This movie almost merits two different reviews – it just doesn’t feel like it’s all the same film. It somehow simultaneously embodies my favorite and least-favorite movements in contemporary American cinema.
As for what bothers me: it’s trying too hard to be artsy. It thinks it is an art film, even though it isn’t, and it has a pretentious “hipster” vibe. It really thinks it’s hot stuff, much like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but at least that film did not commit this film’s greatest sin – too many jump-scares. As I may have said before, the jump-scare is the filmic equivalent to the playground bully who claps in front of children’s faces and mocks them for blinking. It’s pathetic. Of course, to complete this irritating aesthetic, much of the film is very gray and bland, which I suppose I should expect from a 2011 film.
However – and now it’s time for the good stuff – there are also scenes with beautiful lighting and colors, which feel as though they belong in a classic Tim Burton film. These moments are rare, but they are very, very lovely. Even before this aesthetic change though, the biggest shift in tone is when the electronic music kicks in, which injects the film with life and makes me grin like the Grinch. Every movie soundtrack should be a little bit more like this movie’s soundtrack – the score is simply divine. It helps that the film is driven by great characters performed by great actors. Saoirse Ronan’s transformation is downright uncanny (in a good way), and praise for this is due to both the makeup department and Ronan herself, who makes the viewer believe in and care for a very unusual character. I like intriguing female protagonists and threatening female villains, so I found it easy to stay engaged in the story.
The film is worth watching (and, perhaps, watching again) because it was clearly crafted with care. As much as I hate how much the film embodies the errors of its time period, director Joe Wright is doing so much here that is genuinely artistic, original, and clever that, had he simply strayed further from the path, I think he could have made an amazing film. As it is, however, this hipster of a film does actually have much intelligence – a shocking amount for an action film – and its thoughtful, precise incision of fairy tale elements into the DNA of the story is admirable. Maybe the film’s good and bad aspects can be reconciled if one sees this as a turning point – a sign that we are moving away from what contemporary films have been and towards a future filled with color, synthesizers, great characters, and very smart writing. Here’s hoping.