Nowadays, we tend to think of fairy tales as cute little fables that we tell to children. That, or some of Disney’s most famous movies. But that wasn’t always the case. However, over the years many of these tales have been sanitized, given nice moral twists, and sent on their merry way. But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find a surprising amount of death, cruelty, and general nastiness in even the most beloved of fairy tales.
That’s definitely the case with the stories of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, whose collection of dark Germanic folk stories contains some of the world’s most famous fairy tales, including Cinderella, Snow White, and Hansel And Gretel. However, I wonder if even the Brothers Grimm could have foreseen the devious little tale that unfolds in Alex van Warmerdam’s Grimm, a contemporary retelling of Hansel and Gretel.
Jacob and Marie live with their father and mother on a small farm on the edge of the woods. However, times are hard and there’s not enough food to feed all four of them. Their father abandons the two siblings in the forest with nothing but a note from their mother telling them to head to Spain to live with their wealthy uncle. After a surreal trip through the Netherlands, the two arrive in Spain, only to find out their uncle has died. Unsure of what to do, Jacob leaves to find some food, and when he returns, Marie is missing with a letter in her place.
Following the letter’s instructions, he arrives at a large mansion in the middle of nowhere, where Maria is waiting for him. Seems she went off and got hitched to Diego, a rich surgeon. The siblings will have all they ever need, but Jacob can’t stand the thought of his sister selling herself like that. What’s more, Diego strikes Jacob as bit on the dodgy side. He insists that they leave, and when Marie refuses, begins a relationship with Diego’s maid to spite her.
Diego’s sister, who is very sick, quickly tires of Jacob’s stunts and insists that he be dealt with… permanently. Meanwhile, Marie finds a one room in the mansion that noone will talk about, a locked room with a huge steel door. When Jacob turns up missing, she begins to suspect that her brother might have been right, that Diego might have had ulterior motives for rescuing them.
Those expecting a nice, clean fairly tale from Grimm will be quite surprised when they watch the movie. Apologies for the bad pun, but this movie is very grim and twisted. For starters, there are implications that the Jacob and Marie might be a bit more than brother and sister, if you know what I mean. The film doesn’t dwell on that too much, but there is one bathtub scene that does get a bit uncomfortable, before a humorous interruption keeps things from getting a bit ickier.
And speaking of humor, there are some incredibly funny and incredibly twisted scenes sprinkled throughout Grimm. As the two are wandering throughout the forest, they come across a dog caught in a beartrap. Hungry and tired, the two make the best of the situation, which suddenly gets worse when the dog’s owner comes looking for his pet. The two are taken back to the owner’s farm, and Jacob is forced to make reparations for the dog by sleeping with his wife; unfortunately for Jacob, she takes a real liking to him. He and Marie are held prisoner, which then leads to the film’s single funniest scene when the two make their escape, which had the crowd roaring with laughter.
The film also throws out several surreal flourishes. There seems to be little concern for geography; one minute, the two are traveling through the cold and wintry Netherlands, only to look up and see the warm, sunny expanse of Spain stretch out before them. The behavior of Diego and his little crew sometimes seems lifted right out of a David Lynch movie. Finally, the film’s last twenty minutes take place in an abandoned spaghetti Western set, complete with barn animals, bows and arrows, and a fully stocked bar, and the final showdown takes place in the middle of dust storm that could’ve been from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Although I loved parts of the film, overall Grimm just didn’t do too much for me. Part of it was due to the fact that, after watching Jacob and Marie bicker endlessly, I really stopped caring about whether or not either of them made it out alive from Diego’s little compound. At first, it’s easy to feel for Jacob. After all, his sister is basically prostituting herself to a rich guy so she can have an easy life. But once he starts using others to lash out at her, it’s hard to really find him all that likable.
But the film’s biggest problem is how often it changes tone. At first, it feels like the movie is going to be about this brother and sister who, having spent a sheltered life on the farm, are suddenly forced to survive in a big, bad world with only each other. Jacob has to stoop armed robbery and assault, and Marie sells her body. But once they hit Spain, it turns into a tepid thriller/mystery, with Jacob and then Marie trying to figure out the schemes of Diego and his sister. To top it all off, there’s the film’s epilogue, which serves no purpose whatsoever. The film is already over by then, but van Warmerdam pads it for another 20 minutes just so he can throw the siblings into a couple more quirky situations. All in all, it becomes rather anticlimactic.
Grimm wasn’t the worst film of the fest, but it definitely was one of the more disappointing ones. The film’s premise — that of a fairy tale set in the modern world — had me intrigued, and the film starts off with a lot of promise. But I gradually found myself growing increasingly frustrated with Grimm. There is a lot of tedious character scenes and unexciting thriller fluff, with only occasional moments of dead-on black comedy or delightfully twisted scenarios. But they are too few and far between to really elevate Grimm to where it could be. It’s worth checking out if you want something a bit quirky and offbeat, but if you want a film that’s dark and fairy tale-ish, there are much better and more enjoyable films out there (i.e. The City Of Lost Children).