It's effortless to point out the genius of Guillermo del Toro's new political statement/gothic horror picture, "Pan's Labyrinth," but tricky to identify exactly why the film seems to be split into two pieces that refuse the company of each other.
"Labyrinth" is an immense post Spanish Civil War political allegory; a semi-sequel to del Toro's vivid but stalled "Devil's Backbone." It broadens del Toro's obsession with the horrors of the mind, presented here in the form of a 12 year-old girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), caught between the love for her pregnant mother and the chilling violence of her new step-father, Fascist Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), who is merciless in his hunt for rebels. To escape her pain, Ofelia runs to a nearby garden, protected by a Faun (Doug Jones), who offers the young girl three quests to help balance the forces inside the labyrinth he guards.
"Labyrinth" is a fairy tale for adults, one that runs red with splattery violence and blunt suffering. The director has made it his duty throughout his career to seek out any story that demands exquisite attention to violent detail, and "Labyrinth" could very well be considered his magnum opus; his first motion picture that gives itself completely over to fantastic heights of life and death, burying the viewer in the minutiae of traumatic escapism and purposed imagining. Even after fixated gore romps with "Hellboy" and "Blade II," del Toro manages to top himself by pushing his snappy sense of humor aside, leading the story into a dark, foreboding place no one could have predicted.
Visually, this is del Toro at his most fearless, effortlessly shaping a lurid realm of magic for Ofelia, and a stark, cold-blooded fear factory for the Captain. The labyrinth sequences are like Jim Henson and Lewis Carroll's love child on a truckload of acid; del Toro spares no drop of his imagination conjuring up mazes and monsters for Ofelia to meet and fear. The most striking is a devilish protector of a treasure with eyeballs on his hands and a frightening hunger for the soft flesh of babies. The beast is a fuel that will power nightmares for decades to come.
Vidal's obsession with destroying the rebellion is just as horrific, but in real world, bullet-in-the-brain ways. Again, del Toro stages the violence unapologetically, making certain the audience comprehends the Captain is a monster, but whether of duty or internal rot is a question left to the viewer. Lopez burns through his moments like a foaming dog, relishing his opportunities to inflict pain, yet demanding his right to bring a new life into the world. The actor manages the unthinkable: in a cinematic offering complete with fairies, monsters, and potent vaginal symbolism, Lopez, working only with his flesh and blood, manages to steal the film away from a kaleidoscope of visual fantasia.
Where my mind and heart differ on the film is how it all ties together. I understand that del Toro is leaning toward a more interpretative experience by blurring the edges of Ofelia's sanity and thickening the Fascism commentary, I only question why the two stories aren't allowed a distinct meeting point; a place of respectful simplicity that binds the stories in an indisputable way to help better intend the goals of the picture. I could admire the look of the film until the cows come home, but never was I moved by the Ofelia's sacrifices or Vidal's punishment. The two never crash into each other, and the jolt back and forth between the parallel plots seems to do more harm than good to the pace and near-apocalyptic intention of the film.
The final sequences of the picture suggest a euphoria and release for the characters, but I wasn't there in that emotional pitch with "Pan's Labyrinth" in the way I could've been. It's a very sizable dent on a motion picture cursed with an aim that feels too askew, too rusted from use to land the perfect shot.
For further online adventure, please visit brianorndorf.com