- Year: 2009
- Director: Terry Gilliam
- Starring: Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, Lily Cole
Today’s movie is less known as a “Deal with the Devil” movie or even a Terry Gilliam movie than it is as “That movie Heath Ledger died while making.” Ledger died 1/3 of the way through filming and was replaced in various scenes with Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. Thankfully, the film’s magical and supernatural elements allow for these kind of changes to be worked into the story, and it’s incredible in and of itself that the film was finished. That said, I have to look at it for what it is, so let’s take a look at our final Faustian film and your spellcheck’s worst nightmare The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is a 1000-year-old man who runs a middle ages-esque traveling magical theatre show. Around a millennium ago, Parnassus was a monk of an ambiguous religion that revolved around telling stories to keep the world going. One day, the Devil (Tom Waits), calling himself Mr. Nick, came in and challenged him, and the two have been making deals ever since. They will often compete for who can gain more souls first, and this is how Parnassus gained immortality.
Parnassus and the Devil win souls when someone enters the titular imaginarium, which as its name suggests, shows someone the inner workings of their imagination. In the opening scene, an alcoholic (Richard Riddell), who interestingly looks a bit like Terry Gilliam, goes into the imaginarium.
Eventually, he has to choose between climbing twelve enormous steps (literally) or walking into a sleazy bar for a drink.
The booming voice of Parnassus encourages him to take the hard road to sobriety, but he takes the easy way out and walks into Mr. Nick’s bar. It blows up and Parnassus mourns losing another soul to Nick.
It is revealed that in one of his bets, Parnassus lost his own daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) to the Devil, as soon as she turned 16. In one final attempt to overturn this, he makes one more bet with the always-game Devil—the first to five souls gets Valentina. With the help of Percy (Verne Troyer), Anton (Andrew Garfield), Valentina herself, and the newly acquired Tony (Heath Ledger), Parnassus tries to turn people to his side.
Tony’s origins are mysterious, as he’s found hanging from a bridge not even remembering his own name. He seems to be the one who just might be the savior for the troupe, trying to bring it into the 20th century (or at least the 16th or 17th). Surely enough, it works, and he quickly wins four women outside a shopping center.
However, Mr. Nick is using all the tricks in his book and brings in four Russian gangsters who are after Tony. They follow Tony into the imaginarium where Parnassus tries to recruit them as police officers, but the Devil wins them and evens up the score.
The images that the imaginarium conjures up are incredibly unique every time, and it’s all in the vein of Gilliam’s unique style. They’re obviously CGI, but since we’re just seeing someone’s imagination, that’s fine.
In such a weird and bizarre story, the characters have to be grounded, and thankfully they are, and ultimately that’s the reason Parnassus works. Obviously, Heath Ledger is great, and the three actors brought in to replace him are all respectful and enjoyable. I really enjoy Verne Troyer as Parnassus’ loyal assistant, and Andrew Garfield’s Anton could simply have been a cliched boy in love with a girl, but Garfield makes him interesting. Most of all, the movie’s heart comes from the relationship between Valentina and Parnassus himself. Christopher Plummer has to pull off a character who is 1000 years old, and yet he’s so good that I totally buy it. You literally see centuries of world weariness in his face. He’s an ancient man with a teenage daughter, and yet their relationship is totally believable and honest. Since the whole film is basically about storytelling, the actor playing Parnassus better be a good storyteller, and of course Plummer is.
Parnassus is an interesting Faust in that he is constantly making bets with the Devil. It’s not just a one-and-done deal, and they’ve even developed a bizarre camaraderie with each other. He also is smart enough to never put his own soul on the line. Tom Waits’ Mr. Nick is definitely playing up the trickster aspects of the Devil, somewhat in the conman vein of Walter Huston’s Scratch in The Devil and Daniel Webster.
Most interesting of all, the Devil himself is disgusted with Tony’s true self. As Tony goes into the imaginarium with Valentina, claiming he’ll willingly be the last soul, he finds himself at a fundraiser. It is soon revealed, though, that Tony is a fraud who has been selling children’s organs on the black market. Spiteful at her father and Tony, Valentina willingly gives herself to the Devil. The Devil, not happy at the game ending this way, offers Parnassus his daughter back if he gets someone to kill Tony.
Tony is chased to a gallows yet again, where is he hung and killed this time. Valentina is released back into the real world, but the Devil leaves Parnassus in the imaginarium. For years, he wanders alone and eventually comes upon his own decision to choose between the “High Road” and the “Low Road.” Exhausted, he collapses and prays, and is transported back to the real world. He sees Valentina and Anton very happy with a daughter of their own. He wants to go in, but is stopped by Percy, with whom he starts an imaginarium puppet show. The Devil tries to tempt him again, but Parnassus finally puts an end to it.
The story is perhaps a bit muddled up until this point, but the ending is incredibly poignant. I love that the true crossroads for Parnassus is back in the real world, first with his daughter and then with the Devil one last time. He’s a 1000-year-old man, but he has still grown as a character.
I’m not sure the stuff with Tony being villainous completely lands, and it perhaps would have been a little clearer had Ledger lived, but it still serves it purpose. The stuff that is good in this film still works. It’s a really bizarre film at first, and it’s surreal seeing this medieval troupe traveling through modern day Britain, but once you really let it just take over in its own weird way, it’s incredibly effective. It’s not Terry Gilliam’s most critically acclaimed film (Brazil), his most popular (Monty Python and the Holy Grail), his biggest cult classic (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) or even my personal favorite (12 Monkeys), but it is a really, really good film, arguably even a great one. Plus, it’s a touching tribute to a great actor who was taken from us far too soon. Let’s check out the final score.
Story (15/20 Points)
It’s pretty complex and if it weren’t for the sad unforeseen circumstances, maybe a few things could have been improved. However, almost every character has an arc that works, and we really do care about everyone that we should, Parnassus and Valentina in particular. The ending especially is particularly touching.
Faust (18/20 Points)
Playing a 1000-year-old man sounds like a joke, but Plummer completely makes it work. At first, it’s a little ambiguous who the main character is, but by the end, it is his choice that is the most important.
Devil (14/20 Points)
Tom Waits is unquestionably having a good time as Mr. Nick, and although his character is fairly one-note, it’s a note that works. The trickster Devil is just fine in a movie like this.
Supporting Cast (17/20 Points)
There isn’t a huge cast, but the main characters are all solid. Even Anton, who could have easily been a boring character, is given depths by a lot of the scenes Andrew Garfield improvised. Verne Troyer is also thoroughly enjoyable as Percy, Parnassus’ truest friend.
Experience (16/20 Points)
It’s goofy and weird and all over the place, and it’s pure Gilliam. It does take a little bit to get sucked into, but once you are, you’ll love it. There’s a particular scene in the imaginarium where the world is falling apart like puzzle pieces that could only work in a film like this.
FINAL SCORE: 80%
It’s definitely not for everyone, but it’s a unique morality tale with some visually breathtaking sequences. If you can’t stand other Gilliam films, you probably aren’t going to love it, but if you do, it’s delightfully weird in all the right ways. It’s a great way to finish this match-up…
Ugh. Next week it’s my review of perhaps Disney’s strangest choice in history, 1981’s The Devil and Max Devlin.