An Oscar-winner for his portrayal of the psychologically sadistic Nazi, Col. Hans Landa, in “Inglourious Basterds,” Waltz once again unlashes his unique brand of icy evil in “Water for Elephants.” As ringmaster and big-top owner August Rosenbluth, he has perfected a chilling villainy that makes the movie something more than a tepid circus soap opera.
Based on novelist Sara Greun’s popular page-turner, “Water for Elephants” starts with old-timer Jacob Jankowski (Hal Holbrook) walking into the presentday Benzini Brothers Circus and narrating a tale which turns him into “Twilight” heartthrob Robert Pattinson. Jumping back to the Depression, we find that young Jacob (Pattinson) is on the verge of completing his education in veterinary medicine at Cornell, when his life is derailed by the news that his parents are killed in a car accident and their house is foreclosed. He hits the road (or the tracks), eventually hopping what he thinks is a freight train. In fact, it’s the flea-bag Benzini Circus. August’s thugs are about to throw him off, when they realize that an Ivy League-educated vet could come in handy what with their ill and underfed menagerie of animals.
Sparks simmer between Jacob and Marlena, but begin to heat up with the entrance of nine-ton Rosie, the elephant, into the circus. Maybe, it has something to do with her trunk, but Rosie seems to draw the two together.
Rosie is a gentle giant, without much “trick” potential. That’s bad for August, who takes his nasty bull hook, jabbing and puncturing the beast to get her to perform. Jacob solves the problem by giving her orders in Polish (apparently understandable to elephant ears).
August’s sadism grows more intense. His thugs haul an elderly beloved roustabout and his midget companion off the speeding train to their deaths. In the climactic chaotic scene, justice is served and it’s Rosie who serves it.
“Water for Elephants” is not boring, but would have been if it weren’t for a brilliant bad-guy actor. Thank God evil exists to keep things interesting…in movies, anyway.