Movie Review #839: Not even the great Daniel Day-Lewis can save ‘The Crucible’ from its horrendously stiff dialogue and poorly executed storytelling.
By Red Stewart
|Rated PG-13 (contains religious subject matter, violence)|
The Crucible is a failure, an attempt at creating a relevant metaphor only to fall so far. I’m talking about the Arthur Miller play of course, but seeing as how the film is a word-for-word adaptation by him, the same can sadly be said for it.
A retelling of the 17th century Salem Witch Trials, “The Crucible” follows the chain of events that emerge when a group of girls are seen participating in a ritual in the woods by a reverend (what they were even doing is never made clear). To avoid punishment, the girls, lead by Abigail Williams (Ryder) claim witchcraft as the cause of their weird behavior, instigated by the Devil possessing various people around them. This antic grows into mass paranoia, tearing the community apart despite the efforts of a local man named John Proctor (Day-Lewis), whom Abigail had an affair with.
Miller wrote The Crucible as an allegory for McCarthyism; the 1950s era where communists were hounded, blacklisted, and possibly executed out of Cold War fear. Miller was particularly inspired by the House Un-American Activities Committee’s (HUAC) case of director Elia Kazan (“On the Waterfront”, “A Streetcar Named Desire”), in which Kazan ratted out eight of his friends to lessen his punishment. Using a historical witch hunt to show the ridiculousness of a modern-day one is a noble and interesting prospect, but that’s about all Miller does correct. Right from the start we have to listen to this agonizing drivel spouted by every character that honestly made me want to rip my ears off. Imagine Gilbert Gottfried speaking in a monotonous voice and you’ll have an idea of what it’s like to hear the dialogue. It’s so bad that it seems like almost every actor is overacting, from the judges to the townsfolk. Did people honestly talk like this back then?
I’d be a fool to only complain about the character banter, though. First off, the entire concept behind “The Crucible” makes no sense in relation to what it’s criticizing. I know I said that it was interesting of Miller to use a historical event like the Salem Witch Trials to make his social criticism, but having to follow a recorded incident limits the accuracy of his comparison. For example, the Red Scare began out of McCarthy actually having a heroic intention of rescuing the United States from the “commies” that soon grew into a lust for power. In The Crucible, however, the girls, right from the start, do this out of a sadistic game of supremacy over the community and revenge towards others who have wronged them. Even if this was what Miller was saying about the true nature of McCarthy, he still gets the whole reaction from the community wrong. In real life, there was only silent resistance against McCarthy’s crusade until influential speakers like Edward R. Murrow and President Eisenhower began openly pointing out the big flaws in McCarthy’s logic. This is the opposite in “The Crucible”, where there are critics from the beginning till the girls reduce them to tortured deaths/confessions. And trust me when I say that John Proctor is not Edward Murrow.
Speaking of Proctor, rare is it for Daniel Day-Lewis to do a film and not get nominated for a single award from any film society, but such is the case here. And as much as I love Day-Lewis, I have to agree with them. Here he delivers these painful lines as perfectly as he can, however their inherent negative composure prevents them from coming out as anything but discomfiting dialogue. It’s evident that the only reason he agreed to star in this picture is because Miller happens to be his father-in-law.
But it’s not just Day-Lewis that falls prey to the ugliness of the storytelling. Other good actors/actresses like Winona Ryder, Paul Scofield, Frances Conroy, and Jeffrey Jones (before he was revealed as a pedophile) have “The Crucible” to thank as the low point in their career. In fact, the one person that comes off as good in the movie is Joan Allen as Proctor’s wife, and that’s because she’s given most of the film’s only quality dialogue.
“The Crucible” was directed by Nicholas Hytner, a man who’s made most of his success in theater. As I saw firsthand at my own high school, though, The Crucible doesn’t work as a play, let alone a theatrical movie, so Hytner’s experience there doesn’t help with the direction. As a final point, there’s just the fact that a witch hunt isn’t relevant to today (maybe in the Islamophobic aftermath of 9/11, but not in 1996 when the film was released and not in 2011 when I saw it).
The only good thing I have to say about “The Crucible” is the construction of its settings, which realistically reflect the time period, but don’t watch this film.