Losing Our Heads

Once again, director Tim Burton messes with reason and pledges allegiance to fantasy in Sleepy Hollow

For once, an advertising tag line that delivers exactly what it promises: Heads do roll in Tim Burton's droll version of Washington Irving's "Headless Horseman" story--and roll and roll and roll some more. By Sleepy Hollow's third decapitation, the spin on all these human jack-o'-lanterns has become resolutely comic, leaving the slaughter so affectless that Burton can get away with whacking a cute child and shoving the kid's head in a sack with the rest. Viewers who found Burton's Mars Attacks! mean-spirited will not take comfort here.

And yet there is some sense to all this brain bowling--or if not sense, then passionate senselessness. Burton has discovered in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow the scaffolding to support yet another staged battle between reason and its discontents. Johnny Depp's New York constable Ichabod Crane is a man committed to science, not unlike the creator of Depp's Edward Scissorhands. And, as with that misfit maker, Crane's extreme dependence on almost mechanized rationality blinds as much as it clarifies. Depp fashions Crane as a delightfully hapless stick, fastidious and pursed, in recoil from life even as his mind seeks to order it. With gleeful intent, Burton knocks the blocks off almost everyone around Crane, surrounding him with human heedlessness and lust--up to and including the director's own sexual irrationalities.

Blinded with science: Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane in Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow
Blinded with science: Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane in Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow

The correct constable is sent upstate to the tiny rural village of Sleepy Hollow by a dark angel of a New York City burgomaster (played by Christopher Lee in one of the film's numerous homages to the campy Hammer horror films of the Sixties and Seventies). Arriving at Sleepy Hollow's dirt main street (in an eerie revision of a scene from Depp's Dead Man), Crane finds the nearly colorless puritan village closed tight against him. But, as Crane later remarks, "truth is not always appearance." Soon enough, he is invited inside the warm light of the town's wealthiest household, where he meets five fabulously uglified character actors having infectious fun as Sleepy Hollow's pruney patriarchs.

The richest, Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon), explains the town's trouble: A very effective Hessian mercenary, finally beheaded in the late years of the War of Independence, has risen from his grave and begun taking heads to replace the one he appears to be missing. Crane, though shaken, refuses to believe in the dead's agency--even after he observes the horseman (and swoons, which is a regular habit). Turns out the hamlet harbors plenty of base instinct--all the deadly sins and more--that might well be directing the marauding specter.

More discomfiting for Crane, the village also shelters an unreasonable spirit of the enchanting kind, embodied in Van Tassel's witchy daughter Katrina (a subdued Christina Ricci). Katrina awakens in Crane the memory of a more sensual way of being in the world. Unfortunately, the constable also remembers how that sensuality was ripped away from him; and this preoccupation sends his investigation barking up the wrong tree (so much for objectivity). As Crane loses his head, if you will, Burton begins to reveal the very rational (and strangely tedious?) plottings of the real mastermind.

Seeking balance, Burton is careful not to paint science or "nature" as purely good or evil; similarly, if he first locates woman in "nature," and man in science, the landscape--and what a magical landscape it is!--becomes considerably messier by movie's end. Part of that muckiness arises from the seemingly indiscriminate sexual imagery on display: Besides the "off with their heads!" castration catastrophy, there's the deadly vagina dentata in the mouth of the Hessian horseman (played by the consummate Christopher Walken whenever the man's head is at home), and a menstruating womb-tree that Crane pushes his "stick" into. I don't have the pop-psych chops to analyze exactly what Burton has got going on here.

I suspect, though, that this Sleepy Hollow is more concerned with the current turn of the century than the one--circa 1799--that it claims to chronicle. We know the ending to that original story, and balance had nothing to do with it. America has pledged allegiance to science for the 200 years since; it forgot what power lay decapitated in sleepy hollows, dreaming away time. Burton's sensuous film acknowledges that burial--and the subjugation of the female, supposedly aligned with "nature," that went along with it.

Sleepy Hollow takes giddy pleasure in enacting the revenge of the oppressed/repressed (see also Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Batman Returns, Ed Wood). If the lid is screwed on again (as it always is--see Batman Returns, etc.), Burton leaves it looser than he has previously. Between the bloody womb and the bloodless ugly heads, there grows an almost embarrassing hopefulness: a faith that once the decks are cleared, a beautiful new generation can rise, wrought of both flesh and light, magic and technology. Sleepy Hollow's fairy-tale vision of this union may well be heterosexist and nostalgic, but it is, convincingly, beautiful.

 

Sleepy Hollow starts Friday at area theaters.

 
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