A Film by Tim Burton

I can think of no filmmaker who could have done better justice to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow than Tim Burton. What’s great about Burton is that, like that story’s author, he can be simultaneously brooding and lighthearted, dark and whimsical. But if you’re expecting to find a faithful rendition of Washington Irving’s classic tale of a gangly schoolteacher’s disastrous courtship and subsequent undoing at the hands of the Headless Hessier, think again.

It goes without saying that Burton would want to modify “Sleepy Hollow” for the screen, but I’m more than a little uncomfortable with how he’s done it. As the film opens, we’re introduced to Crane (Johnny Depp), who, rather than being an itinerant schoolteacher in a quiet Dutch farming community, is instead a sort of late 18th century Quincy, trying (and failing, mostly) to bring reason and forensic science to the arbitrary incompetence and cruelty of New York City’s criminal justice system. A magistrate (in a wonderful cameo by Christopher Lee) exiles Crane to Sleepy Hollow, where he is to solve a series of decapitation murders and not coincidentally give everybody in New York a break from his incessant scientific meddling.

Depp, as usual, turns in a fine performance as the maladroit and pedantic Crane. Unlike Irving's Crane, he doesn’t believe in ghosts or goblins. Burton's Crane is a man of the enlightenment, a man who looks with great expectations upon the imminence of the 19th century. A human is behind the grisly murders in Sleepy Hollow. Forensic science and cold logic will uncover him. The superstitious natives, of course, aren’t convinced.

At this point, Sullydog’s thinking that Burton is setting up a powerful cinematic metaphor for our own times. When the clock strikes midnight at the millennium and Jesus fails to appear, Godzilla-like, to trample over the wad of partying humanity, perhaps we can enter an age of reason and peace, leaving superstition, power crystals and Ralph Reed in our dust. Thus Ichabod Crane, champion of enlightenment values, will solve the mystery of Sleepy Hollow and triumph over irrational gobbledygook, doing his little bit to usher in the New Era. 

Sullydog was wrong. Burton's Sleepy Hollow tells the story of how a man of reason must confront the reality of the supernatural and fight it on its own terms. As such, it’s effective: Burton offers the usual eye candy, taut direction and admirable performances that have graced even his most ill-considered efforts. And it would be monstrously arrogant of me to deride Burton for Sending the Wrong Millennial Message. But Sleepy Hollow self-consciously emphasizes that it is about a world on the cusp of change. Perhaps Burton is trying to show us the last gasp of the supernatural, buried forever by the Man of Reason along with the Headless Hessier (Christopher Walken), who rides back to hell with his recovered head and seals the infernal gate shut behind him.

Or perhaps Burton is just trying to tell us a spooky story, in the inimitable Burton style. Either way, Sleepy Hollow is worth seeing. But Sullydog can’t stop wondering if it wouldn’t have been more appropriate, as America enters the new millennium, for Burton to have filmed another  Irving classic: Rip Van Wrinkle.

Tim Burton does Washington Irving. Sullydog approves.

Sullydog Approves.

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