I have been thinking alot lately about the clever ways in which a filmmaker can disguise a theme, story or an idea. Sometimes there is a story that needs to be told, or demands to be told, but the creator feels it does not have enough appeal to be marketable. Other times there is a message to get across, but the trick is to deliver it while still creating a piece of commercial entertainment fit for mass consumption. Another interesting ploy is to make a film and disguise its genre to avoid repetition or boredom. What was the original Alien
, directed by Ridley Scott, but a haunted house flick masquerading as a monster movie? How about its sequel, Aliens
, directed by James Cameron. A war movie pretending to be science fiction? Kids's movies are notorious for this kind of thing. The Iron Giant
was clearly a morality tale of loyalty and friendship disguised as a cartoon. Although these are just some random examples, disguising a film as something secondary is a very clever way to get a point across while still retaining an audience. Which brings us to the subject of this review, The Crow
, a love story disguised as a film noir/horror tale/comic book adaptation. Didn't Bruce Springsteen once say something about a Brilliant Disguise
? Just try and sell a movie about the enduring quality of romantic love and its ability to transcend even death to an audience of teenage boys. However, with The Crow
, director Alex Proyas has created not only a mesmerising action movie, but one of the most haunting, poignant films I have ever seen.
Let me start by saying that I am not a poser. I am not a Goth-boy fan of the original comic book series The Crow
by James O'Barr. In fact, I've never even read it. When I first saw the movie adapted from his work in the summer of 1994, I walked into it as a fresh filmatic experience, and I continue to judge the movie today on its own merits. It is my understanding that O'Barr created this work as a response to a personal tragedy. The comic series tells the tragic story of Eric Draven, who literally comes back from the dead to avenge the deaths of both himself and his true love Shelly. The series explored such weighty themes as love, loss, revenge, and justice, yet packaged these themes in a violent, gritty comic book that found a worldwide audience. Because these themes are so universal, it was inevitable that the series would be adapted as a film. The trickiest part, I would imagine, was to create sympathy for a cold-blooded vigilante who was just as murderous as those he came back to punish. The movie does not concern itself with the "right" or "wrong" of Eric's actions; rather, it shows what one man does when the opportunity for revenge is granted to him. It's really that simple, and this is why the film is so effective. Damn the morality, in his position I would have done the exact same thing. And so would you.
In order to establish Eric as a sympathetic anti-hero, it is necessary to portray the magnitude of his loss. To this day, I have yet to see such a convincing portrayal of adult love in a movie. There is little or no exposition provided. We are treated to a series of beautifully shot flashbacks that show these two people settling into the day-to-day business of life together. The scenes are fleeting and vague, much like actual memory, but they are stained with sadness and shine with authenticity. Think about it, most love stories deal with the process of falling in love. Not many depict couples once they have reached that promised land. How did these two people meet? Why were they so right for each other? What road did they travel to reach that magical destination? Proyas doesn't say, nor is it important. All that matters is the end result. When Eric walks into their apartment and sees his home being destroyed by a group of thugs, the only thought on his mind is his fiance. Her name drips from his tongue with the dread a person can only feel for a loved one. After the tragedy occurs, as Shelly is being taken to the hospital, half dead, who does she ask about? These was something between these two people, a bond, a power that most of us spend our entire lives searching for. The fact that it was snatched from them in such a despicable manner elevates Eric's story to the highest level of tragedy.
It seems almost redundant to say that The Crow
has a wonderful script, because the source material itself is so inspired that it would be difficult to miss the point. Attention is better directed to the incredible title performance and the awe-inspiring direction. Everyone knows that this was Brandon Lee's final film, and that he was killed while filming a scene for the movie. A disturbing coincidence considering the film's subject matter, and a tragic one considering the acting ability Lee portrayed in this film. As Eric Draven, Lee gave a performance as heartbreaking and compelling as any I have seen by a male actor. Only Nicholas Cage's performance in Leaving Las Vegas
is as tragic. However, while Cage resorted to his trademark buffoonery for much of that film, Lee portrays a basically ordinary man who is tormented by unspeakable grief and rage. I have read reviews where Lee is criticised for playing Eric as too mentally unstable. Give me a break. Few men could hold onto anything resembling sanity in his situation. What astonished me about Lee was how effortlessly he shifts from the haunted, poetic, tortured soul to the avenging angel of destruction he later becomes. There are also moments of levity and humour that actually add to the inherent sadness of the character. We get glimpses of who this guy was, of the sort of man he would have been had fate not dealt him such a cruel hand. He also displays true tenderness to Sarah, the lost little girl who was unofficially "adopted" by Shelly and himself. I can't imagine any other actor on the face of the planet who could have played this character as effectively. I've always felt acting was an art form, and this is as good as it gets, in my opinion.
A performance as riveting as this requires a certain type of film to provide the proper context, and Proyas certainly delivers. The director has created a gothic urban nightmare with The Crow
, a movie so starkly beautiful that it achieves an almost operatic quality. The theme of death is thick in this film, what with the decay of the city itself and the assortment of drug addicts, lowlifes and lost souls. The film is bathed in midnight hues with the requisite smokey alleys and moonlit vistas, with the opening scene of a cemetary continually evoked. There is not a character in this movie who could qualify as being happy, and the film itself is so sad that it becomes almost unbearble in places. The girl with the absent mother, the cop with the estranged wife, the girlfriend clinging to life in the hopes of seeing her fiance again, these are some of the saddest performances ever committed to film. However, Proyas wisely counters this mileu with some of the most bone-crunching, uncompromising violence I have seen decpicted on the screen. The theme of revenge is definitely given its due, as The Crow metes out retribution to the thugs who ruined his life without restraint. In this movie there is no room for ambiguity. Eric's victims are all trash, low level scum who do not command an once of sympathy, and they are dealt with in some truly gruesome, inventive ways. Even Top Dollar, played by Michael Wincott, is a realistically basic adversary. This guy is not bent on world domination, nor is Eric an obbsession fueling his actions. This guy just wants to bring about some anarchy for its own sake, and Eric is merely a thorn in his side. No, this is pretty much a simple tale of vengeance, yet its simplicity is its greatest strength. And stick around for the closing song by Jane Siberry, It Can't Rain All The Time
. I cannot imagine a more appropriate song to close this film. Listen to it closely as it allows several readings. It really emphasises Eric's assertion that "nothing is trivial". A beautiful song attached to a beautiful film.
With The Crow
, Proyas is able to tell a compelling story and create a wonderful piece of entertainment at the same time. There is not a moment in this film that is wasted, not an image that does not resonate with meaning, not a performance that does not ring true. The tough, terse action keeps things moving at a breakneck pace. Watch Eric as he infiltrates Top Dollars' lair. He is a ballet of destruction as he takes out a room full of thugs and their heavy artilery. The choreography in this scene alone should be studied in film schools around North America. The film is wonderfully crafted and works as a visual treat as well as an allegory about love and loss. It has held up remarkably well, and repeat viewings reveal nuances and texture that never fail to surprise. A wonderful piece of American commercial entertainment.
I have spent much time in the years since The Crow
was released trying to understand why this movie had such a profound effect on me. For all its sadness, this film is an excellent reminder that everything around us is temporary, and that no matter how much pain we may be in, it won't last forever. While The Crow
is a stark, jarring meditation on the fleeting nature of mortality, it can also be seen as a reminder of the limitless joys that accompany that mortality. See this movie...it helped me to realise that the span of a human life is fleeting indeed, and that to focus on the negative aspects of such a life is not only foolish and counterproductive, but an unforgiveable sin as well.