WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD!
Edward Scissorhands is definitely flawed. The ending is a predictable Saturday-matinee mob scene. The plot is loosely hung on a frame-work of stock characters and a fairy-tale premise that started with Beauty and the Beast, probably before. It’s moral could ultimately be summed up as, “be nice to those who are different,” and the middle of the movie is an episodic adventure formula of what Edward can do with his hands to impress his new suburban neighbors. So why do I love this movie so much? Let’s explore why Edward Scissorhands is one of my favorite films of all times, and I don’t mean that lightly, for there are moments within that touch the sublimely heartfelt in a way no other movie can.
First and foremost, Johnny Depp and I should be friends. I think it’s pretty clear we would totally get each other. I mean, we could talk about buying islands, doing drugs with Hunter S. Thompson, what it’s like to live in France. You know, all the normal things. But, what we could really bond over is his first role in a Tim Burton film, Edward Scissorhands. Beating out Robert Downey Jr., Tom Cruise, and even Michael Jackson, Depp was given the part because upon his first time reading the script he wept like a newborn. I feel that, Johnny. I feel that. It’s that emotion that Depp brings to the forefront in his portrayal of Edward, that elementally gentle monster who can’t help but hurt those he loves because his very nature is dangerous.
Second, Winona Ryder as Kim. What better way to ensure chemistry between your lead actors than to have them be a real-life couple. When they look in each other’s eyes, you know it’s real. You can hear them laughing in Depp’s house overlooking the Sunset strip. You can see them walking around Venice, looking for hemp cloth and big rings that will turn their skin black, the fate of their relationship written in the stars above Los Angeles. Winona’s face, framed by that horrible wig, breaks your heart, and even as the grandmother telling her grandchild how the snow began in their neighborhood, you can’t help but fall in love with her.
Third, for being a sentimental movie about love and difference, the social commentary is caustic. The American dream of owning a house, having a cheerleader for a daughter, having barbecues with your friends, watering your lawn on a Sunday afternoon, watching football games with your son—all of that means nothing to Edward. In fact, all of that is as dangerous to him as he is to it. Ambrosia salad is awful, and the suburbs will destroy anything that doesn’t fit into its nauseatingly pastel world. By the end of the movie, when Edward realizes he must return to his mountain-top castle, he begins to literally destroy the neighborhood. As mentioned earlier, the middle of the movie is an episodic chunk of what he can mundanely do with his scissors: shrubs shaped like dinosaurs, asymmetrical haircuts for pet and owner, salad chopper, etc. Throughout all that safe suburban stuff, you’re just waiting for him to really use blades. As the townsfolk begin to swarm, after they’ve decided he’s dangerous, he destroys the wallpaper, vandalizes one of his topiaries, and punctures a stranger’s tire. And in the end, our morbid curiosity is rewarded when we get to see him finally take a life. He learns, even though he wants to so badly, he can never be a part of Kim’s life, and in so realizing, he will take down as much of that life to the best of his ability.
Also, it’s the soft moments, the nuanced yet simple writing (by the gifted screenwriter Caroline Thompson) that gets at the movie’s true heart. Take for instance, the ethics quiz Edward’s surrogate father, played by Alan Arkin, gives him near the plot’s climax. When given the scenario of finding a suitcase full of money, Edward must choose what to do: A, keep it. B, use it to buy gifts for his friends and loved ones. C, give it to the poor. D, give it to the police. When Edward replies that he’d give it to his loved ones, his surrogate mother, played by the heart-warming Diane Weist, sighs and says “Oh, Edward, it does seem that that’s what you should do, but it’s not.” Edward acts from a place of pure love, that debilitating, dangerous love that exists in the wild beyond those suffocating neighborhoods where the right answer is to give the money to the police.
But ultimately, for me anyway, it’s the moments between Edward and The Inventor, played by an aging Vincent Price in his last film role, that make this movie. In scenes with virtually no dialogue, we see The Inventor use his frightening, Gothic machines to make heart-shaped cookies. We see him read humorous poetry to a half-made Edward, instructing him that it’s okay to smile when something is funny. And in the film’s greatest moment, during a Christmas flashback, the great Inventor–the father who “didn’t wake up”–attempts to give his creation and son Edward a pair of real hands. The moment is devastating, and every time I see it, just like Johnny, I weep like a newborn.
Remember when Tim Burton used to make epic fairy tales about true outsiders in fantastical circumstances? Beetlejuice? The Nightmare Before Christmas? Pee Wee’s Big Adventure? Before he started making movies based on product potential, he made movies for us, the weird and nerdy who love like everyone else but hurt just a little more. Edward Scissorhands was the best of those films, and when Edward reached his lethal hand to us, we accepted it, blood and all. Edward Scissorhands is the greatest gift Tim Burton has given to us outsiders. I hope someday he remembers we’re still here.