After the lumbering The Phantom Menace, the strenuously synthetic The Mummy and its sequel, and the bland-o-rama Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, it's thrilling indeed to sit through a mega-budget blockbuster sword-and-sorcery picture that's the work of a genuine filmmaker—that has passion and urgency, that has characters who are (whatever their stature or alien protuberances) dramatically compelling, that is more than the sum of the scores (hundreds?) of millions that have been thrown at it.
It's true that the first installment of The Lord of theRings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring (New Line), is basically a lot of people running away from special effects. But what volcanic special effects! What otherworldly settings through which to run! What magnificent music to run to! What illustrious actors doing the running! Peter Jackson, the youngish New Zealand director, was weaned on both J.R.R. Tolkien and genre flicks, and the world that he and his wizardly designers have contrived evokes the lore that fed Tolkien and the lore that Tolkien fed: Celtic myths, Norse gods and goddesses, Dante, Richard Wagner, Viking epics, Kurosawa, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Harryhausen, Hammer horror, Hong Kong martial-arts ghost pictures, classic shockers like Curse of the Demon and Tombs of the Blind Dead. Fashioned by a buff, The Lord of the Rings is a banquet for the buff in us all. I left exhausted, happy, intoxicated.
… and in no hurry to read Tolkien. Before I burble on, an admission: I have friends who've plowed through TheLord of the Rings as many as seven times in its entirety, whereas I've never made it past Page 5 of The Hobbit. It must be genetic—I see the words "Bilbo Baggins of Bag End" and my eyelids begin to droop. I tried again last month, determined to battle my way through The Fellowship of the Ring, but before I'd even reached Bilbo's eleventy-first birthday the words had begun to swim. This is not a proud confession: Better minds than mine have luxuriated in Tolkien's epic, an adolescent's coming-of-age odyssey that is also, thanks to its length and breadth, an adolescent reader's coming-of-age odyssey. It's merely a way of saying that I've no idea whether Jackson has been faithful to the canons of Middle-earth. I gather that the Elf princess Arwen (Liv Tyler) isn't an action hero in the book: Here she charges ahead of the thunderous Ringwraiths with a wounded Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) in tow. And it's Frodo, not Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who guesses the meaning of the riddle at the entrance to the mines of Moria. But let's move on, shall we? Myriad Tolkienites are already enumerating the eleventy-odd other alterations.
The Fellowship of the Ring opens with flashbacks to the last installment, which of course doesn't exist. That means a lot of exposition in little time: how the Ring of Power was forged by the evil Sauron; how it was won in battle by a brave warrior who subsequently fell under its wicked spell and refused to destroy it in Mordor, the only place where it can be destroyed; how it wound up with Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) in his homey little Hobbit-Shire. (I'm leaving stuff out or this would come to a few hundred pages.) The opening act in the Shire is a wee bit snoozy, but once Frodo has been entrusted with the ring and Gandalf has gone to enlist the aid of his old friend Saruman (Christopher Lee), it's bat-out-of-hell time.
Why a smart wizard like Gandalf couldn't guess that Sa ruman and Sa uron would have more than a passing acquaintance isn't clear, but one look at the great, totemic Lee—a snowy-white incarnation of his Hammer Rasputin with a beak like a fish hook—ought to have sent him skittering back to Bag End. The two hoary English actors have a splendid wand-off, smiting and spinning each other around the great hall. McKellen rasps his disbelief; Lee hurls mighty imprecations in those supernatural bass tones. It's a voice that sounds credible conjuring demons from the peaceable soil of Middle-earth, commanding his hellish minions to rrrrrrip the trees out of the soil, sending fire bolts from the sky, and bringing boulders crashing down mountainsides.
This is not a film for small children. The long, black Ringwraiths that swoop down on Frodo and his friends are shudderingly scary creations: They natter to themselves in gnarled whispers and their horses shriek; their presence brings forth centipedes and spiders from the ground. A battle with a clay monster in the mines of Moria is the blood wedding of Kurosawa and Harryhausen—nightmarishly kinetic, like the Seven Samuraiof Sinbad. The ultimate hell-spew, the Balrog, is not an anti-climax: King Kong would turn tail; Godzilla would whimper and excuse himself. This might be the most terrifying creature ever committed to celluloid.
Director Jackson loves the shots of Saruman's infernal machines violating the earth. The abysses in this movie are truly abysmal; the towers stratospheric. The bad guys and their castles are sharply elongated, their turrets stretching to the heavens; the good guys are softer and more rounded, with startling blue eyes. Cate Blanchett all but floats into the frame, an unbearably beautiful, diaphanous goddess, the anti-Balrog. Blue-eyed princess Liv slings blue-eyed, soft-faced Wood over her horse and says, "If I can get across the river, the power of my people will protect him," and cleft-chinned Viggo Mortensen as Strider meets Liv's blue eyes with a pair of his own and says, "Ride hard." Even McKellen has blue eyes and a big, rounded nose that makes him seem almost a hobbit on stilts.
The exchanges among the loyal band—hobbits, dwarves, elves, even men—that cleaves to Frodo on his voyage to the Land of Shadow are by necessity terse, but Sean Bean manages to make Boromir a febrile, movingly conflicted warrior. He thinks he can harness the power of the ring to save his benighted kingdom—and it's in his shifty yet longing eyes that its powerful allure is most clearly reflected. Howard Shore's orchestrations, Celtic-tinged, alternately wistful and pounding, abet these battles of the heart and sword superbly: It isn't Wagner, but it isn't Williams either.
Peter Jackson has always grooved on passionate excess. His first big hit, Dead Alive (1992), is about a nice young man whose overbearing mother becomes a flesh-eating zombie; to keep her from eating his girlfriend he has to chainsaw through about a hundred demons in the last 10 minutes. It's the ultimate Freudian splatter picture. Heavenly Creatures (1994) doesn't just portray the folie à deux of two young girls who decide to commit murder—it plunges headlong into their fantasy lives. The Frighteners (1996) begins as a spook comedy but develops a dark and crazed momentum that tears it loose (unpleasantly loose) from its genre moorings. Now, in The Lord of the Rings, Jackson has brought a primal intensity to the struggle between good and evil that makes the stiff, well-mannered drones of George Lucas look like denizens of a bad Saturday-morning cartoon. Will the millions who embrace Lucas' holograms be able to handle sword-and-sorcery with real blood and guts?
Russell Crowe does the Rain Man thing in A Beautiful Mind (Universal Pictures): He plays a mentally ill, tic-ridden genius who stays stubbornly on his own wavelength. In his first scenes, when he's a graduate student in mathematics at Princeton in the early '50s, Crowe seems a shade external, as if he's trotting out all these sundry mannerisms as a means of willing his way into the head of the character, John Nash. But as Nash gets closer to Crowe's own age (and level of dissipation), the performance settles down and becomes first credible and then overwhelming. There are few actors alive who could have brought this part off—you need just the right blend of artistry and insanity. The brooding, tightly wound Crowe is somehow able to show Nash's cerebral convolutions on his face, while his eyes become increasingly—desperately—forlorn. This is a stupendous piece of acting.
I didn't expect to respond to A Beautiful Mind—the names Ron Howard (director), Akiva Goldsman (writer), James Horner (composer), and Charlotte Church (vocalist) do little to inspire faith. But even beyond Crowe this is a pretty good tear-jerker. Given the nature of Nash's illness, Howard can have fun with the Cold War culture of the '50s—to show the ways in which it invades Nash's psyche and empowers his delusions. He and Goldsman smartly save the inspirational schlock for the last 20 minutes, by which time they've snared you. More than anything, you want to see Crowe with his potency back—not a shrinking, slope-shouldered mental patient but a swashbuckling super-cogitator.
In the final scenes, the portrait of delusional schizophrenia seems rather clean, the line between reality and fantasy too clearly demarcated. (I've known a few schizophrenics, and none of them ever learned to isolate the figments of their imagination.) The real Nash apparently had a more complicated relationship with the Pentagon and his own sexuality, but the changes here are closer to Hollywood-cosmetic then they are to the overriding lies of, say, Blow. As Nash's suffering spouse, Jennifer Connelly almost gets gummed up by a couple of embarrassing speeches toward the end, but she's an elegant actress—she rides them out.
An old college friend of mine—like Nash, an eccentric West Virginian hobbled by inner demons—died recently, in willed obscurity, which might account for how hard I cried at the end of A Beautiful Mind. Crowe's performance brought it all back to me, the mixture of mulishness and vulnerability that is not a design for living but that makes some souls for a while burn so bright.
Coming attractions: Next week begins Slate's annual "Movie Club," in which critics David Edelstein, Roger Ebert, Sarah Kerr, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and A.O. Scott will debate 2001's haul of films.