The moral here is that it seems like there’s something decidedly old fashioned going on these days. The Adjustment Bureau was focused more on a love story than actio; Source Code put ideas first over all that boom boom pow stuf; Fast Five was a fun big budget B-movie with action sequences where one could see what was actually going on and now Water for Elephants gives us two great elements of American storytelling: Prohibition and the circus. It’s not a great movie, but it easily brings to mind the greats that made us fall in love with going to the movies in the first place.
Jacob (Twilight’s Robert Pattinson) is on the verge of graduating from veterinary school when he catches wind of his parent’s death in a tragic car crash. Distraught and lost, Jacob packs up his few belongings and heads for the train tracks. The train he hops on just so happens to belong to the circus.
Here Jacob meets two key people in his journey: Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) the beautiful star of the show and her husband August (Christoph Waltz) who is also the ruthless owner of the circus. Jacob convinces August to hire him on as a live in vet, something that those Ringling Brothers don’t have and Jacob quickly becomes August’s right hand man.
However, the relationship isn’t smooth. When August orders Jacob to repair the leg of Marlena’s star horse he diagnoses the situation as a lost cause and kills the animal to relieve it of its pain. This incident forces August to invest in a new star attraction: an elephant that Marlena and Jacob both love and bond over but August believes to be a dumb beast that better make his investment back for the struggling road show and who he treats with cruelty and anger.
As the story goes, Jacob is horrified by August’s treatment of the elephant while also falling in love with Marlena and trying to hide an affair from August that would set him off, prompting one of his favourite pass times which involves throwing passengers off the moving train.
Director Francis Lawrence and his cinematographer do a good job of capturing the beauty and magic of both the American countryside as well as the circus itself, which brings to mind fond memories of Fellini’s best films about the circus as well as Hal Ashby’s illuminating cross country depression tale Bound for Glory.
It ultimately makes sense that most of the film’s pleasure is derived from its ability to be nostalgic without becoming a simplification, which is helped greatly by present day bookends as the invaluable Hal Holbrook narrates the tale. The story itself is run-of-the-mill and drags in the centre when there’s a lot of training of an elephant that, to be honest, doesn’t have much personality. And yet the film captures the freedom and dread of a time period in which riding the rails, having no connection to anything but the next stop and the next show, was both majestic and frightening because, although freedom has it’s certain poetry, it also comes with the harsh reality that a time will come when one either has to grow up or die off.
From a technical point of view, the film’s greatest asset is the presence of Christoph Waltz, who so deservedly won his best supporting actor Oscar for Inglorious Basterds and is now, one film at a time, proving himself an invaluable presence. August is more of less the drive that keeps the story going as he represents the drama that exists between the two star-crossed lovers. What Waltz does is not so much make August a villain, as a man who so determinedly knows nothing but his own way and that way is force and cruelty. Although August is manipulative and heartless he is never evil so much as he is a desperate man trying to keep afloat in a desperate time. It’s the one human element that allows the film to rise above simple nostalgia and be good in its own right.