Water for Elephants (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Water for Elephants (2011)

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

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I spent a lot of time last year complaining about the current crop of dramatic films. Where's the relevancy? Why do so many films that come out of Hollywood say nothing and do nothing?

I don't suppose anyone has heard my complaining yet (and I doubt I'll ever be able to blame them), but Water for Elephants has arrived to at least make me forget about that for a brief moment. If you make a film about The Great Depression, you may as well make it about the necessities of escapism.

Water for Elephants tells the story of young Jakob, a young veterinarian who, after his parents death, takes an old adage to heart and runs away with the circus. There he meets two individuals who will alter the course of his life significantly: ring master August and star attraction Marlena.

August has a cruel streak running through his veins with the temperature of ice cold water. He grew up in the circus and made it his own after the original owners ran off; his own perceived superiority over not just the paying customers (AKA the rubes), but over a vast swath of his performers and laborers results in a maniacal temperament. He declares the circus it's own separate world, a world defined by his rule and his law.

Yeah, and when I tell you that Christopher Waltz plays a brutal sadist, pretend to be shocked.

August lords this over the poor and weak but considers himself a victim as well; that he never fails to rationalize his selfishness is of little surprise. When Marlena tells Jacob that August "needs a friend", it's a rather severe understatement: he needs an intervention.

The other compass points in the film are a little less interesting, if only because their brutality is purely emotional rather than innately physical. Robert Pattinson plays the young veterinarian with impossibly good looks and an impossible smile whose decision to join up with the circus is out of his compassion for wounded animals. When he sees Reese Witherspoon's Marlena, he has apparently found his holy grail.

Marlena is a woman whose own past is less than glamorous. Shuffling through foster care after foster care and her own experiences with sexual brutality (a nice nod to the 30's, where this is handled with significantly less clinical detachment and more of a 'sure sucks that this shit happens all the time' mentality), she holds her entire world at arm's length. She eventually ran away with the circus once August entered her life, and August-- seeing a beautiful woman to exploit, wastes no time in attaching her to the other objects of his domain.

If I were really crazy, this review would have been a semi-serious discussion on the objectification of women, but god knows this is long enough as it is.

The two men bond but find themselves fighting over a woman, and all of the blood and anger that entails. Whether either one of them actually love the woman or just what they see in her is a point that's played down but a notable one all the same.

Director Francis Lawrence imbues his film with musty drapes and dirty alleys while giving the circus it's own heightened reality; I don't know if a comparison to Wings of Desire is fully apt, but I do have to make one nonetheless. The circus in this film is a world apart from the brutal world it's savage characters survive day in and day out, and while we get the good times, we certainly get the bad times too. Lawrence gets excellent performances from Pattinson and Waltz, and Witherspoon is stuck with a character who isn't as feisty as her Jean Harlow haircut requires her to be, but that's a small complaint.

Water for Elephants is a film is earnest on its surface level, which is a rarity nowadays. There's no biting commentary, no anger at all outside of Waltz's abuse. Humans, animals, everyone must endure the petty whims of the powerful and survive and unite to find some manner of contentment. It's not the world's most unique moral, but on a ride this lush, it's hard to complain.

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Posted by Danny

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