It is always a breath of fresh air to walk into a movie that you know absolutely nothing about and exit the theater afterward pleasantly surprised. I hadn’t even seen a trailer for Water for Elephants prior to seeing it. All I knew was that it starred that annoying guy from Twilight (Robert Pattinson), the beautiful Reese Witherspoon (How Do You Know) and the extremely intense Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds). Presuming the genre and knowing that Pattinson was the lead, I wasn’t excited for the film. But once Waltz’ character came into play, my presumptions left the house and I couldn’t keep my eyes off the screen.
It’s 1931. Pattinson plays Jacob Jankowski, the educated son of two humble Polish immigrants living the American Dream. Just before taking his final exams preparatory to becoming a Cornell graduate veterinarian, Jacob’s parents are killed in a car accident. Having refinanced the family home and business to give Jacob his unfinished Ivy League education, his parents’ death leaves Jacob with nothing. He literally loses everything but the shirt off his back and hits the road in search of … something. Anything. Set smack dab in the middle of the Great Depression, it wasn’t uncommon for folk low-in-spirit to take to drifting.
With tattered shoes and nothing to lose, Jacob hops on the first train to come down the tracks. To his advantage, he climbs into the only boxcar of traveling circus folk that holds a man of honor and integrity, nicknamed Camel. Feeling for the broken youngster, Camel gives Jacob a one-day trial job at their next performance stop to see if Jacob has any work ethic. Trying to escape the memory of his shattered past, Jacob works hard and proves himself, earning Camel’s recommendation to the boss, August (Waltz).
Feeling that Jacob is nothing more than a leeching freeloader, August’s initial decision is to toss Jacob off the train. But after learning of Jacob’s education and talent as a veterinarian, August decides to keep him aboard and give him the duty of bringing their star attraction horse back to good health. While working his newly appointed profession, Jacob meets August’s wife and star performer Marlena (Witherspoon). From this point on, an unpredictable and intense dynamic unfolds between the three of them. Jacob and Marlena feel an instant attraction to one another, but know that an affair would be wrong. Although they deny their carnal desires, they naturally flirt with one another, even if just through a simple glance.
August is pretty much crazy. You never know what he is going to do next. In one scene he is friendly, but two seconds later you realize that his friendliness was really an intimidating act to mentally rattle his subject. He is the boss. He is in control. If anyone gets in his way, he will end them. He is intelligent and aware. Perhaps suffering from an extreme bipolar disorder, he could snap into a violent outburst at any moment. You can never understand nor presume anything about August because it is absolutely impossible to read him.
In the second third of the film, August loses his star attraction horse. Knowing that the loss will kill their attendance and profits, he buys an old elephant named Rosie and puts Jacob in charge of training her to work with Marlena. Rosie becomes another one of August’s possessions. When she proves to hardly be trainable, August loses it and repeatedly gashes Rosie’s side with a bull hook. If August freaks out and overreacts in such a manner when an 8-ton animal defies him, imagine what he will do if he suspects his wife and employee are falling for one another.
Despite lacking romantic chemistry, Pattinson and Witherspoon are just fine as the forbidden lovers. Water for Elephants is easily Pattinson’s best work to date. As always, Witherspoon is adorable, but Waltz is the actor to credit for the enthralling tension to come. Had any other actor been cast as August, the tension would have been lost and Water for Elephants would be unwatchable.
In a moderately cliched movie whose tone resembles the all-too-familiar forbidden love stories of Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge, it is the character-driven tension that allows Water for Elephants to rise and shine.
Photo credit: 20th Century Fox