The arc of Tim Burton's career is more roller-coaster than sky rocket, which is to say that his films seem to veer from masterly to dreadful, depending on his mood. The ups include the remarkable "Edward Scissorhands," the brilliantly witty first "Batman," and the bold though sputtering "Beetlejuice." The downs include the second "Batman" and "Mars Attacks," whose only redeeming feature was the Martians. But no one doubts his ability to find blackness in fantasy, and wit in the darkness of horror. His new film "Sleepy Hollow" seems to mark an upswing, providing us with almost two hours of delicious, squirming fear and panic.
Young Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp), a New York City police constable in the year 1799 -- for some inexplicable reason he announces at the beginning of the film that "The millenium is almost upon us" -- is exiled by his bosses for his insistence on using forensic tools in his detective work, to go upstate to the village of Sleepy Hollow, where a headless horseman has apparently been beheading the townspeople. So up he goes, by carriage along the Hudson, which Burton has rescaled to a hundred yards' width, to meet the villagers, solve the murders, and destroy the myth of such a horseman. As we say, little does he know.
At first it seems as though a cabal of town elders is behind things, but there is more, much more, to be learned. And part of Burton's delicious wit here is that Ichabod is himself a frightened, panicked creature who is as likely to faint from fear as he is to show the expected heroism. The film's ads say heads will roll; and they do, with greater and greater frequency. Poor Ichabod; it could get out of hand.
But Burton keeps things under control, and except for some heavy going at about the 1-hour mark the film moves us smoothly along. Rather than look for a Catskill mountain location, Burton built his Sleepy Hollow village outside London, and judging from appearances the sun has not shone on the village since the middle ages. He is a master at setting and lighting for specific moods, and in this film mood is everything. Burton and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki know how to use black as a color; it is the defining color in this film, a bold and impeccable choice.
Johnny Depp continues to amaze us with his range. As an actor he is unafraid of anything, and here he carries off an unexpectedly complex character with great aplomb and no self-consciousness. The body of his work is broader than that of any of his contemporaries, and he carries it all off without breaking a sweat. In addition to Depp, the usual suspects are around, including everyone from Christopher Lee to Christopher Walken to Jeffrey Jones to Ian McDiarmid to Michael Gambon. Christina Ricci takes a Valley Girl approach to her role as the daughter of the village's first family, with comforting lines to Ichabod like "Tell me what you dwempt."
The script is by Andrew Kevin Walker, who made one head roll in "Seven," and here he apparently had uncredited help from script-doctor du jour Tom Stoppard. The music is by Danny Elfman, and it swells to super-Dolby strength at every possible terror, and the production design -- certain to be nominated for an Oscar -- is by Rick Heinrichs. When Burton's work is summed up, what is most worthwhile about it is his insistence on following his own vision, win or lose. In this case he has won boldly and well.