Long-time reader and first-time contributor Sadie Rose revisits Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm, hoping to find a moral, any kind of moral, and how the film may comment upon America’s political struggles.

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The Brothers Grimm

Dir. Terry Gilliam

Heath Ledger is dead! UHG. I hate that.

As none of you may know, I love Heath Ledger. I mean really, truly, this is tangible, love him. My love for him started about halfway through 10 Things I Hate About You, not only because of his charming smile but because I knew he was the real deal. A real craftsman of character. I told everyone how he was going to be the next big thing. How he was going to win an Oscar someday. How he was the Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, or Al Pacino of our time. I was relentless.

The year was 1999. And I was so adamant about my love for this actor that my email address was HeathsFutureWife@hotmail.com (100% true story! You can ask anyone who had to send me an email between 1999-2005). And you may be saying “Whoa, Sadie, TMI. That email is embarrassing.” But I have no shame about it because I was on the RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY. (Well mostly, he was on track to be the next brilliant creator of characters before he died. Uhg. I hate that.)

Summary thus far: Heath Ledger is amazing and I love him.

So although I know I saw The Brothers Grimm in the theater in 2005, I don’t remember where or with whom I saw it. I may have gone by myself. After all, most of the people in my life didn’t get how awesome Heath was. It was dark times (did anyone watch AND stay awake through Four Feathers? I mean I did, but it was for love, not pleasure). Nevertheless, Lords of Dogtown had been released two months before and Brokeback Mountain was about to be released in December and all the people who shamed me were gonna eat crow.

But, okay, enough with the Heath Ledger stuff!

On to The Brothers Grimm.

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The movie opens with the obligatory “Once upon a time…” and we meet a young Grimm family in 1796. The father is absent, the mother is caring for a dying daughter and the oldest brother, Will (who will grow into Matt Damon) is reassuring everyone that Jake (who will grow into Heath Ledger) will return from selling the cow, to get the money, to pay the doctor, to save the sister. (Anyone else try to sing that, or was it just me?) However Jake returns with magic beans instead. Will instantly begins to beat on him for being so gullible and killing their sister.

15 years later, we find the Brothers riding into Karlstadt. They consult with the town’s people about a witch who is haunting the old mill. 100 years ago (it’s always 100 years ago), the Miller’s wife was a witch and burned for it, but she has returned and is terrorizing the current Miller. It will be expensive and dangerous, but the Brothers can exorcise the spirit of the witch.

Then we have the action of the exorcism. This scene sets the pace and tone for the whole movie, which is so fast that at times it becomes jumbled. Nevertheless, it’s also funny. When the action is complete and the Miller runs out of the mill with the remains of the witch and a real fear for the mystical, we as an audience discover it’s all been a hoax. The Brothers are not saviors or heroes but con artists. Creating monsters, hauntings, and other mythical evils in order to charge a vanquishing fee.

I don’t think this reveal worked 10 years ago because all the advertising told you The Brothers Grimm is an action-comedy about con-artists. However, I think it is still a well-crafted scene. As a skeptical audience who doesn’t believe in witches or ghosts, the sell that “this is for real!” is very effective and we get to see why the victims are so taken in by the Brothers’ cons.

My favorite scene is the very next one, the Little Red Riding Hood scene. Her red cape against the dark tangled surreal forest is stunning and director Terry Gilliam’s use of camera movement to tell the story of the chase is dazzling. Through very little dialogue and a whole lot of action, we discover there is something taking little girls in the forest of Marbaden.

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The movie moves on and we get to see the character development of the two brothers. 10 years ago, I remember being put off by Heath’s appearance, the glasses, facial hair, and scarf were just weird, but now he looks like the original hipster and I give kudos to a costume team that was before their time. Heath’s Jake is physically bumbling, awkward, and boyish, which is a brilliant way to communicate to the audience that he is also a gullible, reckless romantic and the opposite of his older bullshit artist of a brother, Will. I recall 10 years ago finally being impressed with Matt Damon. It’s not that he is terrific in this, but I felt I was seeing a different side. There is no denying his talent, especially then, but I never got the dreamy heartthrob thing for him. However his Will is a very charismatic snake charmer. He is composed and always selling his listener something they don’t need. Matt Damon’s English accent (although uneven) adds likeability to his cad of a character and his comedic timing as the duos straight man is remarkable. He is outlandish at all the right moments.

The Brothers are captured by the French (oh yeah, this is all taking place in Germany during Napoleon’s First French Empire) and given the choice to die for their thieving lying criminal ways or go discover what is going on in the forest of Marbaden. Not really a choice.

The Brothers come to Marbaden and begin to investigate the 10 missing girls. The brother’s assume they are up against a person like them, not trolls or enchantments like the village people believe. They meet brunet, slightly less bitter, Cersei Lannister Angelika (Lena Heady), a female trapper who knows the forest and reluctantly helps the brothers.

We hear of the legend of the area through a flashback. Angelika’s huntsman father is telling Young Angelika the story that happened, you guessed it, 100 years ago. The rumor is a vain queen who loves her reflection/mirror marries her King the same day as the arrival of the plague. The King dies and she locks herself in a tower (resembling Rapunzel’s) to escape the plague, but much like the crows we see throughout the movie, the plague rides the wind to her. She dies and rots away, alone, in the tower, that still stands. (Did you follow that? Because it is actually not that important.) Jake is eating up the fable while Will is trying to figure out logically what is really going on.

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What is really going on is that the Mirror Queen never left her tower and is in possession of a whole lot of magic. Real unexplainable magic. She has been waiting her time until just the right blood moon, when she will need to drink the blood of 12 young girls (who are sleeping in crypts and dressed in gold rings and glass slippers) and live forever with her beauty and mirror and tower. The plot is a struggle train as the kids today say. Which is probably why I couldn’t really remember it 10 years later.

While the tension between the brothers is interesting it feels I’m being beaten with it. I get it. Jake wants to believe in magic and love and Will wants to believe in nothing, yet wants people to believe his cons. Contradictions are interesting. Yet in the end Will, the most selfish character who once ran to save himself and leave his brother, now sacrifices himself for his brother in order to break the very real magic.

Of course the good deed is repaid, the good live, the bad die, and everyone lives happily ever after.

The whole story is an inventive hodgepodge of fairytales with a happy ending but no obvious moral, which on both viewings (10 years ago and last week) I felt I was missing. Terry Gilliam really examines and questions what we see and what we believe and how that is different than what is true. This is most clearly stated in a small scene with the non-magical antagonist, the French Gerneral Delatombe (hello High Sparrow, Jonathan Price). As the General welcomes the Emperor’s advisers and speaks to them of deceit and ignorance, you see the guests at a table surrounded by gilded mirrors and you can see that the table extends for-almost-ever. As Cavaldi (Peter Stormare) interrupts the General, the illusion is broken and we are shown the mirrors are in a dark unadorned room surrounding a table that only sits six. It’s a nice moment. It drives home what Terry Gilliam is trying to examine about perception, self-deceit, and truth. Yet still while examining these ideas, the plot seems to say very little of substance about them.

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Conversely, the original Grimm stories are tales meant to tell children how messed up the world really is. The original Brothers Grimm stories were so brutal that many didn’t think they were suitable for their intended audience, children. Considering this film was written (bySkeleton Key’s Ehren Kruger) and rewritten (by Terry Gilliam and Tony Grisoni) during 2003, I’d like to believe that Gilliam was examining how disastrous our fear of the world is vs how our world really is. How at the time, American’s blind belief in their government was possible because we were being sold modern fairytales by a con-man (or con-military-industrial-driven-government). We were not examining the reality, which may or may not have been much much scarier. Let’s just say it, there were no weapons of mass destruction hiding under anyone’s bed. That was a fable.

There is also a small moment near the end of the movie that I found to be a funny and poignantly pathetic dig towards George W. Bush’s Mission Accomplished speech. You remember the one, where he declared the end of boots on the ground in Iraq. The same Iraq we had troops actively in until 8 1/2 years later. While the Right thought he was poised and as Lisa Schifferen wrote in the Wall Street Journal “really hot. Also, presidential, of course. Not to mention credible as a commander-in-chief. But mostly ‘hot’ as in virile, sexy and powerful.” Most of us on the Left (and in other countries) thought it was foolish and ignorant to declare victory on a war that hadn’t even really started. Well, in The Brothers Grimm we have General Delatombe, the bastion of ignorance, set fire to the Brothers and the forest they claim is enchanted. The General watches at a dinner table as the fire begins to burn and states “This is the life, eh, Cavaldi? To be victorious in the field, with one’s troops around you, enjoying a simple meal, a soldier’s meal… by firelight. Romantic, eh?” Perception, kids. What some find romantic others find unreasonably ignorant.

I would suspect that Cavaldi, the Italian torturer working for the French, was a comment on Abu Ghraib (the prison is Iraq where human rights were seriously violated with torture). Cavaldi always follows orders but he is mischievously and gleefully slow when following the order to stop. And when he resigns because he doesn’t want to kill someone, he is rewarded with a shot to the chest. Cavaldi could also have been Terry Gilliam’s excuse to hack up a kitten with a torture devise. (That happens and Terry Gilliam loves machines and cat abuse.)

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I enjoyed the movie a second time around, more than the first.

The Brothers Grimm is stimulatingly dressed and shot. The acting and character development is worth a viewing if you’re into that stuff. The plot is magical but not “magical,” if you catch my drift. The special effects are really enjoyable.

Terry Gilliam is an original member of Monty Python (despite being a bloody American. After this film was made he renounced his American citizenship, supposedly for tax reasons). His movies always have moments stolen out of the old-school British humor manual. The Brothers Grimm strives to fill two hours with Pythonesque loose one-liners, wild pacing, and stream-of-consciousness ideas. If you enter this movie with that in mind, I believe it is a much better film. Even the jumbled ridiculousness of the fairytales suddenly becomes humorously absurd. Although since you have to enter the movie thinking of anything, that means it fails in what it is trying to achieve on its own.

If I had the chance to theorize wildly and, well, I guess I do, I’d guess that Ehren Kruger’s script was trying to reach summer moviegoers with an entertaining action-comedy. Then Terry Gilliam folded in challenging questions, ones that all high art and great movies have. The two become muddled and you walk away feeling both kinda entertained and kinda wondering whether the message was missed or just missing. Which is a shame, because they are great questions that American audiences need then and now.

Extra Tidbits

– There is a moment in the beginning, after the hoax is revealed when one of their helpers, Hidlick (Mackenzie Crook) complains as he takes off his witch costume, “Why must I always play the girl?” Will, in full salesman mode, replies earnestly “Because you have talent and range.” I had a good laugh at this because Terry Gilliam always played the girls in the Monty Python skits and movies.

– This was Tery Gilliam’s first film since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998).

– Ehren Kruger wrote the spec script and Terry Gilliam and Tony Grisoni rewrote it. The Writers Guild of America refused to let them bill themselves as the writers, probably because, come on, it was Ehren Kruger’s story with different words. Terry Gilliam credited himself and Tony Grisoni as “The Dress Makers.”

– The Weinstein brothers produced this film and Terry Gilliam hated working with them. He has said, in a great interview on Sense of Cinema, “They created a situation at the beginning of the film that was very unpleasant. And so I started working in not the happiest of moods. And they were still determined to control me. And when they didn’t allow me to cast who I wanted [Robin Williams], I was getting more and more upset. I don’t like this. And by the time Matt’s nose came up, that was it: I just didn’t want to make the movie. I went to work on the first day of shooting and I just wanted to go home.” The Weinsteins wanted to give Matt Damon a prosthetic nose, they wouldn’t let Terry cast how he wanted (he wanted Johnny Depp as Will, Samantha Morton as Angelika, and Robin Williams as Calviar—Robin would have been hilarious) and they fired Terry Gilliam’s preferred cinematographer, Nicola Percorini, four weeks into production. Thankfully, Terry won out on the nose.

– While fighting about final cut of the film with the Weinsteins, Terry Gilliam walked away and filmed Tideland (2005) with Jeff Bridges, then came back and finished editing The Brothers Grimm.

– Wikipedia claims that originally Heath was cast as Will and Matt as Jake. They both petitioned to switch. However the link to the cite/site is broken so it could just be a rumor.

– Miramax is asking Ehren Kruger to develop a TV show based on the movie. This was announced in March 2015.

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