Fever dream

The adolescent fantasy Heavenly Creatures is the best film Terry Gilliam never made

The problem, of course, is that by shutting out the world, the girls also alienate the people who care about them. Their parents, filmed through wide-angle lenses and deliberately made up to look vaguely grotesque, act as perpetual spoilsports, even breaking them up on occasion in the name of common decency. But what saves Heavenly Creatures from the brand of one-sided adolescent pandering that makes the films of John Hughes so simplistic is the way Jackson straddles a tightrope between glorifying the children and understanding the adults. That's why the warped ending of this strange, sad tale ultimately seems not predictable, but inevitable.

I'll reveal no more, because to seriously discuss the motivation behind the girls' murder plot would require giving away some of the most audacious images and inspired sequences Jackson has to offer. It's worth noting, however, that Jackson gives everybody a fair shake, including the viewer. Famed for going beyond excess (his previous movies include the NC-17 Muppet spoof Meet the Feebles, which ended with a puppet equivalent of the Luby's massacre, and Dead Alive, a zombie picture so awash in death and gore and disgusting sight gags that it felt like The Wild Bunch remade by Sam Raimi), Jackson yokes his explosive visual imagination and thrillingly crude energy to the service of a very delicate real-life story. Like a good novelist, he gets inside his subject matter and uses every last drop of his creative power to understand it, and his skills as a storyteller and filmmaker are so startlingly precise that he passes his newfound insight on to us.

It's not at all hard to see why Jackson--a former cartoonist and photo engraver, and a lifelong devotee of the profoundly inappropriate--would be drawn to this material. If his idiosyncratic career tells us anything, it's that fearless artistic commitment can turn even the tawdriest, most inherently exploitative concepts--a porno puppetoon, an undead slapstick bloodbath, a perverse real-life murder tale--into something inexplicably innocent. It's not really sufficient to say that Jackson's brilliance turns trash into art, because that would imply that he saw his material as trash to begin with, which is certainly not the case. Jackson makes no distinction between high art and low; he's an artistic omnivore who feeds his imagination with anything that strikes his fancy.

But unlike Terry Gilliam, the ex-Monty Pythoner to whom Jackson is sometimes compared, Jackson is never transparent or shallow or clumsy; there's nothing bullying about his work, as there often is with Gilliam's. You never get the impression while watching one of Jackson's movies that he just wants to dazzle you or get a reaction out of you, or that he even particularly cares what you think at all.

His first loyalty is to his muse. He's a primal storyteller who makes debased subject matter pure again. His films are an illustration of the maxim that art is merely the byproduct of an honest and successful attempt to do something well. He's like a mad hermit filling up notebooks with the most horrific and beautiful drawings you've ever seen. That he would allow you the fleeting chance to peek over his shoulder is a privilege of the highest order.

It's a wet fall day in Dallas, and Peter Jackson, a smallish, rotund, bearded man in his early 30s, is sitting on a bench in Lee Park having his picture taken. He's quiet and reserved, almost shy; it's impossible at first to tell whether this is indicative of his personality or of the many grueling hours of flight time he's logged since embarking on a North American press tour to promote Heavenly Creatures. The photographer initially finds it difficult to convince him to smile genuinely; Jackson's expressions look more like weary, halfhearted smirks.

Then, suddenly, his eyes light up, and he shifts his body into a precise re-creation of Tom Hanks' pose from the Forrest Gump poster. "Lahf is like uh box uh choc-o-laytes," Jackson drawls. "Yew nevah know what you gonna get."

It would be tempting to say his Gump impersonation is ironic, that his movies represent the opposite of Gump's moony, man-child way of viewing the world. It would also be wrong, for although Jackson's films acknowledge human suffering and depravity and horror in a more complicated and honest way than Forrest Gump, they are no less optimistic. In his heart of hearts, the man has faith in human nature, faith in the idea that true innocence is incorruptible.

The filmmaker doesn't set up his naēve heroes--the sweet, lisping, Kermit-like hedgehog of Meet the Feebles, the young man watching his family turn into zombies in Dead Alive, the teen best pals of Heavenly Creatures--so that he can knock them down with cheap sarcasm and bludgeoning plot twists. He respects their purity and their determination to hold on to it.

"What's good and right depends much of the time on where one is standing," he adds. "There can be good in evil characters, and vice versa, but I think we respond to those same characters emotionally based on how completely we've been allowed to understand their motivations. I think what Pauline and Juliet did was horrible and sad, but I felt I could understand them as human beings. They were really quite innocent--not of the deed, but in their hearts."

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