Crimson Peak opens on an image of its star, Mia Wasikowska, in a snow covered field, her bloodied hands and face in stark contrast with her all-white surroundings. It’s a powerful depiction of compromised innocence, and as Wasikowska’s voiceover promises to recount the tragedy that led to this startling opening image, you can’t help but be enthused about the possibilities. And then over the next two hours, director Guillermo Del Toro proves he’s more in love with this picture, and the many other beautiful, strange, gothic ones that pepper the film, than he is with his characters or story.
Style matching substance isn’t typically the modus operandi of Hollywood productions, but when a big budget (or modest in this case – reported at $55 million) movie takes the time to invest in both its visuals and its story, it’s a reason to get excited. Del Toro has an uneven record working within the Hollywood system, but he’s made two Spanish language films that both adhere to this most important of cinematic principles in The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Both can be considered, at the very least, pseudo-horror. Returning to familiar territory, with a significant increase in budget and access to world class actors, should be a recipe for success. Instead we’re left with a movie so devoted to its own mythology and symbolism that it forgets to engage the audience on the most basic of levels.
During the film’s promotional run, Del Toro stressed the movie is more gothic romance with a creepy atmosphere than full on horror. It’s a way to properly set audience expectations, and it is accurate, but it might as well be code for “our story is undercooked and tedious, but come see pretty things!” It begins with Wasikowska’s Edith Cushing, a forward-thinking prospective writer who, thanks to her wealthy, self-made father is afforded the opportunity to spend all of her time doing things like thinking, writing and, what’s apparently her third favorite activity, laying on her bed. When she meets, and quickly falls in love with, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), the seeds for this unsatisfactory tragedy are sown. Thomas and his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), travel the world searching for potential investors in a machine he’s invented. The two attempt to lure Edith’s father in, but he refuses. Thomas and Edith then begin the romance that will ultimately lead to the carnage that ends the film. I’ll refrain from going into great detail, but suffice it to say that when Edith utters the line, “I heard you the first time,” you’re free to roll your eyes in the most exaggerated way possible.
The majority of Crimson Peak is an exercise in reverse misdirection. Meaning, it’s not trying to fool you, even though you probably think it is. That’s because Del Toro frames the movie like a mystery, except there’s really no mystery at all. Everything is at it seems, and things unfold in the exact way you’re expecting. The atmosphere is eerie, but it’s tough to completely buy in when it’s so painfully obvious what the end game is. The result is a film that’s as cold and distant as Chastain’s Lucille, but also just plain boring. I kept thinking one of the characters, and by extension Del Toro, had some other trick up their sleeve, a trump card to eventually play, but that’s not the case. Instead, there’s a glaring lack of character development most evident when what is probably supposed to serve as the film’s big reveal, but feels more like an inevitability, is finally disclosed. ***SPOILER*** In order for the film to work, the audience has to believe in Thomas’ transformation from willing manipulator to guilt-ridden lover. He’s been under Lucille’s spell the entire time, yet he almost instantly goes from partners with his sister to defender of Edith. There’s no way around it – it just doesn’t make any logical sense. No time is spent showing Thomas struggling with this decision, and this sort of torment and anguish over one’s decisions as they pertain to love are explicitly what the movie is about. Instead, the implication seems to be that sex with Edith was the impetus for Thomas’ change of heart. She’s got a great vajayjay, apparently. Hiddleston is fine in the role, but this sweeping change in mindset, like the entire movie, is just so underwritten than no actor in the world could have pulled it off. Del Toro is instead content to spend time lovingly floating his camera over his undeniably impressive imagery, but all the visual metaphors in the world can’t make up for the insulting way he attempts to resolve his story.
Crimson Peak is easily the most disappointing movie of 2015 so far. It’s The Devil’s Backbone-lite and sees a director capable of greatness rehashing familiar themes and producing a stale, lifeless product. For a film so concerned with big, grand emotions and the toll love takes on the soul, it’s inexplicably hollow and aloof. You’re never given the opportunity to really feel or empathize with these characters. The only emotion it truly brings out is gratitude… for when the credits finally roll.