Monday, April 25, 2011

Water for Elephants

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (O) Roger Ebert (3 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb Listing -
CNS/USCCB Review -
Roger Ebert's Review -

Water for Elephants (directed by Francis Lawrence, screenplay by Richard LaGravenese based on the book by Sara Gruen) is a thoughtful and provocative melodrama set during the Great Depression. Jacob (played by Robert Pattinson of the Twilight series fame), about to get his degree in veterinary science at Cornell University has his world turned upside down when he is pulled out of his final exam to the news that his Polish immigrant parents (who had just reminded him that morning of how proud they were of him) were killed in a car accident. As he seeks then to their accounts in order, he finds out that the bank was going to take their farm. Why? His father had mortgaged the farm to pay for Jacob's tuition payments. After getting a lecture from the banker "don’t make the same mistakes that your father did," Jacob packs a suitcase (the farm is going to go anyway) and starts heading "to the city" (Albany) in hopes of finding a job. It’s 1931. The freight train that he seeks to jump onto to hitch a ride turns out to be circus train, and thus begins the adventure of his life.

The circus is owned by August (played by Christoph Waltz of Inglorious Basterds fame). He is nuts, running his circus like a pirate ship. When employees cause him trouble or he can’t afford to keep everyone, he literally has the "troublemakers" or "expendables" thrown off the train.

Why would anyone work under such conditions? And perhaps why would someone like August, who has his charming qualities as well, become such a monster? Jacob, who until recently had not felt poverty/desperation, asked such questions both of himself and of August’s lovely but (psychically) scarred wife Marlena (played by Reese Witherspoon) who was actually of Jacob's age rather than that of August who seemed almost a generation older than both of them.

In good part, the reason why people put up with such conditions was because it was the Depression. People were desperate. Circuses were also the "end of the line" for many particularly vulnerable people. So if one already had a predisposition for sadism or megalomania, leading such an operation was a perfect fit. Thus August became the "king" of something of a traveling infirmery/madhouse in a world (Depression Era rural New York) that seemed at the time to have met its Apocalypse. (It would not be entirely a stretch to compare the rural New York of Water for Elephants to the post-apocalyptic worlds of the Mad Max movies or more recently the Book of Eli. Those other movies were, of course, far more starkly drawn, but when people get thrown off the train in the dead of night because the Boss doesn’t have money to feed them, one’s talking about very dark times).

Jacob proves useful to August because he is vet. Well, he wasn't really a vet because he never actually got his degree (because of the tragic deaths of his parents).  But he was "almost a vet" and to a "pirate circus" running on a shoe string, that was good enough.

When the circus’ star horse, which Marlena was riding in the show, dies (Actually it’s put-down between shows by Jacob despite August’s objections, who’d have the horse just be run into the ground) August bets the whole circus on the acquisition of a show elephant named Rosie from another circus that had met its end. Nobody really had a clue about how to manage an elephant but August nominally puts Jacob in charge of making the elephant into an act. And when Jacob doesn’t immediately know what to do, August offers his own approach. Fortunately, Jacob discovers something remarkable about Rosie (which folks who know something about animal training would appreciate) and this at least temporarily saves the day.

The rest of the movie is quite predictable and tragic, kinda like watching the "proverbial train wreck," even though (1) that isn’t exactly what happens and (2) anyone likes these kinds of movies will certainly get one’s money’s worth – there are plenty of places where this movie will make one cry.

I wouldn’t recommend the movie for small children because of some of the treatment of the animals (as well as of people) which is quite traumatic.  But also thematically I can’t imagine that an "8 year old" would enjoy watching a 2 hour movie about desperately poor people seeking to find a way to survive.

For adults, however, the movie certainly has something to say about "old-time patriarchy" (represented by August) where the man, however insane, was "the Boss," and the contrast between that approach and the more gentle one (represented by Jacob) that most of us are now more familiar with where everyone is made to feel that "yes, times are tough but we’re in this together."

In our current tough economic times, a movie set during the last Great Depression with this conflict playing out "on the train" offers one much to think about indeed.

Finally, the United States is a nation of immigrants, something that often gets highlighted in the movies.  Those of Polish descent may appreciate this movie in a special way for its positive portrayal of Polish-Americans as honest, hardworking, family-oriented folk with their heads-screwed-on right and their values in order throughout the film.  There have been many movies made over the years about Irish Americans, Italian Americans, Jewish Americans, Hispanic Americans, etc.  This is the first movie that I can think of where old -time Polish Americans are presented in such a nice, prominent and positive way.  And there is a nice surprise / plot twist in the movie that further highlights the Polishness of this story as well.

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  1. Hi, Father Kriz. I responded to you at imdb and will repeat here. this first link is to an article about Polish Americans and other Bohunks in film. the second link is to my blog post review of "Water."

  2. Thank you Danusha for your comment! I do hope that with this movie, Poles will start to be portrayed better in American cinema. There are so many good stories that could come out of the Polish-American community. I hope that some of those stories now come to be made.