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Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: John Logan
Based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler
Before the opening credits, Sweeney Todd features a strident organ that, note by note, builds to a blastingly cacophonous chord. When the credits do roll, subsequently, they're rolled over the travels of a streaming trail of syrupy blood; taken together, the first minute or so serves as a warning from Burton to the audience that the film you're about to see is not only going to be loud, but violent, too. It's fair warning, if you catch it: a Hollywood musical—and yes, Sweeney Todd is an out-and-out musical, approaching the operatic in its spare use of unsung dialogue—has never before been so unapologetically gruesome nor so horribly cynical, operatically tragic and unsparingly unforgiving. If the heyday MGM musicals (see: That's Entertainment!) serve now as a symbol of cultural and cinematic innocence, then Sweeney Todd is the film that slits their throats and bathes in their blood.
Not that I've got anything against the old Hollywood musicals, but contemporary cinema hasn't been kind to their legacy with folderol like Moulin Rouge (best characterized by its boing boing boing sound effects) and Chicago; as one of my former professors, Foster Hirsch, used to say, they're musicals for people who hate musicals. Sweeney Todd, on the other hand, is more like a musical for people who hate people, a terribly contemptuous film whose guiding thematic principle is, as Johnny Depp sings in the title role as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, "everyone deserves to die." Let Sweeney Todd be the paragon of early 21st Century musical moviemaking, a reflection of the real-life violence that characterizes our present wartimes. The sweet and lachrymose pathos of Edward Scissorhands, the other Burton-Depp collaboration about a troubled barber, has been supplanted by a dark and bitter animus that nevertheless manages to move in the grand tragic tradition of Verdi, thanks in large part to Depp's complex and emotional performance.
Structurally, via Sondheim, Sweeney Todd is largely conventional, fitting the MGM template as a high-on-coincidence tale (albeit one of revenge) with a central romantic couple and a secondary, complementary couple. But while the young and incidental B-couple may get their happy ending, Burton executes it with the care of a contractual obligation; he just barely takes the time to divert his focus from Depp's lamentable butcher barber. (As one character puts it, in a bit of delightful wordplay, Todd is "the very last word in barbery.") What makes Sweeney Todd such an atypical film is its front-and-center brutality; where, in your run-of-the-mill Hollywood flick, the camera would ordinarily cut away before a throat is slit, Burton shows the slicings to us full-on, absent any of the tongue-in-cheekiness that accompanied the hyperviolence in Tarantino's Kill Bill dyad. Watch the skin of throat split apart and the blood flow, over and over again as Depp takes his revenge against one man out on the entire city of London. I couldn't help but start to giggle a bit, incredulously, at the sheer audacity of it. What a terribly impolite Christmas movie.
Burton, from Sondheim's source material (a helluva score), does a heck of a job balancing the unwinking bloodletting with a bit of dark comedy, courtesy of, primarily, Helena Bonham Carter, Depp's partner in crime who uses his victims' corpses as meat for her fledgling meatpie business. One number in particular, "A Little Priest", is a hilariously gleeful celebration of cannibalism whose comedy, nevertheless, does nothing to diminish the straight horror of the related murders. Burton in recent years has seemed to become and more enamored with the movie musical, to varying degrees of success. (Good, particularly on subsequent DVD-viewings: Corpse Bride; dreadful: Charlie & the Chocolate Factory.) Here he finds the worthy material that offers him a chance to perfectly interweave his two central passions, Gothic horror and the musical. As both elements are the very essence of Sondheim's show, a more appropriate director couldn't have been found for the adaptation.