America. The Great Depression.
Jacob (Robert Pattinson) sits down to take his final exam, the last step to becoming a vet, when he receives some bad news. Both of his parents were killed in a car accident. Reeling, he flees his small town and follows the train tracks. He hops on the first train and as luck would have it, he has hopped the Banzini Bros. Traveling Circus. Camel (Jim Norton), an aging roustabout, becomes his official guide and guardian, getting him settled in with the circus. The next morning, Jacob gets some work but his eye wanders to Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the star of the show. When one of her trained horses becomes sick, Jacob offers to help and attracts the attention of Auguste (Christoph Waltz, "Inglourious Basterds", "The Green Hornet"), the owner of Banzini Bros. He is also Marlena's husband. Jacob does some fast talking and quickly becomes the circus vet. But Marlena needs a new act and Auguste finds her a trained elephant. As the vet, the elephant's care and training falls to Jacob. He and Marlena spend a lot of time together and an almost inevitable chemistry grows between them. But Auguste has difficulty dealing with the stress of the circus and his growing jealousy.
"Water for Elephants", based on the bestseller by Sara Gruen, is a very beautiful film with a very old-fashioned narrative and visual style. This isn't a criticism. In fact, this old-fashioned style only seems to allow us the time and energy to focus on the characters and story. And this makes both even more powerful and memorable.
At the end of the film, the first credit was for director Francis Lawrence. I didn't recognize the name at the time, but I was impressed. The second credit was for writer Richard LaGravanese, which didn't surprise me at all. In Hollywood, there are maybe a half dozen screenwriters who are attached to just about every weighty, serious and 'award worthy' film. LaGravanese is one of those writers. He crafts superb screenplays allowing the director and actors to get a jump start on creating a high quality film.
A few days after watching "Elephants", I was going through some old reviews I wrote and a familiar name popped up. Francis Lawrence. As a director, he got his start working on high profile music videos. His first feature film? "Constantine" starring Keanu Reeves as a guy who is fighting the Devil in modern-day Los Angeles. (Aren't we all?) His second film? "I am Legend" starring Will Smith as one of the few survivors of a worldwide pandemic now fighting against vampire-like creatures to stay alive. His third film? "Water for Elephants". I then understood why I didn't recognize the director. His first two films ("Legend" is the better of the two) are so different from his newest. With the exception of a couple of landscapes created with CGI, I would venture to guess that 99% of "Elephants" is special effects free. The opposite is true of "Constantine" and "Legend", both of which are chock-a-block with CGI. In "Elephants", Lawrence doesn't have any special effects to deal with, so he is able to concentrate his time and attention on the characters, creating a rich, interesting, visual film.
The film begins with Old Jacob (Hal Holbrook) wandering into a modern traveling circus. The manager (Paul Schneider, "Bright Star", "Lars and the Real Girl", TV's "Parks and Recreation") invites him in and they start talking about Banzini Bros. and his early life. We enter this exotic world because of Jacob. And it is a good fit, because he is as young and impressionable as we are; he is our guide to this world and we are meant to see and experience what he does.
As Old Jacob begins to tell his story, the narration quickly dissolves to Jacob (Pattinson) narrating. After the death of his parents, Jacob finds he has little left in the world and flees his small town by following the train tracks. Soon, a train approaches and he decides to catch a ride. The next day, Banzine Bros. sets up in a new town and Camel gets him a job shoveling the horse manure. He soon attracts the attention of Auguste, the tyrannical owner and ringmaster of the circus. Auguste orders him thrown off the train. But Jacob quickly convinces him he should have a vet. Ringling Bros. does.
I know why Robert Pattinson was cast in this movie. You know why he was cast in this movie. The filmmakers hope his enormous "Twilight" fan base will help make this movie a hit as well. So far, none of the "Twi-hards" have helped any non-"Twilight" movie starring Kristen Stewart or Pattinson become a hit. So it seems a shame they didn't go with Emile Hirsch or Andrew Garfield, two of the other, better actors who were considered for the role.
That said, as I watched "Elephants", I was in turn, surprised and perplexed by Pattinson. Initially, his portrayal of Jacob looks and feels interesting and complex. When he learns his parents have died, he is naturally upset. Further complications cause him to run away and literally join the circus. Once there, he is awed by the beauty and the spectacle, he is intimidated and frightened by the danger, he is happy to be working with the animals. But as the story continues, these emotions seem to recycle. Worse, his portrayal of these emotions seems to be the same each time. While I was happy to see him going beyond the glowering teen-angst he has perfected for "Twilight", the use of the same three or four facial expressions proves his limited range as an actor.
Reese Witherspoon plays Marlena, Auguste's wife and the star attraction of Banzini Bros. Witherspoon fares much better and portrays a mixture of love and fear of her husband, her stardom and her circus skills. Resembling Jean Harlow, she conveys a mixture of strength and vulnerability any actress in the 30s might have possessed to make them a star. At times, she seems to love Auguste and also to fear his temper. But she has been with him long enough to know how to calm her husband and bring him back to Earth.
The morning after Jacob jumps the train, the circus arrives in a new town and sets up. That afternoon, Jacob gets his first glimpse of Marlena's act as she rides her trained horses. And because we are watching through his eyes, it is our first glimpse as well. It is easy to see why he is won over by her beauty as well as the beauty of her act; it is hard to deny the majesty of trained horses moving in harmony. When something happens to the lead horse, Jacob and Marlena are forced to work closely together. And Marlena seems drawn to Jacob because he is so different from Auguste. Jacob is drawn to Marlena because of her maturity and exotic nature.
Auguste juggles a lot of responsibility but he also knows he has to rule his kingdom with an iron fist. At times, Auguste is extremely charming and at others, dangerous and menacing. It might seem like he is schizophrenic, but we recognize these different sides of his personality appear as needed, in response to a situation. Waltz is perfect as Auguste. He always seems a little troubled, a little pensive, so when he suddenly turns on the charm, he does so with an underlying sense of danger. One side of his personality never disappears in favor of another and this helps his character seem more dangerous and unsettling.
As soon as Jacob enters the picture and convinces Auguste to hire him as the circus vet, Auguste seems a little unsettled, a little less sure of himself. He quickly demonstrates his power by instructing Jacob to do something he doesn't want to do. When Jacob goes against his wishes, his anger surfaces. Later, when Auguste feels Marlena has been threatened, he takes out his aggression on an unsuspecting animal. This is an extremely difficult moment to watch, but it also helps illustrate how dangerous he is. If he is willing to do this to an animal, something that cost him money, and can generate revenue, how will he treat Jacob is he feels threatened by him? Jacob and, for that matter, many of the circus employees, are more expendable than the animals.
It is through Jacob that we also witness the examples of how hard this life is. Auguste frequently has money problems. If he feels his employees are becoming too angry about not being paid, he instructs his henchmen to 'red line' some of the more expendable roustabouts. They are basically thrown off the train, in the middle of the night, while it is still moving. And there aren't a lot of feather beds lining the ground along the tracks. When this happens, news spreads and the protests are usually cut off.
As the relationship between Jacob and Marlena grows, Auguste recognizes he is losing his love. Instead of banishing Jacob, he brings them closer together, insisting Jacob join them for dinner of many occasions. This helps him keep a more watchful eye on them but also causes his jealous nature to surface much more quickly.
Auguste finds an elephant for sale and buys Rosie for Marlena. If she can ride a trained horse, she can ride a trained elephant. And he becomes glassy-eyed at the anticipated revenue. But Jacob and Auguste have different ideas about how to train the new addition and the ringmaster hands the vet a prod with a sharp hook on the end. Auguste is only too willing to demonstrate the tool's use leading Marlena and Jacob to back away in horror.
Hal Holbrook plays Old Jacob and his moments at the beginning and end of the film add poignancy making the story a little more touching.
"Elephants" illustrates the best and worst of circus life, showing the romantic vision of why so many would 'run away and join the circus'. Shortly after Auguste hires Jacob, he leads the young man to the roof of the train and they walk across the top of many cars. Then, Lawrence shows us a wide shot of the train traveling down a curved track through a lush countryside and a small town. A river winds through and the moon shines down. This shot is really beautiful (and no doubt created with CGI) and helps to establish the romantic vision of living such a life.
The attention to detail carries through to the design of the train cars. Auguste and Marlena travel in an opulent, red velvet lined car while others travel according to their importance.
Old-fashioned storytelling, great visual style and some memorable performances all help to make "Water for Elephants" a very good film.