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Heads or Tails

Tim Burton has yet to tackle an "adult" theme but there isn't a bankable Hollywood director with a flintier sense of aesthetic integrity. More insolently pop than David Lynch and less eager for approval than Steven Spielberg, Burton has repeatedly twisted studio resources to his own dank and gibbering expressionistic purposes.

Burton's Sleepy Hollow is by no means as radical an anti-entertainment as his ill-starred Mars Attacks! but this splendid, shuddering contraption has a dazzling purity of vision. It's a Halloween spookarama in which the falling leaves hit their marks, the shutters rattle on cue, and the goblin entrances are lit by lightning. Although populated by flesh-and-blood actors, Burton's fun house is as ruthlessly stylized as the Disney animation that, half a century ago, breathed a comic chill (not to mention Bing Crosby's narration) into Washington Irving's ghostly yarn.

The most literary of Burton films, Sleepy Hollow opens in a dark and smoky 1799 New York City and, humorously fin de siècle, drifts rhapsodically to a foggy fairy-tale village in the sumptuously autumnal Hudson River valley. Elevated from Irving's gawky schoolteacher, Ichabod Crane is not only played by the beautiful Johnny Depp but transformed into a self-consciously modern and amusingly timorous police officer, sent upstate to meet a comic gaggle of well-upholstered British actors (notably Michael Gambon and Miranda Richardson), all bewigged and befuddled to grotesque effect.

Less grim than Grimm: Depp and Ricci in Sleepy Hollow
photo: Clive Coote
Less grim than Grimm: Depp and Ricci in Sleepy Hollow

Details

Sleepy Hollow
Directed by Tim Burton
Written by Andrew Kevin Walker
A Paramount Pictures release

Ride With the Devil
Directed by Ang Lee
Written by James Schamus from the novel Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell

Officially, Ichabod has come to solve a series of mysterious decapitations. Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, who wrote Seven and 8MM, has reworked Irving's classic American fake-lore as (what else?) the story of a serial killer. The Horseman, a hoax in Irving's tale as well as in the scary old Disney cartoon, is literal enough here—a monstrous Hessian mercenary forever searching for his lost head (Christopher Walken with filed teeth). Burton scarcely strays from the screenwriter's well-trodden path but, like all of his films, Sleepy Hollow is not so much a narrative as it is a place. The mood isn't grim but Grimm. Burton directs the grisly action as though it were a jolly puppet show, another Nightmare Before Christmas.

Prissy and pedantic, Ichabod is an inventor of elaborate detection devices. He's an artist manqué who, supremely rational, doesn't flinch from the occasional ghoulish operation. (There's a bit too much Dudley Do-Right to Depp's delivery but—as in Edward Scissorhands, if not Ed Wood—he's at the service of his director's spectacular mise-en-scène.) A typically traumatized Burton hero, Ichabod has mysteriously-punctured palms and revisits his childhood throughout the movie with regular trips to dreamland. There, his witchy mother (played—significantly?—by Burton's significant other, Lisa Marie) presents him with the proto-cinematic optical toy, known as a thaumatrope, which serves as his talisman.

Ichabod shows the illusion-producing thaumatrope to Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci), the most innocent of the movie's several witches, explaining to her that "truth is not always appearances." You may not believe your eyes either, each time the Headless Horseman emerges from between the roots of a bleeding, twisted tree—less sleepy hollow than a vaginal passage to hell. Rampant castration anxiety notwithstanding, Sleepy Hollow is essentially comic—although perhaps a bit gory for small children, most especially in the savage punishment visited upon the village midwife and her little boy. (Like young Ichabod, he was partial to optical amusements.)

Although Walker's script is both overcomplicated and underwritten, Sleepy Hollow gallops along at a goodly clip, offering a number of breathless (or should we say, headlong) thrill rides. The main attraction in this magic kingdom is Burton's gorgeous production design. The images are as rich as compost; every clammy detail is subordinate to the whole. Still, Burton and Walker have done yeoman service in creating an indigenous gothic, mixing fear of the primeval woods with the guilt arising from colonial rebellion.

The Horseman serves as an all-purpose return of the patriarchal repressed—a mutilated, yet potent, remnant of the American Revolution. (It's as though the statue of George III that New Yorkers pulled down at the Battery came back as a living thing.) But the movie itself is an act of historical hubris and symbolic regicide. Disneyland is revised as rampantly Freudian—and historically resonant—Grand Guignol.

Where Burton and Walker rewrite Uncle Walt to unexpected effect, Ang Lee and James Schamus essay Papa John Ford to very little. Ride With the Devil is an ambitious Civil War pageant, pitting anti-slavery Kansas Jayhawkers against Southern-sympathizing Missouri Bushwhackers to dispiriting effect.

Made from a Bushwhacker point of view, the movie is not unintelligent but it is insipid. As if to emphasize that this fratricidal bloodbath was mainly fought by kids, Lee relies on a youthful cast of hotties—Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers—and attempts to render their wounds naturalistically bone-splintering. Given the flat performances and Schamus's overexplanatory script, Ride With the Devil has the feel of undergraduate costume drama; reflexively ducking away from the camera, pop poetess Jewel is hardly the least expressive performer.

As the wise and taciturn slave Holt, Jeffrey Wright has the dignified Woody Strode role. In a similar Fordian mode, Maguire plays at Jimmy Stewart—his voice cracks and quavers although his coy sidelong glances and trademark stare of slackjawed wonderment are something other than acting. The cast members often seem nonplussed—as well they might, given the movie's perfunctory montage and indifferent camera placement. "It ain't right and it ain't wrong," young sage Maguire ultimately declares. "It just is." Ride With the Devil's set piece restages William Quantrill's raid on the abolitionist town of Lawrence, Kansas (a massacre which has figured in Hollywood movies largely as an early life experience for future outlaw Jesse James). The sequence is murderous but unconvincing—in a fabulously petulant beau geste, Maguire ends the carnage by courageously ordering breakfast in a restaurant on Main Street.

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