When last we saw young Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), they were approaching the black gate into Mordor. And, by the end of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, they’re in pretty much the same place, still looking to dispose of that nasty ring and save Middle Earth from certain doom, still worried that maybe they’re not up to the job, and still beset by all kinds of dark forces, seen and unseen.
At the same time, now that the fellowship is busted up and the various groups are headed toward the same end via different routes, the new film crosscuts between locations repeatedly. While this structure slows down ostensible forward motion, it also allows each crew to showcase its star performer and some scenery. And as a middle film, that is The Two Towers‘ primary function, to hold steady and hint at what’s to come.
The dullest group consists of the hapless Hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), kidnapped by the Mordor-Orcs and the Uruk-hai, and at last rescued by the Ent Treebeard (rather remarkably CGI-ed and effectively voiced by John Rhys-Davies, who also plays Gimli the dwarf). Said Ent is the star here. Hoisting the Hobbits atop his branches, Treebeard walks them from one end of the forest to another. Throughout the trek, Treebeard (an impressive digital achievement, great fun to see striding) — yaks incessantly, to the point that cuts to other scenes and back become nearly comic: soap operatically, his tale never progresses so much that you feel you’ve missed anything.
Eventually they meet up with the other Ents, called together to make a decision as to whether they, colossal walking trees that they are, should join the fight against Evil, also known in these parts as Dark Lord Sauron. Their discussion is brief, but it raises useful questions, concerning isolationism versus globalism. And at first, considering that the film was made (with the other two in this $300 million package), before 9-11, it seems almost prescient (not to mention the whole Two Towers connection). But then you remember that the debate is an ancient one, and apparently a wheel in need of perpetual reinvention.
The second group encounters (and frankly, invites) the most action, headed up by the increasingly conventionally heroic Aragorn (Viggo Mortenson) and buddies Gimli and Legolas the elf (Orlando Bloom). They make their way across splendidly rendered terrain (shown, as in the first film, by cameras swooping across vistas, peaks, and vales), first seeking their missing Fellows and then, saving the kingdom of Rohan. And oh, yes, meeting up with Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), now resurrected as the White.
Gandalf’s fortunate “survival” of his first-film encounter with the Balrog is revealed in this film’s first two minutes, in one of Frodo’s increasingly delirious visions. As wild as these apparitions are, they have nothing on the film’s most conspicuously odd moment: Gandalf leads his re-found friends through the dark forest to a sunlit field, where he whistles for his horse, a stunning, very white stallion whom he introduces to his very impressed crew as Shadowfax, Lord of All Horses. Evidently, this is the slamming fine ride to which only the coolest wizards might aspire.
Briefly reinvigorated by their old-times reunion, the band arrives at Rohan, where they find Gandalf’s old friend King Théoden (Bernard Hill) bewitched by Saruman’s (Christopher Lee) slimy minion, Gríma Wormtongue (Brad Dourif in his most memorable role since Chucky). That is, his skin is all flaky and his judgment is severely impaired, much to the chagrin of the Princess, his niece Éowyn (Miranda Otto), a.k.a. human love interest for Aragorn. (Their encounter inspires those “extra scenes,” shot after the film’s first completion, in which Arwen [Liv Tyler] sends love-you vibes to her man, while contemplating her dad’s injunction against the relationship: it’s a class issue, elves being upper and humans being lower, elves living longer and humans rotting faster, but the dilemma also indicates a certain anxiety over race differences.)
While Aragorn and Éowyn cast longing glances at one another, the action turns hectic, as a newly restored Théoden decides to move his peasanty-subjects to a not-so-secret hiding spot, Helm’s Deep, that all their enemies seem to know about. Cast as victims-to-be, these subjects do nothing but look worried, flee and stumble, and shield their children’s eyes, but they serve a crucial thematic purpose: they are the anonymous, and above all, guiltless hordes for which all this warring will be done. During the Orcs’ prolonged assault on the fortress at Helm’s Deep, the camera cuts repeatedly to these folks shuddering together in what amounts to the basement, while Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and a lot of elves who’ve come by to help, all fight mightily: blood and mud, spears and body parts flying everywhere.
This action is surely rousing, but it also cuts time allotted to Frodo’s more convoluted and self-imploding group. Here the star is the CGI-effected Gollum (modeled on set and voiced by Andy Serkis). The rasping sorry soul who tracked the Hobbits in last year’s The Fellowship of the Ring, this time out, Gollum takes action. He attacks the Hobbits while they sleep in an effort to grab up the precious (the ring). When Frodo bests Gollum with a sword to the throat, Gollum agrees to take them to the black gate, so they can get on with dropping the ring into the fiery abyss at Mount Doom.
During their protracted traipse through the “nasty bog,” they argue and complain, concerned as always that the mission is too much and their skills too few. Sam insists Gollum is trying to trick them, but Frodo, terminally nice Hobbit that he is, feels “pity” for Gollum, even a kind of affection. Their relationship develops to the point that Sam looks a tad jealous, but to be fair, Gollum leads the furry-foots through some mucky mire, including a spot where Frodo falls right into a watery grave, so entranced is he by the peacefully creepy bodies floating just below the surface. Suitably ooked out by his near-death, Frodo rethinks his budding sympathy for Gollum and throws in with Sam’s suspicions.
The Hobbits’ uncertainty stems from basic visible differences between their adorable selves and the grisly Gollum (in fact, he used be a more Hobbitlike creature named Sméagol, but has been cursed to squat and scrape across the wasteland, a backstory that may be explained in part 3). That the Hobbits treat Gollum as a slave (and that he acts as one, trotting along on a leash) is not a little discomforting (not least because it’s curiously like the house elf business in the second Harry Potter film — little slavey creatures appear to be the rage this season). On the surface, Gollum accepts his abuse as the order of things, but he’s not exactly what he appears to be.
As his previous name and incarnation suggest, Gollum is something of a schizzy boy, part deferential to his new master and part raging against the many injustices he’s suffered. As he grows frustrated and frightened during the bog journey, he starts talking to himself, first muttering under his breath about the precious and those treacherous Hobbitses, and eventually having full-blown arguments with himself, the whiny part and the antagonistic part: “Master tricked us: I told you he was tricksy! I told you he was base!”
This occasionally strained digital performance may be the most profound in the film, articulating in broad and excruciating ways the self-doubt and self-division that dogs every character in sight, save maybe Sam Gamgee. Frodo asks early on, “Nothing ever dampens your spirits, does it Sam?” This before the other servant/slave Gollum shows up. With this new competition, Sam’s complicated relationship to his master Frodo only becomes stranger in this outing, as his nursing of the increasingly despondent ring-bearer becomes at once more intimate and more buried, under layers of epic-battle-type scenes. These are large and handsome, but they’re numbing, too.
Sam knows what’s important. “It’s me, it’s your Sam,” he tells his master. But Frodo’s pale face goes paler. “I can’t do this, Sam,” he sighs. His Sam responds with an almost unbearably corny speech (which director Peter Jackson reports was added after initial shooting), about persevering against odds and going down in history (that will be written by winners, who will deem themselves good). “There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.” Sam believes that, even if he hasn’t seen it recently, and even if his Mr. Frodo is acting less and less like himself.
The Two Towers is premised on this belief, offering up images of “good” people (and elves and Hobbits) who are downtrodden and blameless. The causes for Dark Lord Sauron and company’s aggression are nonexistent: no one has encroached on his rights or trampled all over his beliefs. He’s just bad. And here, bad folks like to announce themselves, with thunder, rain, and ugly-ass homemade armies. But it’s useful to remember that, offscreen, both good and bad tend to be tricksy.