Rescued from his degrading life as a circus freak, John Merrick (John Hurt) is given a chance by a dedicated surgeon (Anthony Hopkins) to live his last years with comfort, respect, and dignity. But since life has not been so kind to John Merrick, he finds it hard to open-up to the rest of the world and let others in. Then again, can ya blame him when you look like this?!?!
David Lynch is a guy that I can never wrap my head around as to whether or not I like him, or just find him bat-shit crazy. Mulholland Drive had me for the first hour or so, then just totally lost me after about the box came into play; Dune just sucked and was a film I wish I couldn’t understand, just to add some more interest to it; Wild at Heart is strange, but very engrossing with its themes and different genres; and Blue Velvet is a very strange, dark tale that worked for me mainly because of Dennis Hopper. I know, I haven’t seen all of his movies, but from what I have seen, it’s been a pretty tough act to love, let alone enjoy. However, I think I can add this one to the list of “good Lynch movies” or “enjoyably pleasant ones”.
What sets this film apart from all of Lynch’s other flicks is that it’s not all that concerned with messing with the minds of the audience, as much as it’s actually more concerned about creating a story about a man that has an obvious set-back in his life, but finds anyway possible to get past that and live the life he wants to. Lynch focuses on Merrick and gives us a story that is not only inspiring, but is also very true in the questions and ideas it brings up about how it is to be human. People look at Merrick and see an “animal”, or a “creature”, and write him off as “stupid” just because of the way he looks. However, like every idiot-savant in movies like this (in real-life, I don’t know if they exist), we start to see more of a human-being behind the look and it’s an mesmerizing thing to watch.
However, that is definitely not the case because once Merrick starts to actually talk, we all start to realize that this man is brilliant and one that many of us should look up to considering he doesn’t once ask for any pity whatsoever. Nope, this guy just wants to move on with his life and get past the fact that everywhere he goes, somebody will be staring at him and try wondering what the hell is up with his face and body. To be honest, I’d wonder and probably stare too, but I wouldn’t be as rude about it as some of these people are because I’d realize something fairly quickly: this guy’s a human-being and has feelings like any other human. It’s very hard for anybody to feel and act like this in life, and it’s even harder for a guy like Merrick, but he somehow lives this life-style the whole way through and you are ultimately pulled in right from the start. This is mostly thanks to Lynch’s directing skills because he’s able to play everything straight, while still have a little bit of his weirdness here and there. But Lynch never loses himself and always keep his heart in the right place to give us a story that is one for us all to remember and feel touched by. Sounds strange that this is coming from the same dude who gave us a Naomi Watts lesbian scene, but that’s the whole beauty of this film and what Lynch can do as a director.
But also, that was also my one big problem with this flick. See, as much as Lynch dedicated this flick to being one hell of a story about a man with problems, he still brings in all of these freak-show elements that kind of make this film more confusing than it has any right to be. The first five minutes, we get the signature, Lynch freak-out scene but then it doesn’t come around again until the middle, where Lynch starts touching on all of these freak-shows and other themes of his like the night of the obscure and some strange, sexual obsessions that people have. This wouldn’t seem like something as bad to include in one of his total, mind-fuck movies we all know and sometimes, love him for, but when you place it in a film like this, it seems a little cheap. Also, based on the story we have here, it’s very confusing for a viewer to fully understand just what the hell it is that you are trying to say in the first place. Once again though, it is Lynch we are talking about here and the guy’s never been a fully-sane, fully-functioning person to begin with.
But then again, that’s why we have characters to look at and what a character John Merrick is. Not only is Merrick an inspirational-figure in real-life, but also in this movie and wouldn’t be that way if it wasn’t for John Hurt in this almost unrecognizable role here. The makeup job is done perfectly here and captures exactly what the real person looked like (actually, that guy was worse looking it seems) and I could have only imagined how much of a bitch it must have been for Hurt to have to constantly put that on, day after day. But regardless of how annoying it must have been for him, Hurt still gives off a powerful performance and totally transforms himself into Merrick, whole also actually down-playing the role with ease and subtlety. It’s hard to be subtle when you have a shit-ton of make-up and costumes on, but Hurt is able to capture a sincere presence with his eyes. Oh, those enchanting eyes. Shame that this guy hasn’t fully gotten his due yet from the Academy, but hopefully he will soon.
Anthony Hopkins, another legend on the big-screen, is also very good in a role that seems very fit for him: Frederick Treves. Treves is a character that thinks he is doing the right thing by going around and showing off Merrick to other people, only to realize that he is pretty much doing the same exact thing to him with these meetings, as the last guy was doing with all of those “freak-shows”. It’s one of those characters that hits the dilemma of doing the right thing, but soon realizes he’s way too in over-his-head. But yet, Hopkins always keeps him loveable and for the most part, a guy that’s easy to fall back on, even when shit seems to get a little too hectic for Mr. Merrick. If there was any problem I had with Hopkins, it’s that he always has that frozen look in his eyes where you don’t quite know if he’s nice or just scary underneath all of the glitz, glamour, and charm, but it works for this character and still makes it easy enough for us to care about this guy because he means well, even if others may view it differently.
Consensus: With a surprisingly straight-forward direction by David Lynch, a pair of great performances from Hurt and Hopkins, and an inspirational story at the heart of it all, The Elephant Man is a wonderful flick that will make you feel for it’s main subject but also realize what it’s like to be a human, and what it takes to care for the other humans around you as well.
8.5 / 10 = Matinee!!