You know the story: a legendary headless horseman is said to be roaming the
countryside around a small town, lopping heads off left and right, and lily-livered schoolmaster
Ichabod Crane is understandably frightened.
Well, add witches and magic, and change Ichabod into an easily frightened but
determined policeman who's certain that reason, logic and scientific methods will provide the
answers to everything, and you've got Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow.
Detective Ichabod Crane is played with perfectly nuanced comedic skill by Johnny Depp.
Yep, I said comedic. Despite the fact that this is an extremely bloody movie with more
beheadings, vivisections and other forms of body hacking per square foot of film than your
average slasher flick, it's still primarily a comedy. And not only that, it's a relatively effective
comedy--Tim Burton's peculiarly delicious brand of black humor at its finest. The only time
the movie fails is when it tries to get serious. The dramatic dialogue is stilted, obvious, and
corny, and most of the important plot points are disappointingly formulaic and predictable.
For instance, when the evil mastermind behind the horseman plot is finally revealed,
he/she proceeds to explain his/her whole plan to us in classic evil mastermind fashion. He/she
lists for us in excruciating detail how and why each murder was committed. He/she even tacks
on the explanation of a few more murders we didn't even know about, then tells us the story of
how he/she became an evil mastermind. The lack of imagination in the construction of this
sequence is really disappointing.
Also, you may have seen a shot in the trailers of a windmill exploding and wondered
what the hell that was all about. Well, I was wondering that, too when I saw the actual scene in
the movie. The mill is not filled with gunpowder, and there are no bombs. It just gets set on fire
and then, for no reason, obliterates itself. It seems to blow up simply so that the movie could
have a scene in which our heroes narrowly escape from an exploding building. This is another
point where Sleepy Hollow is just mindlessly and meaninglessly fulfilling the requirements of a
But a good deal of imagination did go into some parts of this film. Visually, Sleep
Hollow is perfect. The sets, special effects, costumes, props, cinematography and lighting all
work together to create just the right atmosphere of surreal, gothic spookiness. In a less visually
interesting film, Tim Burton's starkly symmetrical framing might have been boring, but because
what's in the frame is so fascinating and eerily beautiful, it works.
Also, the headless horseman is an excellent monster. In the flashback scenes, when he
still has a head, he is played by Christopher Walken, who attacks the role with his usual amount
of gleefully vicious intensity. Walken is a great actor with more range than most people give
him credit for, but he's always been best at playing villains, and this part is no exception. He
doesn't have a lot of screen time, but the time he does have is an absolute delight.
But if Walken is the horseman's head, Ray Park, the same stuntman and fight expert who
played Darth Maul in Episode I: The Phantom Menace, is his body. No doubt we have Park
(and stunt coordinator Nick Gillard, who also worked on Episode I) to thank for the exciting and
well-choreographed fighting sequences in the film.
Though Depp, Walken and Park are the stand-outs, there are numerous other fine actors
in the cast, including the extremely talented and beautiful Christina Ricci (The Addams Family,
Buffalo 66) as the mysterious and alluring Katrina Van Tassel; Michael Gambon (The Cook, The
Thief, His Wife and Her Lover) as Katrina's father and for all intents and purposes the mayor of
the town; Miranda Richardson (Tom & Viv) as Lady Van Tassel; Michael Gough (Batman), Ian
McDiarmid (Episode I) and Jeffrey Jones (Amadeus) as three more of the town fathers; and great
horror film actor Christopher Lee (Horror of Dracula) in a bit part as a judge.
Unfortunately, although both the actors involved in the romantic sub-plot of Sleepy
Hollow are good (I'm referring to Depp and Ricci), the relationship just doesn't work. The
lovers' dialogue sounds like bad Victorian poetry, pretentious and stiffly formal, and the happy,
romantic Hollywood ending is, once again, formulaic and disappointing.
It's really the acting, the clever, comic elements of the screenplay, and the great visuals
that carry this film as far as it goes. And it goes far enough, I suppose, for a film of this type,
even if it is in many ways just plugging slightly different elements into the same old formulas.
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