The Long, Dark Christmas of the Soul
Only Tim Burton could take a film that opens with a loving grandmother offering to explain to her adorable granddaughter where snow comes from, and turn it into a dark and disturbing parable of loneliness, nonconformity, and the tyranny of small minds. Edward Scissorhands, one of my favorite films (though that could be said of just about every film Burton has made*) and one that touches me deeply, isn’t overtly a Christmas movie, but it does touch on the grimmer side of the religion that currently dominates the much more ancient tradition of a midwinter celebration.
Peg Boggs (Dianne Wiest: Practical Magic), the Avon lady for her cheerful, pastel Levittown of a neighborhood, isn’t having much luck pushing her wares the day she decides to venture to the odd house at the end of a cul-de-sac. Improbably, a gray mountain looms at this dead end, at the top of which sits a spindly gothic mansion. Fearless, she wanders insider the decaying old house, and discovers, cowering in a shadowy corner, Edward (Johnny Depp: Sleepy Hollow, Donnie Brasco). His Mad Max getup and the punkishly wild halo of hair around his waifish face only briefly distract from the appalling fact that this poor creature has wicked-looking scissors and knives in place of hands. But Edward is gentle and sweet, despite his frightening appearance, and the good-hearted Peg adopts him instantly, taking him home to live with her and her family.
Suburbia — with its cookie-cutter houses and gossipy wives — doesn’t know quite what to make of Edward. His mere presence is a disruption to the harmony of uniformity, at first in positive ways: The beautiful topiaries he coaxes from trees and bushes transform the neighborhood into a fantastical garden, and he’s an “adorable” and “mysterious” stranger for all the bored women to pant over. A lost boy who shied from touch when Peg found him, Edward had been alone since his Inventor (Vincent Price, playing perhaps the first kindly mad scientist, a nice capper for his career) died before he had a chance to replace Edward’s scissors with real hands. Now, Edward is eating up all the attention he’s receiving.
But there are snakes in Edward’s newly found paradise: Joyce (Kathy Baker), the hot-to-trot housewife who attempts to seduce the innocent Edward; and Jim (Anthony Michael Hall), boyfriend to Peg’s daughter Kim (Winona Ryder: Alien Resurrection, Celebrity), who’s jealous of the longing looks Edward throws Kim’s way. When they finally turn on Edward, it’s only the beginning of a concerted attack by the neighborhood on Edward’s art, his presence in their lives, and his very existence.
Is Edward the embodiment of Generation X, left to fend for himself and then reviled when he grows into something of a wild child? Is he the artist as outcast, tolerated and even celebrated as long as he’s amusing but vilified when the novelty of him wears off? Is he a Christ figure, exiled from the protection of his creator-father and sent into a world in which he’ll be misunderstood and persecuted? A case can be made for all three interpretations, and in fact the third isn’t necessarily the most fitting to the thumping of religion Edward Scissorhands doles out. It’s not mere window dressing that it’s Christmastime at the film’s the final confrontation, in which a “peasant mob” of suburbanites — meant to evoke the torch-wielding crowds of films like Frankenstein — chases Edward back to his mountaintop. Nor is it coincidence that the super-religious neighbor Esmeralda (O-Lan Jones: The Truman Show, The End of Violence), ignored early on when she denounces Edward as Satanic and calls for her neighbors to “trample down the perversion of nature,” is later acknowledged to have been “right” in her estimation of the stranger. A faith — embodied by the holiday and the believer — that pretends to be about love shows itself as the purveyor of repression, irrationality, and intolerance that it is.
The appropriately over-the-top performances from much of the cast and the overly bright fakeness of the world their characters inhabit might make it easy for some to dismiss Edward Scissorhands as fluff fantasy with nothing of import to offer, but Johnny Depp won’t let that happen. Regardless of the oddity of his character, Depp keeps the film rooted in reality — whatever motive you attribute to the neighbors, the profound affect that their mass rejection of Edward has on him is undeniably, recognizably true. (This is one of my favorite Depp performances, though, as with Burton, I could say that about almost everything Depp has done**.) His Edward is heartbreakingly poignant. His sudden rage, which he expresses by ripping his scissors across wallpaper and drapes, is all the more startling because he has been so courteous with his sharp edges before. His “fingers” snap and twitch when he’s nervous, which is often — not equipped with the verbal skills to defend himself, his despair radiates wordlessly. Even Edward’s humorous moments — as when he encounters the one piece of furniture to which he’s a serious danger: a waterbed — Depp imbues with a touch of pathos.
Edward Scissorhands is an anti-Christmas movie, I suppose. Here we have a creature whose “handicap” separates him from human contact — the scars on his face attest to the fact that he can’t even touch himself. And at the time of year when we’re supposed to spread cheer and open our hearts, the “good” people of an all-American suburbia reject Edward’s plea for love and companionship, and cast him out.
Merry Christmas to all the normal people. Freaks and weirdoes need not apply.
*Mars Attacks! being the one exception: Tim, what were you thinking?
**The Astronaut’s Wife being the one exception: Johnny, what were you thinking?