Guillermo del Toro's finest instincts come out to play in evocative, eerie, romantic 'Crimson Peak'
Crimson Peak Universal Pictures
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Charlie Hunnam, Doug Jones, Jim Beaver, Leslie Hope and Burn Gorman
Rated R / 1 hour, 59 minutes
October 23, 2015
(out of four)
You can be forgiven for assuming, or even remembering, that Crimson Peak is bloodier and more violent than it actually is. I suppose it's only fitting for a good ghost story that we think we may have seen something that wasn't really there. We felt it, maybe even caught a glimpse of it. But then the closer we got ...
Like so much great filmmaking, Crimson Peak's strengths exist largely in the subconscious, and on that level alone Guillermo del Toro's direction is a remarkable accomplishment. He evokes violence, suggests blood and dances around lust and sexuality, without truly showing us much of any of it.
Quentin Tarantino has told a story about an early screening of Reservoir Dogs - specifically, the ear-cutting scene, and how audiences insisted afterward that they remembered seeing the ear get cut off. In the actual scene, the camera pans away from the act itself, leaving us only to hear what's occurring off-screen while our imaginations connect the dots. It was done so effectively that many remembered seeing more violence than they actually had. Del Toro's methods are very different from Tarantino's, but the evocative effect he conjures is largely similar, and his filmmaking similarly powerful.
Let's talk about the blood. While it has its roots in giallo horror, Crimson Peak gets its bloodiness across in a different (and arguably more sinister) way. A deep red pervades the characters' surroundings, but no no, it's not actually blood - it's only clay. See, the story mostly takes place in an out-of-the-way estate in the English countryside - a mansion of ghastly, rundown beauty, which happens to double as the site of a red clay mine that its owner, the baronet and would-be inventor Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), has so far been unable, despite his best efforts, to turn into the successful business he envisions.
He and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) have just returned from America - he with a new bride, Edith (Mia Wasikowska), and she with a cold resentment of the mansion's new tenant. There's also a dog.
From the moment Edith arrives in her new life at her new home, something (needless to say) doesn't seem to be quite right. Far be it from del Toro to just let the crumbling walls and ruptured ceilings of the residence do all the work; his visual suggestions go much further. Even indoors, the red clay is a constant presence. It's oozing, slow and thick, from the walls of the house, an image that punctuates the background of shot after shot after shot. Bright patches of red dot the snow outside. There are vats of the stuff on the bottom floors. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen's lighting frequently emphasizes the color as well. Even the ghosts, which begin to appear to Edith - crawling up from the floors, gliding between hallways, emerging from bathtubs - are often covered in red, as if they've been buried in the clay. Little of plot-specific consequence happens over the middle hour of the film, but del Toro keeps his focus on the emotional and psychological tolls Edith's new life is taking on her (and, more mysteriously, on brother and sister Sharpe).
I've heard a few complaints that the film is basically just an excuse for elaborate production design - gorgeous Gothic images and costumes with a thin story. This criticism is, to put it charitably, missing the point entirely. Production design (quick shout-out to Thomas E. Sanders, art director Brandt Gordon and costume designer Kate Hawley) is of course never merely an affectation, but in this movie in particular, has monumental impact. In every scene, the locations and sets (almost entirely interiors) express so much about what's going on within the story They don't just reflect what's happening, but directly impact it.
Del Toro's visual ideas are not only evocative in their own right, but the way he frames his characters expresses what the script (smartly) does not. It's the blood-like sludge on the walls; it's the towering height of the ceilings; it's the multi-colored light piercing the rooms and hallways; it's the archways that look like they're about to snap and collapse on Edith at any moment.
The atmospherics in Crimson Peak's best moments are extraordinary. In style and impact, it's reminiscent of, among others, Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast and Jack Clayton's The Innocents - two other films that take place largely inside foreboding walls, and for which del Toro has unsurprisingly expressed great admiration.
Although the narrative takes place in large part on that atmospheric plane, the film does a sneakily nice job with its more traditional plot elements. This is one of the best examples of setup/payoff in recent memory. So much is driven by mood, but when things finally hit the fan, Crimson Peak delivers in deliriously entertaining fashion. I don't know if this is a word, but it gets awfully stabby by the end. It's probably the stabbiest movie of the year. Considering one of the running concerns of the narrative (though in a different way than we might initially suspect) is the deflowering of the main character, the emphasis on puncturing seems knowingly appropriate.
At any rate, it's certainly clear that del Toro knows his material front to back, which is what makes this such a rewarding film. That it's gorgeous should, considering the source, go without saying. But it's the innate way he's able to affect the characters' experience and our understanding of it - to tell without telling, show without showing - that borders on the virtuosic. Like a vivid dream or memory, Crimson Peak feels like something we can't otherwise describe, and lingers still.