The Wisdom of Crocodiles
review by Cynthia Fuchs, 21 July 2000

A Bit Subtle for Me

The Wisdom of Crocodiles begins with some breathtakingly handsome images. So striking and unusual, in fact, that it's only toward the end of the scene that you come to recognize the carnage that you've been looking at. The camera pans down from a pale sky through the branches of a tree which is the occasion for a childhood memory, narrated by Steven Grlscz (Jude Law), in which he describes the panic he felt while falling from a tree: "the blood pounding in my ears... the dread of falling." And then you're looking at the tree from another perspective, the camera panning up the trunk to reveal a car, hanging among the leafy limbs. Cop cars gather round the accident site and cranes and pulleys are put into place to undo the damage. "She must have been out of her mind driving like that," says one observer. "A hundred miles an hour." Steven approaches the tree, his eyes wide in wonder. And then you see the blood, dripping slowly, one drop at a time, onto Steven's hand.

This is as bizarre an opening scene as you might see in a movie this summer, at once lyrical and awful. You might also use these terms to describe Law's character, who is, you soon learn, a vampire of sorts. And yet, he's not quite a "normal" vampire, being both less sensuous and more scientifically inclined and more able to walk around in the daytime -- than those living dead folks you've seen in movies before. Though he's properly tortured and beautiful, Steven doesn't really fit into such a recognizable category. And this means that writer Paul Hoffman and director Po-Chih Leong's The Wisdom of Crocodiles isn't so easily classified either, drawing ambiguously from thrillers, horror and detective movies, romances, and trendy urban malaise pictures.

On one level at least, Steven fits the standard bloodsucker profile. He feeds off the pulsing life force of various "girlfriends" - women he picks up with some version of the sensitive guy performance. He seduces them with his pretty vulnerability and haunted interior, then invites them into his bed, where he pierces their necks and quickly, violently drains them, until his mouth is colored raw red and their bodies are left lifeless: as he bluntly puts it to one victim/paramour, "I need the love that's in your blood." Steven is simultaneously ancient and youthful, renewed by his conquests but never sated or transformed by them. And so, he's seeking something that he can only believe exists, the ideal partner whom he has calculated precisely, whom he believes will sustain him emotionally and spiritually, no matter what. Miserable without her - he and the movie ostensibly presume she is a she - between his fatal affiliations, Steven hides himself away in his shadowy but well-appointed London flat (vampires are always unspeakably wealthy). There he reads great philosophers, catalogues and recounts for himself his many lost loves. That Steven is extremely self-conscious, and bears some vague sense of guilt about his nature, is not a new idea: Anne Rice's Lestat, the comic book character Blade (played by Wesley Snipes in the movie and its upcoming sequel), and the WB's Angel (David Borneaz) have made this tormented sensibility highly visible -- and sexy -- in today's popular culture. What makes Steven slightly different is that he approaches his condition not as a personal cross to bear or a political cause to champion, but as a kind of adventure, a means to eccentric self-discovery.

While this last makes Steven an obvious metaphor for the contemporary city dweller's intrinsic estrangement and isolation, it also makes him more like the people he's feeding off and less Draculean than the average vampire. And it makes him vulnerable to some rather mundane life forces: for instance, the cops. Part of this is brought on by Steven's own self-destructive audaciousness. Since overconfidence is typical in homicidal maniacs, you might expect the cat-and-mouse relationship Steven establishes with a local detective, Inspector Healey (the magnificent Timothy Spall). Following that initial car wreck, which involved Steven's latest suicidal victim, Maria (Kerry Fox) -- whom you see in flashbacks, ironically saved from an initial attempt by Steven, who proceeds to ravage her a few scenes later - Healey picks up on a pattern of curious deaths, all of whom are girls Steven has known. Feeling both his class difference from and moral superiority to his quarry, the quietly clever Healey starts nosing around, appealing, much like Columbo, to Steven's manifest arrogance, just as Steven indulges in a certain familial fondness for the other man, whom he treats as both older and younger, substitute son, brother, and father.

Steven, correctly worried that Healey is onto him, accurately sees in the detective a mentor, confessor, and platonic lover, someone who might appreciate his brilliance and (fear of) mortality while also being attracted to his sensitivity, his almost feminine masculinity. The two men discuss the meaning and function of evil, Steven believing that it "cuts through every human heart," and Healey conceding that such thinking is "a bit subtle for me." Steven is only partly subtle, though. At other times, he's completely transparent, hungering for what seems to be his fated and fatal connection with Healey (who will die is not clear yet). Powerfully erotic - at least from Steven's repressed perspective -- the men's relationship is also all about knowledge and control. Even in this film's iniquitous atmosphere, Healey's saving grace appears to be that he is happily married, to a woman, not to mention a gruff, shy man's man (though not quite so brutal and unself-conscious as most movie cops tend to be), and so Steven must content himself with a few heady conversations and rescuing Healey from street punks, a multi-culti crew of kid-monsters whom Steven dispatches with ease. Suitably impressed and grateful, Healey yet remains a man of principle: he's got a job to do.

In seeming sublimation, Steven finds himself another girl, Anne Levels (Nadja's Elina Lowensohn), quite too properly named for her career as an engineer. On the surface both ethereal and grounded, Anna complements Steven's double self, his eeriness and mutability, and she's intrigued by his odd behaviors and kills, such as his ability to write with both hands at once, and to draw her portrait upside down (what woman wouldn't be smitten!?). At the same time, Steven is attracted to Anna's ambiguities, her boyish enthusiasm and delicate femininity, her passion and her hesitancy, even as these qualities are exactly what he does not need. (Recall that he needs - or believes he needs, which amounts to the same thing - her undying devotion.) Anna's resistance to his charms (which, he suggests, have always worked in the past, at least until he chomped down on that tender neck flesh), makes Steven a bit unsettled and exposed.

And this self-disclosure, the film suggests, would seem to be the way toward wisdom. Unlike the perfection that Steven has pursued through his arduous mathematic and scientific labors, this one is formed in kindness, the ability to imagine and assuage someone else's pain. This particular art exists is beyond Steven, whose own ambiguities lie elsewhere, on a plain between life and death, human and not. Tiring as it can be at times -- its own use of limited gender and sexual stereotypes -- The Wisdom of Crocodiles also offers enough offbeat plotting and luscious imagery, that its ultimate lack of subtlety might be forgiven.

Directed by:
Po-Chih Leong

Jude Law
Elina Lowensohn
Timothy Spall
Kerry Fox
Jack Davenport 

Written by:
Paul Hoffman




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