It’s All in Your Head
For all of Tim Burton’s flaws as a filmmaker — story often takes a back seat to style; he still can’t shoot a completely coherent action sequence, though he has gotten much better — there’s a nakedness to his work that sneaks up on the viewer, startling and disturbing and oddly fascinating once you recognize it. The act of cutting things — and people — open (and sometimes putting them back together) has always been a recurring motif in his films: Frankenweenie, Edward Scissorhands, and now Sleepy Hollow. But for all the gore, it’s not really the human body Burton’s interested in — it’s the psyche he’s dissecting in the same grisly way, splitting it open, with all its mysterious and pulsing innards bared to the world.
Sleepy Hollow is only loosely based on Washington Irving’s famous tale, but the liberties that Burton and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker take serve to make the story more than a simple and effective spookfest, exposing fears and anxieties we — and, in particular, men — still share in common with our counterparts two hundred years ago.
The year is 1799. New York City constable Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Donnie Brasco), much to the consternation of his superiors, is a steadfast proponent of new scientific methods of investigation in a world in which autopsies are still considered sacrilege. As much to get rid of him for a while as to solve the crimes, Crane is sent to the distant farming village of Sleepy Hollow to look into a series of mysterious murders there. The graybeards of the town — a wealthy farmer (Michael Gambon: The Insider, The Wings of the Dove), the reverend (Jeffrey Jones: The Hunt for Red October, Ravenous), the magistrate (Richard Griffiths), the doctor (Ian McDiarmid: The Phantom Menace), and the notary (Michael Gough: Batman and Robin) — hustle Crane into a private study to discuss the details of the situation with him. (Are they merely trying to protect the women and children from the nasty details of the murders, or is there conspiracy afoot?) Four people have been killed, their heads removed — “taken by the headless horseman, taken back to hell,” the notary intones ominously. And he’s right: Crane’s scientific rationalism will help him solve the case, but there’s witchcraft involved here.
And that’s the interesting thing here: this isn’t a tale about the coldly logical man learning the error of his ways, discovering that there are more things in heaven and Earth, Ichabod, and so on. Yeah, Crane does initially discount the possibility of “ghouls and goblins” committing murder, but once he learns that it’s an undead horseman who’s responsible, he doesn’t abandon his reason and scientific methods — he merely incorporates this new knowledge and gets on with his work. That’s a fairly modern attitude — standing on the border between one century and the next, between the dominance of faith (the townsmen suggest Crane consult a Bible rather than his own scientific tomes) and the rise of rationalism, Crane has a foot in both worlds, just as most of us still do today, unable to put aside for good fairy stories and superstition. Worldviews may have shifted a bit in the last two centuries toward the scientific side, but not much.
If there’s one irrational fear that’s still as eminently recognizable today as it would have been in Crane’s world, it’s the male fear of female power: the power to “bewitch” men sexually, as Crane is entranced by Katrina (Christina Ricci: The Opposite of Sex,, The Ice Storm); to ruin men, as the Hessian mercenary (Christopher Walken: Mouse Hunt) who will become the headless horseman is betrayed by a devious young girl. (The headless horseman himself, viewed through this lens, could be seen as symbolic of castration, both actual and metaphoric.) But this motif, woven through Sleepy Hollow, bestows an awed respect upon this power. Unlike much male art that twists the fear of women into misogyny, here Burton is anything but — a subplot about Crane’s dreams of his witchy, earthy mother makes it clear that allowing superstitious dread to dictate one’s actions is never a good idea.
Burton may be walking that line between faith and reason with the rest of us, but he has cast his lot in with the side of reason. Only Burton, who helped define cyberpunk noir with movies like Batman and Edward Scissorhands, could have taken that individualistic, technology-dependent (in other words, superrational) sensibility back in time, given it to Crane, and created a whole new look — let’s call it gearpunk. Crane has gearpunk’s version of mirrorshades: magnifying goggles, his own invention, as are all the insectile, twitchy, graspy tools he uses. The maze of giant gears and pulleys of the film’s finale, set in a windmill, may become signature visuals.
As is typical with Burton, Sleepy Hollow can be enjoyed purely on a visceral level. The film is gorgeous to look at. Darkly, eerily beautiful, the film looks almost black-and-white, with — literally — splashes of red: splattering blood, of course, and sealing wax dripping on a last will and testament. (A red cardinal flies through Burton’s grim palette once in a while, an embodiment of the female desire for freedom from male dominance.) Ricci is luscious and ravishing (and powerful), and Depp, gaunt and pale, is still ethereally exquisite to watch — kudos to him for the willingness to play a squeamish, faint-hearted hero.
In fact, just forget all my ramblings about symbolism and theme and just enjoy Sleepy Hollow for the gothic delight that it is.