For certain, you have to be lost to find the places can’t be found.
— Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush)
Dear Dalma, you add an agreeable sense of the macabre to any delusion.
— Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp)
At the end of the world, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is cast away on a ship on a desert. He’s talking to himself, or rather, lots of himselves. Stuck up against a vast white on white background, Jack commands, insults, even executes himself — as he faces down a crew of mates who are variously lolling, mincing and gallivanting about the deck, a gaggle of Jacks at odds and in cahoots with only themselves. It’s a delightful and alarming vision indeed, especially as Jack’s only non-jack companion appears to be a crab he conjures in his mind’s/world’s end, apparently out of a stone. The crab hunkers down and observes him — you are allowed a neatly conceived over-the-crab’s-shoulder (if it had a shoulder) perspective as Jack heaves and hos with a giant rope attached to his ship, attempting to pull it forward over the white-white sand that stretches forever before him.
Arriving in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End some 35 minutes into the action — which certainly and predictably flails without him — Jack doesn’t seem precisely horrified by his monumentally existential condition. He is, as you might gather, not quite dead. Rather, says the black-toothed hoodoo lady Dalma (Naomie Harris), “Him taken body and soul.” This is a terrible thing, apparently, worse than being dead or even being a crewmember for Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). (Though it must be said that Jack is infinitely “witty” — again, Dalma’s description — which makes a soulless fate with him seem preferable to one with the dull-minded fishy men who bump up against one another on the Flying Dutchman.) Still, his fellow pirates miss him much, as do you, and so the mission of the third installment is most definitely the search for Jack.
Much as it sounds, this plot recalls the search for Spock, in that the regulars — Will (Orlando Bloom), Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), Gibbs (Kevin R. McNally), and now the newly re-enfleshed Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) — set out on an adventure, fight some fights, and introduce some new energy (in particular, Captain Sao Feng [Chow Yun-Fat]). Following battles and weather and arguments amongst themselves (the Will-Elizabeth conflict reaches an apotheosis of boring, their every conversation grinding everything around them, to a full stop), they wash up on the very shore that would seem to be Jack’s mind, where he is busy, as you’ve seen, being Jack Sparrow (per Charlie Kaufman). Not exactly thrilled to see them, Jack nonetheless is happy to offer his sea-ready ship in exchange for a crew not comprised of multiple Jacks: he has now seen, after all, how difficult he can be to be around, let alone direct.
The plotty need to recover Jack is more mundane and less urgent than the film’s need for his exquisite life force. (The franchise has morphed speedily into his own, with no need for anyone but him on promotional posters; the ascension of Jack Sparrow to action figure now redundantly and ridiculously and even deliciously complete — has ever a fast-food-tie-in movie hero ever been so fey and so wily and so utterly uncommitted to his own business?). The plot demands Jack and his ever-glinting piece of eight, in order to complete the assembly of the Pirate Brethren Court, each bearing his or her own version of the nine pieces of eight necessary to resurrect the cataclysmic power of Calypso, currently bound in human form (and supposedly unknown among the group, though if you don’t know who she is, you’re just not paying attention).
The assembly is a response to World’s End‘s brief and un-worked out gesture toward current world politics, that is, the decision by the East India Company, helmed by the especially pale Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander) to profit at all costs. The film opens with the latest edict, that all rights — to assembly, habeas corpus, legal counsel, and a verdict by a jury one’s peers — are hereby suspended. A long line of pirates and suspected associates are chained and walked slowly to the gallows, where they are hanged en masse. Short of wearing orange jumpsuits, the prisoners could not be any more obvious references to consequence of government by corporate entities. As they stand before the gallows — death machines if ever there were any — the pirates-and-associates begin to sing, the slowed-down theme park song that is their anthem, their assertion of freedom and resistance no matter what official authority might oppress them.
“Pirates” are by definition evil, untrustworthy, and desperate; their white-wigged, red-coated opponents only interested in maintaining order and their wealthy commanders’ ideological as well as cultural and financial supremacy. This is not to say that terrorists, freedom fighters, and pirates are always and ever equivalent, but that the movie here introduces the shifting nature of such definitions, and especially, the commercial-mindedness that ordains the shifting.
You might understand Pirates, the Disney franchise as simultaneously loving the image of the outlaw troublemaker and also co-opting it, making it not outlaw at all, but only part of the corporateness that is Disney. You might also perceive that Depp, as deliciously defiant as he remains regarding the movie business, has also given in to Jack: he’s an icon quite beyond himself, being himself, debating, cavorting with, and abusing himself with no small abandon. The “business” takes such absorption a step further in this film, with the much-heralded inclusion of Keith Richards as Jack’s dad, yet another colorful pirate who shows up with a guitar-like instrument, winking and poking, an acknowledgment of Depp’s assertion of inspiration (would that the film would have invited Pepe Le Pew as well). Richards’ appearance is a completely weird and interesting moment, simultaneously rejecting fiction and embracing it, allowing that Jack is Depp and vice versa, understanding at least on a performative level that Jack-as-pirate-as-abject-freedom is both true and utterly untrue. And everyone is okay with this contradiction.
“The immaterial,” sniffs Lord Beckett, “has become immaterial.” By which he means, of course, the pirates’ ghosty yearnings and tricks mean nothing to the material world, his by fiat. “We need prisoners to interrogate,” he tells the tentacled, part-fluid Davy Jones, whose heart he holds. Whether you consider Beckett a representative of East India, Britain, governmentality, Disney, even the U.S. as worldwide corporateer, the point is here that he misses the point, namely, that Jack is possessed of boundless creativity. He also has a new chart of the world, by which he perceives that “up is down.” And so he is able to imagine a world beyond the end, beyond the material, and quite beyond the movie he’s in.
That movie, by the way, is not wonderful. It quite too long and filled with the sort of distraction that also troubled its predecessors (absent the awful cannibals of 2, though briefly displacing some measure of race anxieties onto Sao Feng’s mysterious Singapore). It still wants you to care whether Elizabeth cares for Jack or whether she really really loves the increasingly inward-turned Will. And it wants you to worry whether Davy Jones’ locker/heart will fall into wrong hands, though it is, of course, in said hands by definition. (Anyone’s control over another soul is a dismal enterprise in its inception.) And Dalma’s work here is done fairly early, after which she hangs about to observe and smile on Jack’s prancing, along with the rest of us.
Jack is, of course, why you or Dalma or Will and anyone else will be here. Uncanny, nimble, and wholly complicit in his self-repetitions, Jack pursues pleasure with the sort of determination usually associated with moviegoers. He gets the joke, he gets the subtext, and he gets paid. Most wondrously, Jack gets Jack.