Edward Scissorhands – 1990 – dir. Tim Burton
We first meet Edward Scissorhands when Peg, the Avon lady, decides to visit the shadowy mansion overlooking her suburb and only manages to find someone lurking in the attic. Edward (Johnny Depp) is pale white and covered up to his neck in all manner of black vinyl and leather, but Peg (Dianne Wiest) is immediately sympathetic to this creature-man. As soon as she sees him, she begins her attempt to initiate Edward into the suburban life, despite the most obvious obstacle: Edward has blades for fingers.
On first glance, the film is about his awkward progress in this new suburban existence. He can’t operate a simple doorknob, he walks stiffly, and he is eerily soft-spoken. Depp studied Charlie Chaplin for the role, and you can see why. The character is largely physical, since Edward only speaks when spoken to, and little at that.
And he doesn’t do very much, either. Instead, the movie moves forward because things happen to him. Unlike all the protagonists that are written to obey the screenwriting principle that characters are always making progress to achieve their goals, Edward is passive. He surreptitiously eyes Peg’s teenage daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder), but he doesn’t dare try to woo her. It’s not Edward’s will driving the movie. Instead, it’s the will of that other major character: the suburbs.
The actual development where the film is set was not as aggressively garish as director Tim Burton wanted, so he had every house painted a pastel color, and the clothes he put on their inhabitants are just as monochromatically over-the-top. “One of Burton’s main concerns in Scissorhands was to capture the exact mixture of surrealism and banality that — to him at least — represents life in the suburbs,” reported Giselle Benatar in an Entertainment Weekly article that appeared as the movie was being released. In the director’s commentary on the 10th anniversary edition DVD, Burton is an acute observer of the minor mysteries of suburban behavior: “You’d never see anybody unless there was some sort of weird thing going on in the neighborhood or a minor car accident … and it would become some sort of block party.” Christmas in suburbia had an “intensity without any real feeling,” Burton remembered, heightened by “a weird, strange guilt-like energy.”
But Burton does more than evoke absurdity. These citizens of the suburbs never seem to notice that their interlocutor is paralyzed with social phobia and permanently dressed for Halloween. Only among these people, presumably, would someone ask a man without fingers if he likes bowling. Peg’s husband Bill, played with perfect detachment by Alan Arkin, spouts off platitudes and pep talks at the dinner table, apparently unaware that Edward’s biggest life challenges may be opening doors and not scaring children.
The neighbors treat Edward as a welcome addition, but not because they embrace his distinctiveness, which they barely seem to notice; no one asks Edward what he’s been doing in the mansion on top of the hill for the last 20 years or what medical condition has condemned him to cutlery for hands. (Apparently, this is the one neighborhood in the world where rumors do not abound about scary mansions and where teenagers don’t break into and vandalize them.) This obliviousness seems to extend even to the suburbanites’ conception of themselves, as their avid adoption of Edward’s avant-garde hairdos hints at a basic lack of self-consciousness.
And this failure of curiosity and self-awareness seems purposeful, not like a plot hole. The “fearless, defiant illogic” of the movie identified by New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin works as a comment on the middle-class condition. The neighbors’ lack of interest and their doltish insensitivity come across as an eerie echo of the actual experience of listening to the alienation and mutual incomprehensibility between the bland and the blander.
Edward is from a place where an elderly inventor (Vincent Price) can build an entire man with only a handful of diagrams and a little more effort than it takes to build a cookie machine — in short, a fairy tale world. Though Edward is from this magical realm, he is the weirdo we sympathize with, the one whose experience highlights how odd our actual lives are. This might seem like a cheap shot at the suburbs, but they turn out to be an uncanny choice of setting. The suburban experience is so strange in Edward Scissorhands that it’s literally never clear if the poor guy has actually arrived in the real world, or if we’re still in a storybook. Where else would people be so blind to the obviously absurd?