Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic. With each column I try to better understand the art of filmmaking. As these can be longish discussions, spoilers follow. For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.
Pan’s Labyrinth is, in a way, a schizophrenic film. It is a story about the power of fantasy, wonder, and mystery, and also a depiction of the harsh realities of fascism and war. It is not entirely successful in both measures; or, perhaps, it would be more successful if they served each other in a way other than pure juxtaposition. If Guillermo del Toro had doubled down on one or the other, the film would not feel so disjointed. Instead, he indecisively keeps a foot firmly planted in each, and the startling violence of the “reality” is weakened. This is because del Toro fails the “give the audience only what they need” test. The overt precision of the violence – the Captain’s brutal and uncaring murder of a hunter and his son, Mercedes’ slashing of the Captain’s mouth, etc. – has no mystery to it; a viewer sees exactly the effects of the violence, or rather they see del Toro’s vision for what the effects should be. This leaves them without the option of filling in the blanks with their own nightmarish imagery (see Howard Hawks’s Red River, when John Wayne’s character murders a Native American beneath dark water; an act the audience cannot explicitly see). Now, shocking and extreme violence has its place in the proper context (Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Refn’s Drive), but in a film that also places so much emphasis on mystery, trickery, and sleight-of-hand in its fantastical moments, Pan’s Labyrinth would be better served to employ some of those slyer elements into its harsher, more “realistic” segments.