(This review is rife with spoilers. Read it after you’ve seen the movie, not before.)
The Return of the King is easily the best movie of the year, the best-directed movie in recent memory, and one that includes the best battle scene in all of film.
And it is also a movie where important chunks are glaringly absent in ways that screw with the pacing and leave us wanting more in the bad sense, just as I feared. As with The Two Towers, we’ll have to wait for the extended edition on DVD to get the real, complete film. I don’t know whether to curse New Line for forcing Peter Jackson’s hand this way, or thank them for the fact that in a little less than a year we’ll get to see a new version that’s even better than this one.
On to the details.
The shot you see time and again in Return is one from a camera in the sky, of an eye peering down the slope of precipitous heights, whether at Minas Tirith or Minas Morgul or Dunharrow or the Crack of Doom. It’s an apt visual metaphor for a film where every moment represents a razor’s edge between hope and death, and vertigo is a constant companion. Even when we’re not being literally brought to the edge of our seats wondering if someone’s going to fall, those heights create a tension that never really lets up once it has you. It’s just one element in Jackson’s bag of tricks that he’s had three films to refine, alongside the ever-moving camera, the grandiloquent tracking shots, and the ubiquitous (and yet deft) use of slow motion. There are many things that make this film a masterpiece, but Jackson’s greatest accomplishment in the whole trilogy is this: he creates a visual language in perfect harmony with Tolkien’s words, pitch for pitch, timbre for timbre.
This struck me time and again in Return, from the lighting of the signal fires to the severe austerity of Denethor’s hall to every single terrifying moment in Shelob’s lair. It struck me most on Mount Doom, the climax of the trilogy, in which I experienced the unlikely thrill of seeing everything unfold just as I had always imagined it, with relentless intensity and nary a false step. Think of that moment after the false ending, when we see Frodo and Sam’s limp bodies on the mountainside, surrounded by lava. Clear sky fills the upper right half of the screen, and out of the sunlight, three eagles appear, a hope unlooked-for. Everything that Tolkien ever said about eucatastrophe is contained in that shot. I knew exactly what was coming, and it still choked me up to see it.
The centerpiece and crowning accomplishment of this film is the Battle of Pelennor Fields. It’s awe-inspiring in a way that’s pointless to try to describe; you have to see it to get it. Jackson set out to create a scene that in scope and energy and sheer brilliance outdid every other one like it by a long shot; he succeeded. Grond. The Witch King. Those freakin’ mumakil. Eowyn’s unveiling. The Army of the Dead. Each cylinder fires perfectly.
In the commentary to The Two Towers, Jackson talks about how important the buildup of tension before a battle is—you get the sense that for him, getting that part right is as crucial as the battle itself. It’s a notion that Tolkien would have favored. Far more of his pages are taken up by anticipation and aftermath than the battles themselves; indeed, one of the major differences between film and book is the number of minutes Jackson spends dramatizing the action scenes themselves. Even so, the time he spends on those ramping-up moments and pre-battle speeches borders on the excessive—but only borders. In this as in so much else, Jackson constantly pushes the envelope, taking risk after risk of being too grandiose or melodramatic but only rarely stepping over the line. The reward for these risks is moments of emotional and lyrical intensity that no one else has accomplished in film because no one else has dared to try.
Now for the problems. The movie starts strong, with an unexpected and riveting depiction of Smeagol’s first murder, segueing into one of my favorite moments in the trilogy: Merry and Pippin smoking on Isengard’s ruins. But shortly afterward we hit the first glaring gap: the complete lack of any denouement whatsoever to the story of Saruman. It’s well-known now that this is one of the things that Jackson had to cut, to be restored in the extended version, but that doesn’t make it any less egregious. Sure, this movie doesn’t need that moment, but it’s an ugly loose end for the trilogy as a whole.
We don’t hit any omissions that glaringly bad for awhile, but from the aftermath of the Battle of Pelennor Fields until the moments when Frodo and Sam reach Mount Doom, the Return has far too many bad cuts and pacing problems. One thing that’s missing is the Houses of Healing, where we would get a chance to see Faramir and Eowyn meet. Not only is that a worthy scene in itself, it would provide crucial downtime as a counterpoint to Sam’s rescue of Frodo in the orc-tower and the march of Aragorn’s army to the Black Gate. Without it, the other scenes feel rushed and clumped together in exactly the same manner as the end of The Two Towers’ theatrical version did.
So much for the cuts we know about; I can only hope that the orc-tower scenes and Sam and Frodo’s march across the plains of Gorgoroth were similarly butchered and will be restored in due time. Thank goodness the scenes on the mountain are so good, because the clipped nature of everything between there and Shelob threatens to completely undermine the exhausting momentum of their journey. No doubt there are many smaller cuts, too, that will seem equally egregious once we realize what’s missing. I’m hoping that there will be a later beat emphasizing the toll that gazing into the palantir took on Pippin, as well as one that foreshadows the arrival of the Eagles.
The biggest disappointment that has nothing to do with cuts is the character of Denethor. While he retains the deep despair he displays in the book, he lacks eloquence and force of personality; he is less a tragic figure than a straightforward villain. He doesn’t have a palantir either, which takes away the root cause of his despair and leaves him both shallow and unmotivated. This in turn poisons Faramir’s last key moments; they’re just another rehash of the “impressing daddy” bit we already got in the extended version of Towers. It’s possible (here’s hoping) that we’ll get to see Faramir’s character arc fully rounded out in the Houses of Healing, come November.
There’s a classic Jackson overstep in the Minas Tirith scene when Gandalf swats Denethor down with his staff and takes charge of the defense. I didn’t like it. And yet, I’ve got to admit, the audience applauded when it happened, and I don’t think it was because they thought the lowbrow humor of the moment was cool—it’s because real tension has been building as to what the heck was going to happen with Denethor mismanaging the city and the army of Mordor approaching, and seeing him finally taken out of the picture brought a palpable sense of relief. And this is, after all, exactly the tension that Tolkien was building up at that moment in the books. I still have a problem with the scene, but you can’t deny that at some level it’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to do.
I missed seeing the Mouth of Sauron at the Gate. Also, that moment where Aragorn seems to falter before leading the charge is a poor payoff for the self-doubt he’s struggled with in the previous two movies. Obviously this is the film where he has to come into his own, but his final triumph of will should have come more slowly, and at a higher price.
Miscellaneous things to be thankful for: Gimli not sucking. Elijah Wood and Sean Astin’s astounding performances. Arwen’s role remaining low-key but crucial (though points off for the bizarre and unnecessary bit about her ‘disease’.) The fact that of all three movies, this is the one that stays most faithful to the books—certain moments, like Eowyn vs. the Witch-king, follow Tolkien’s words to the very letter.
And what of the endings? There are quite a few of them in Return, from Frodo’s bedside to Aragorn’s coronation and then the Shire and the Grey Havens and the Shire again. As I fanboy I loved it, though I could see someone less devoted to Tolkien finding the seemingly endless parade of codicils too much. But each has its place, and I loved the fact that the movie ended with Sam returning home, just as the book does, and with a round hobbit-door closing. For entirely personal reasons, seeing his daughter run out to meet him durn near melted my heart. In any case, when you sit down to watch all three of these movies (extended versions, naturally) back to back, the long descending action will fit just right. And, as with the books, that’s clearly how they’re meant to be experienced: in one fell swoop.
There’s no question, looking back at the trilogy as a whole, that as an adaptation of Tolkien it’s very fine and as a work of film it’s an unprecedented, thrilling work of collective genius. The Lord of the Rings is a triumph of directing, design, acting, and writing, in that (descending) order. Just as I look forward to re-reading the trilogy every couple of years, I look forward to making time for glorious twelve-hour movie marathons, maybe on alternating years, with a roomful of friends, ale, hobbitish stew, and time for pipesmoke between discs. Who’s with me?