Mysteries—everything from detective stories to police procedurals to tales of random people stumbling upon crimes—have been a guilty pleasure of mine for years, but serial killers have always been my least favorite type of subject. They don’t interest me because their motives are all but incomprehensible. They’re not functioning as normal people. Every fictional serial killer (I can’t pretend to know anything about the real ones) lives in his own universe, with obscure, arbitrary rules that don’t make much sense from the outside. In short, a serial killer is crazy, and his madness bores me.
I mention this because, intellectually, I don’t think Sweeney Todd is a bad musical or a bad movie, but emotionally, it leaves me so unmoved, so indifferent, that I giggled through half the film. Maybe Johnny Depp’s performance is too opaque, maybe Tim Burton’s direction is too garishly gothic, but to be fair, maybe it’s just me.
The story comes from old nineteenth-century penny dreadfuls. Benjamin Barker, an innocent young barber, is sent into exile after the corrupt Judge Turpin abducts and rapes his wife. Barker returns to London more than a decade later to find that his wife has poisoned herself and his daughter is the judge’s ward. Reinventing himself as Sweeney Todd, he vows revenge, and when he is thwarted, he begins killing indiscriminately, disposing of the bodies with the help of his besotted landlady, Mrs. Lovett, who grinds up the corpses to serve in meat pies.
Depp plays the Demon Barber with the same intensity he brings to all his roles. I could have done without the perpetual ashen-face-and-blackened-eye-sockets makeup, but Depp himself is convincing, so far as that goes, with his steely gaze and the occasional cold smirk. His growly untrained voice meets the demands of Sondheim’s music surprisingly well, chewing on the rapid lyrics and growing toward each relentless climax.
Helena Bonham Carter has far less musical talent, but her thin, breathy tone turns out to fit the pitiful Mrs. Lovett well, and her wry, vulnerable performance yields the few genuinely affecting moments in the whole movie. When the poor woman implores her murderous tenant to consider a new life with her—“Maybe not like I dreamed, maybe not like you remember, but we could get by”—I couldn’t help but be moved. Mrs. Lovett, at least, is someone whose simple dream of love and a small house by the sea is all too relatable.
Human moments like that, however, are all but swallowed up by Tim Burton’s gothic, grisly, Grand Guignol–esque vision on Sondheim’s already bloody musical. The many spurting carotids and disembodied fingers aren’t offensive—everything is too stylized and cartoonish to feel real—but at the same time, everything is too stylized and cartoonish to feel real. It’s just a charade, it doesn’t mean anything, and I didn’t feel anything. The twist at the end made me laugh and trade inappropriate jokes with my brother, and the final macabre climax earned nothing but an eye roll and a cringe of distaste.
Sondheim’s music is grand and beautiful (the ironic use of the ballad “Not While I’m Around” is particularly haunting), and Burton’s eye for nightmarish detail is as adept as ever. I was never bored. But ultimately, the whole extravaganza strikes me as pretty silly. I could raise questions about the plot (why does no one notice that half of Todd’s customers never exit his shop? why does he never make any effort to save his daughter? just what does Mrs. Lovett see in this maniac anyway?), but I suspect the real problem is that I just don’t get how the Demon Barber jumps from revenge on Turpin to the vicious slaughter of complete strangers who happen to stop by for a shave. Yeah, yeah, “There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit / And it’s filled with people who are filled with shit,” but you still have to make a huge leap from misanthropy to homicide, and I don’t follow or even care enough to try.