Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest ★★★★½

It really hurts to see how well made, thematically coherent, and just plain weird* a massive-budget Disney blockbuster sequel based off pre-existing properties can be. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest is, without a shred of doubt, spectacle filmmaking at its very finest.

There are so many attributes overflowing from this film, but the first thing that struck me was the deft tonal control. This is exactly what the Marvel films have attempted to replicate with varying levels of success for over twenty films, yet never nailed as precisely as Gore Verbinski and the cast do here, where moments of lighthearted humor are legitimately funny without undercutting the sincere emotional current that runs through this film. I think it’s because Dead Man’s Chest takes itself seriously without being self-serious, something a major studio blockbuster rarely pulls off (or, let’s be honest: even attempts) these days. Blockbuster films have lost the ability to take themselves seriously because they’ve lost the ability to be serious, and any time the screenplay fringes on territory one might accuse of melodrama, we flop into a winking self-awareness that recognizes and laughs at how inconsequential it is itself. That’s just about as lazy as you can get. Dead Man’s Chest, on the other hand, is a film confident enough in its own legitimacy that the occasional comic relief doesn’t threaten the framework of the entire structure. In other words, it takes itself seriously enough to be genuinely jovial.

Another one of this film’s greatest virtues is the richness of its world. Superficial pleasures abound onscreen: you can’t get much more iconic than the grim gloom of the Black Pearl, or the lush tropics of the waterwheel duel (the choreography!), or the Gothic glory of Davy Jones’ organ room. The score, too, is a marvel (remember leitmotifs? Disney sure doesn’t!): the East India Trading Company’s sinister strings, Will and Elizabeth’s earnest strains of longing, and the best of the bunch, Davy Jones’ heartbreaking ode to memory and loss, a small and heartbroken ticking from the music box, a roaring and angry storm from the pipe organ. And while we’re on the subject of Davy Jones­—talk about a villain! Horrifying without and depraved within (and visually superior to Thanos, fifteen years before him), but hiding a hint of alluring sympathy that the third film will reveal fully to devastating effect.

If I haven’t mentioned enough on here how deeply films about the tragedy of time’s progression move me, here’s another reminder. This is a world soaked in mythos and lore, not used as mere window dressing but as the windows themselves that reveal the essence of what Dead Man’s Chest is about: the ghostly, the supernatural, the eternal, and a world whose “blank edges of the map [are] filling in” slowly losing its place for such things. (It’s not always subtle—see the shot that immediately follows the line “You’re time’s running out, Jack,” in which a giant clock face is hoisted into frame—but it’s visually poetic in the most bombastic, swashbuckling sense.) This conflict between the old world and the new, a world in which unaccountable mysteries prosper and one that has no room for such unscientific silliness, wrestles in the background here to great effect and paves the way for At World’s End, which, if memory serves me, makes the dichotomy far more explicit.

There are hints, too, of ideas of freedom and destiny—Jack Sparrow embodies the life of ultimate freedom, doing what he wishes, when he wishes, literally the captain of his own ship. Verbinski’s film doesn’t necessarily romanticize the idea of utter freedom, however: the cost of Jack’s “captainhood” has caught up to him in the form of the dreaded Black Spot (the mark of his debt to Davy Jones), and his compass guided by what he most desires has no heading. He is like a ship stranded at sea with no wind, free to go wherever he pleases but rendered helpless without a guiding force. Contrast this with Will (whose “air of destiny” pulls against his very name) and Elizabeth, who spend much of the film apart and seeking reunion. Their moral compasses are much clearer (this clarity allowing Elizabeth control of Jack’s compass at a crucial point); they seek only each other, willing to exchange personal freedom for the embrace of their beloved.

It should be noted that although Jack has a very discernable arc, much of the ideas presented here act as setups for the third film. In Dead Man’s Chest, much of its ideas are to some extent playing in the background, but as I noted, I think a lot of it swings back full center in the massive conclusion that is At World’s End. (I remember the broad strokes of that film but nothing specific, so I’m interested to see where all these threads lead and how they get there.)

I’ve always loved these movies—their overtly grim tones and, at times, shocking edginess, appealed to me at a younger age—but this rewatch confirms their status as a treasure on par with cursed Aztec gold. We don’t get movies like this anymore (a fact that this one itself laments, in a way), but that just makes the ones we have all the more precious.

*Gross touches that give this film personality but would never fly today:

- Bootstrap Bill munching a live hermit crab
- The character design of Bootstrap Bill
- Jack biting the toenail of a severed extremity
- Attempted cannibalism
- That faceless sailor
- Fish guts
- A beating heart

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