so, quick, shoot something, get enough on film where we’ve got a basis to work from, and ten solve the problem later. It’s one of the advantages of computers. It’s something we can do now that we couldn’t have done years ago. The bad side of it: it does allow people to be lazy and avoid solving the problem at the right time.” If nothing else, Gilliam is a problem solver. Adventurous and odd, The Brothers Grimm connects politics and storytelling, making almost too much sense.