Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Director Report Card: Tim Burton (1990)

4. Edward Scissorhands

After the massive success of “Batman,” Tim Burton could make whatever movie he wanted. With his new found blockbuster clout, the director got a long developing, deeply personal project made. “Edward Scissorhands” is different from any of Burton’s previous features, and most of his future ones, in one important way: He actually had a hand in writing it. Co-written with novelist Caroline Thompson, “Edward Scissorhands” is easily the director’s most personal work.

Presented as a bed time story told by an old woman to her granddaughter, the story is set in an unnamed, cookie-cutter suburban town. When a naïve Avon lady can’t sell anything to her neighbors, she heads to the spooky mansion on the hill overlooking the town. Inside, she meets Edward, a shy homunculus with scissors for hands. Quickly realizing his gentle nature, she takes him home, introducing him into her family. Suburban life at first appears accommodating to Edward’s strangeness but his trusting nature quickly gets him in trouble.

Burton first conceived of the titular character as a teenager. This fact is reflected in the final film. Edward is, in many ways, the ultimate awkward teenager. He is a true innocent that approaches the suburban world of the film with a child-like wonder. He is a naturally trusting individual. When Peg Boggs first meets him, probably only the second person he’s ever met, he approaches her, curious. Still, Edward is reluctant to get close to anyone. His scissor hands are the perfect metaphor for being an awkward teenager. The desire to touch and be touched, to connect with someone, is obvious at all times. Yet Edward can’t get too close to anyone without fear of hurting them. This theme is captured in the moment where Kim asks Edward to hold her. He backs away, telling her he can’t. “Edward Scissorhands” has connected with millions of teenagers over the years which isn’t surprising. The film perfectly captures that period of life.

The director’s continued fascination and likewise criticism of suburbia, first displayed in “Beetlejuice,” is brought to the forefront here. The conformity of the small town setting is shown by the identical home fronts, distinguished only by their garish, pastel paint jobs. The film makes sure to point out what a nice, inviting place the suburbs at first appear to be. Their neighbors are extremely courteous to Edward. They are curious about this strange boy with scissors for hands. At a family cookout, everyone comes over to say hi to him, asking him questions. The town is populated with suburban stereotypes. Each of the housewives are gossips, frequently meeting on the street corner to swap rumors. The Tom Jones-obsessed Joyce seems eager to recreate the porno cliché about the lonely housewife and the plumber. There’s even a local religious fanatic, the only person who outright rejects Edward. The perfect face of suburban complacence are the Boggs, some of the nicest, kindest characters ever put to film.

In time, though, the townsfolk reject Edward. After his novelty wears off, after he makes a mistake, they turn on him. Joyce, formally erotically intrigued by the boy, even claims he tried to rape her, a fairly ridiculous accusation. The most sharp comparison is a small moment. At the cookout, a war veteran approaches Edward and tells him not let anyone call him “handicap.” After the town turns on the boy, the same old man refers to Edward as a “cripple.”

Yet “Edward Scissohands” is not a Lynchian critique of the darkness lurking beneath suburbia’s perfect exterior. Instead, the film’s primary thrust can be seen in its main visual joke. Above the picturesque town, above the perfect lawns, stands a giant Gothic mansion. Edward himself is an extension of this joke. He is a grotesque, Gothic element living among a “Leave It to Beaver” setting. By being so out of place, Edward throws the town’s nature into sharp reflect. As an outsider, his innocent personality comments on the suburbanites' foibles.

The film’s nature as a light satire on the clichés of suburban living can also be seen in its lead performance. Johnny Depp, trying to break away form his teen idol image at the time, was obviously heavily influenced by the comedy greats of silent cinema. (His performance in “Benny and Joon,” released not long afterwards, would be even more blatant about this.) Edward is a mostly silent character. His soft-spoken nature manifests itself in few lines of dialogue. Like Keaton or Chaplin, Depp performs a lot of physical comedy. A sequence where Edward repeatedly attempts to balance a pea on the tip on his scissors is hilarious. Similarly memorable are his attempts to dress himself. When first introduced to a water bed, the character’s utter bafflement is sincerely amusing, as is his reaction when he inevitably pierces the bed. This sets up an even funnier sequence later on when he, in a moment of panic, stabs the bed a lot more. Depp is in complete control of his physicality. He frequently gets laughs with just a facial expression or the way he holds his posture. Small moments, like Edward crossing his scissorhands, awkwardly fidgeting the blades, or trudging up and down a hallway in dismay, prove highly entertaining.

The way the Boggs family responds to Edward is representative of Burton’s ultimate affection for the suburbs. Mom Peg comes off as utterly clueless at first. Her intense investment in AVON and its products paints her as comically square. She is, after all, the kind of woman who stumbles into a spooky, scary old mansion, just in hopes of finding a new customers. However, we can’t underrate Peg’s astute skills of observations. Near minutes after meeting Edward, she realizes his innocent and gentle nature. Though not above goofy, oblivious moments, such as a hysterical attempts to paint Edward’s face, she is secretly the heart of the whole family. Her openness and acceptance of Edward, no matter how odd, holds everything together. Dad Bill, play with a perfect deadpan by Alan Arkin, seems out of touch at times, comically so. Yet he too is extremely open to Edward, willing to accept him as a part of the family.

The only member of the Bogg family that doesn’t immediately take a liking to the title character is teenage daughter Kim. She’s put off by his awkwardness and finds his obvious attraction to her a little creepy. Before film’s end though, the attraction becomes mutual. This is, perhaps, “Edward Scissorhands’” major flaw. Edward falls for Kim mostly because she’s the first pretty girl he sees. The way Kim comes around to Edward does not paint the character in the best light. After her boyfriend’s attempt to rob his dad goes awry, Edward doesn’t turn Kim in. While it shows how selfless he is, and how devoted to her he is, it mostly makes Kim seem very selfish. The character does a total 360 in the last half-hour, going from loathing Edward to loving him. The character’s thinness is there in the script, as it’s no fault of Winona Ryder. She’s cast against type as the girl-next-door cheerleader, a part she adapts to fairly well. Ryder’s wide doe-eyes have rarely been better used.

“Edward Scissorhands” has been accused of being a nerd wish fulfillment fantasy. Burton himself hasn’t rejected those claims. This mostly plays out in two elements. If Edward perfectly represents teenage alienation, he also has fits of teenage moodiness. A memorable moment has him slicing up the walls of the Boggs home in a fit of frustration. Before the finale, he creates some chaos in the town, stabbing a car tire and dismembering a topiary ballerina. Both outbursts are mostly unprovoked. Finally, Anthony Michael Hall’s Jim could be a potentially problematic character. He’s an asshole throughout the whole movie, making you wonder what Kim ever saw in him. His dislike of Edward is seemingly innate. The kid is different so Jim hates him. The way that feud plays out, with Jim becoming homicidal and fitting into the role of big screen bad guy, has been criticized. However, Anthony Michael Hall’s performance mostly makes the character believable. Jim is male entitlement and the macho ego run amok. You truly believe that simply being scorned by his girlfriend would enact such murderous rage.

One of the most important performances in the film is also one of its smallest. Tim Burton had formed a friendship with Vincent Price after Price narrated one of Burton’s early short films. Casting the legendary actor in the part of Edward’s father wasn’t just the director throwing a plum part to one of his idols. Save for only his harshest villains, Price’s characters always had a shine of whimsy under their eyes. The actor’s natural charm and kindheartedness is allowed to come to the surface. The Inventor is the warmest Vincent Price has ever been on screen. Though his part is limited to only three scenes, Price makes a serious impression. It would be his last role and would be an appropriate, fitting conclusion to his career.

The film also shows Burton’s visual sensibilities evolving. The castle Edward lives in is filled with the director’s trademark style. The tall, flat, grey walls of the mansion are straight out of “Der Golem.” A scarecrow, more of an abstract shape then a defined structure, stands at the bottom of a winding staircase. The attic, Edward’s room, features an especially notable window, long and thin. The Inventor’s machines are like Burton’s illustrations sprang to life. After all, the director’s trademark style is a mixture of the macabre and the whimsical. The film’s whimsical side is noticed early on. When Peg enters the ominous building’s courtyard, she finds a collection of topiary sculpture. The sea dragon is my favorite. When Edward comes to town, that streak of light-heartiness continues, with dog haircuts and topiary dinosaurs. While “Batman” had Burton frame many shots as if they were comic book panels, “Scissorhands” is shot with a wider lens. Certain moments look like paintings, such as Edward standing with his topiaries or ascending a staircase.

Another fantastic strength of “Edward Scissorhands” is Danny Elfman’s gorgeous score. The music forgoes the composer’s usual style. Not a single jaunty tuba is heard. Instead, a crooning choir powers the music. Elfman’s work is compelling and full of longing. From the opening credits, which introduce many of the score’s motif, to the iconic “Ice Dance,” truly the film’s most romantic moment. Elfman himself recognizes the score's quality, considering it his best work. I’m inclined to agree.

The director also considers “Edward Scissorhands” his favorite of his film. Personal, funny, compelling, and enchanting, the movie has rightfully developed a cult following. It cemented Burton’s trademark style, perhaps even being the peak of it. Johnny Depp successfully broke out of his pretty boy pigeon hole, finding himself on the path to becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. As a stand alone movie, it represents the director’s highest artistic peak.
[Grade: A-] 

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