Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest ★★★★

"What vexes all men?"

Curse of the Black Pearl is the more fine-tuned and disciplined movie, and in many ways, it's probably better. Still, I've long named Dead Man's Chest as my favorite in the series, and this viewing confirms that I'll stand by that. It may be more indulgent, but it's also more interesting.

In my write-up of Curse of the Black Pearl yesterday, I mentioned that the Pirates of the Caribbean films crib a surprising amount from the original Star Wars trilogy. I didn't mention that they also pay frequent tribute to the Indiana Jones trilogy. In many ways, those two series set the standard Verbinski's trilogy is trying to reach and started many of the traditions he's following in. I could go on for a while about the structural parallels (and probably will do so some other time), but for now, suffice it to say that the success of Dead Man's Chest results in large part from its emulation of two of the all-time great blockbuster sequels, Empire Strikes Back and Temple of Doom. Like Empire, it goes both bigger and deeper, expanding its mythology on the one hand and exploring its characters more intimately on the other. (It also splits them up into different groups and sends them off on parallel subplots like any good Star Wars second installment.) And, like Temple, it goes absolutely wild and dials everything up to eleven. It's darker, zanier, and, in general, tonally exuberant in a way that few studio tentpoles are allowed to be. (Also: human sacrifice, hearts getting taken out of chests, British imperialism, etc.)

Occasionally, it feels as if Verbinski is straining to handle a production of this scale (the same was true, to a lesser extent, of Curse of the Black Pearl, before which he had only directed much smaller films), and some of the more CGI-heavy compositions are rather cluttered.* For the most part, though, he brings a welcome, unfettered energy to the proceedings. He also throws subtlety to the winds, painting everything in larger-than-life brushstrokes. (See: Beckett and Will on the balcony as a giant clock face is hoisted into frame, in what is probably the Verbinski-est image ever put to film.) This go-for-broke quality is apparent in the increasingly bonkers set pieces, but it's also evident from the film's very first images, featuring Will and Elizabeth's ill-fated wedding. It's melodramatic (the whole thing is rain-drenched for good measure) and even over-the-top, but it's also striking, lavish, and expressive in a way not many blockbusters go for, and I love that. Curse of the Black Pearl was above average in its consistent efficiency, but it rarely achieved the kind of painterly vision that Dead Man's Chest has at its best.

Similarly, the score outdoes its predecessor. Remember when Hans Zimmer actually composed recognizable, hummable musical themes and motifs? This is some of his best work, offering varied and playful arrangements of material from the first film along with great new stuff (Davy Jones' organ theme is top-notch). On a similar note, the cast is once again used very well; Dead Man's Chest is not content to simply recapture the charms of the first film (though it does do that), but it also finds new angles for virtually every character to play. Particularly appreciated: Norrington's about-face from straight-laced foil to ridiculous drunk. The real highlight, though, is Nighy's hammy turn as Davy Jones, which is both a great performance and a great special effect.

Underneath the film's surface pleasures (which, as enumerated here, are manifold), there are some very interesting themes at play, adding welcome nuance to the conflict between society and freedom that formed the backbone (not a skeletal pun, I promise) of Curse of the Black Pearl. This conflict plays out in virtually every reversal of Dead Man's Chest's plot, which constantly places characters in situations where they are indebted, obligated, coerced, or otherwise at the bidding of others. After all, the whole thing pivots on a man who literally cut out his own heart to be free from the demands of love, and on everyone’s subsequent attempts to get that heart so they can force him to comply with their wishes.

The first film centered on Sparrow's journey to secure the freedom embodied in the Black Pearl ("bring me that horizon”), but as this film begins, he doesn't know what to do with that freedom. As Augustine would remind us, freedom to follow one’s selfish appetites is no freedom at all. Bootstrap Bill abandoned his child** for a life of piracy on the high seas; it is only fitting that he should be enslaved to sail those seas forever. That Bootstrap is a crew member on the Dutchman seems all the more apt when one notices that Jones’ doomed romance mirrors the troubled romance between Will and Elizabeth, which is haunted by the fear that the latter is indeed "as changing and harsh and untamable as the sea." (And, well, we all know what happens to Will at the end of the next movie.) Though there is a literal plot explanation for how Jones could fall in love with a woman who is also the sea – “Same story, different versions,” per Tia Dalma – when left ambiguous, the exchange is perfectly elegant as a thematic lynchpin. That which vexes all men is the dual desire for freedom (the sea) and stability (landlocked marriage), and the entire Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy is a virtually manichaean push and pull between these two extremes. I like how Davy Jones stores his heart on Isla Cruces – "island of crosses" – and of course, it is not just men who are stretched on this cross. I had completely forgotten how complex Elizabeth’s arc is in Dead Man’s Chest – or, more likely, I simply never appreciated it because it’s relatively subtle as far as these films go, and because I was an innocent youngster who was blind to the very heavy sexual tension that builds between her and Sparrow in the film’s second hour. (I mean, geez, “You want to know what it tastes like”?!)

Opposite all this is Cutler Beckett, whose presence is a reaction to the conclusion of the previous film in terms of literal plot mechanics but also, I think, in terms of theme. Curse of the Black Pearl traded in societal honor for individual freedom, but Dead Man’s Chest suggests that it is precisely by doing away with the constraints of honor that our heroes unleash the tyranny of pure, soulless capitalism embodied in Beckett. The idea that “loyalty is no longer the currency of the realm” feels like a direct byproduct of the pirates’ code, and it gives rise to the corresponding idea that, per Beckett, “currency is the currency of the realm.” If Davy Jones will not be governed by the demands of love, he will be governed by the demands of commerce.

In sum, though it may be a bit too diffuse and overloaded for its own good, I think Dead Man’s Chest is built on enough interesting theme and character work to carry it through choppy waters (forgive me these puns). It’s not just spinning plot wheels for their own sake; look no further than the personal significance of its two MacGuffins, a fellow’s heart and a compass that reveals a person’s deepest desires. The latter is a really ingenious device for character work, and the film uses it very well for both Sparrow and Elizabeth, whose arcs (which are neat inversions of each other) dovetail perfectly in their complicated final scene. Even if it writes checks that the next film wasn’t necessarily able to cash, the cliffhanger of Dead Man’s Chest works for me because the dichotomies it evokes are all the more potent for being left unresolved. And even though I know At World’s End is a very mixed bag, I’d be a liar (and spend an eternity on this ship) if I said that the very satisfying cut to black that concludes Dead Man’s Chest didn’t get me really excited for it anyway.

*That's easy to forgive when the design work is this good. Davy Jones and his crew are creations of genuine movie magic, and Verbinski mounting the camera on the Flying Dutchman as it dives underwater is a prime example of VFX used to great effect.
**He abandoned his boy!

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