The global problems of today may be imputed to many ills – industrialism, usury, ignorance, inter alia – but among those countries of Christian heritage, the problem is one: the acceptance or denial of the Bible's literality. You will not have to look far to find the deniers, who seem to believe the most scientific arguments are the ones yelled most loudly and most frequently (for people who worship dark and endless silence, they are conspicuously noisy). Their primary mistake, of course, is thinking that the non-occurrence of a Biblical event argues the non-occurrence of all Biblical events and an invalidation of the religion itself, which is a little like not finding a particular glossy leaf and denouncing an entire forest. Those who take the Bible as the infallible word of God, however, deem the practical impossibility of some Biblical events a mere avocation from their task of gospel-spreading and brimstone-throwing. As such, both sides are far off the mark. The Book of God for the Christian is a tome of moral principles, illustrated in many cases by what we suspect are fables, and in many others by what we believe are the greatest events in the history of mankind. It would be too easy to accept all this literally, and, indeed, literal truth is best found in the concrete jangle of numbers, formulas, and measurements. Figurative truth is a much more elusive quarry; a fine way to approach the nightmarish happenings of this film.
We begin with a scene which I cannot spoil since it will be repeated with varying effect more than a half-dozen times. What we can reveal is the date: July 15, 1799, a decade and a day after the French decided that neither cake nor bread could console them. Since our film does not seem to be overtly political, we do not immediately understand the implication of this detail, but its importance will manifest itself in due course. Six months shy of its first century (never mind those who would correctly begin count in 1801) as a free nation (never mind that truly free were only Christian white men of Northern European stock), America's United States still have a very European marrow, the region of our concern being the Dutch settlements of upstate New York. It is then of little surprise that the main signatory to the last will and testament that captions our opening sequence is a certain Peter van Garrett. What is a surprise, however, is what soon befalls this hitherto omnipotent landlord, whose last glimpse of earth involves a scarecrow that could not possibly have been designed for birds alone. We next meet Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp), an idealistic forensic mortician who reviles the iniquitous interrogation methods of the New York City police – where he just so happens to be employed. Crane's squeaky defiance is nothing new, yet he manages to rile a Burgomaster (Christopher Lee) to such a degree that the latter opts to dispatch him to a "mostly Dutch" community, "two days' journey to the north," where "three people have been murdered in the last fortnight, their heads lopped off as clean as dandelion heads." The old functionary punctuates his harangue with a long finger and the warning, "Remember it is you, Ichabod Crane, who is now put to the test." (Crane is a proponent of post mortems and other such ghoulish scientific work, which the Burgomaster labels "experimentations.") Crane accepts this unusual assignment as an indication that science can triumph anywhere over any obstacle; we are later provided, in the film's worst parts, psychobabble-inspired nightmares that should have been excised, with a reason for his blind faith in science (which will also account for the curious puncture marks on his hands; the less said about this plot detail, the better). Yet for what he is about to witness, we and the steadily dwindling population of Sleepy Hollow sense that Ichabod Crane's library might not have a ready diagram.
The three victims, we read in Crane's journal, are Peter van Garrett ("a prominent land owner"), Dirk van Garrett ("his son"), and Emily Winship (merely "a widow," a woman not even defined by herself or anyone living, although the same could be said of Dirk van Garrett). Crane arrives at Sleepy Hollow and notices what one is supposed to notice in films of immense foreboding: namely, that everyone ogles the newcomer then shuts her windows before he can ogle back; that extreme measures are being taken (an odd makeshift fortification suggests a turret) against the evil; and that amidst the approach of death, people seem to be more amenable to indulging in some last-minute vices, such as the lusty couple straddling the darkened doorstep that opens onto a very civilized ball at the house of Baltus van Tassel (Michael Gambon). Van Tassel is van Garrett's proprietary successor and, as the de facto lord in this fiefdom, will head the cabal of village elders, none of whom would be mistaken for a paragon of righteousness. There is the Magistrate Philipse (the late Richard Griffiths), who enjoys idle gossip as much as any stereotypical chambermaid; Doctor Lancaster (Ian McDiarmid), who has a bad habit of looking over his shoulder; Reverend Steenwyck (Jeffrey Jones), as upstanding a citizen as most priests are in thrillers; and the dead-eyed, grizzled notary Hardenbrook (Michael Gough), who must be the luckiest man in Sleepy Hollow to have lived to such a ripe old age considering his perfect firetrap of a hut. At the ball Crane also makes the acquaintance of van Tassel's young daughter Katrina (Christina Ricci), who comes complete with jealous beau, a proclivity for spells and other occult appurtenances, and a recently acquired stepmother (Miranda Richardson). The unanimous elders expound their theory on the murders to Crane, even going so far as to thump a Bible in his vicinity, but the coroner remains convinced that the perpetrator is "a man of flesh and blood" (he is, as it turns out, only half-right). It should be noted that a crucial detail in the narrative of the Hessian mercenary who would go on, local legend insists, to become the ghostly killer that haunts these parts, is seen but not discussed. This information is so vital to the plot that one cannot fault the first-time viewer who either does not register the detail or only recurs to it hazily once its significance becomes obvious. The slayings of course continue, including the film's one really objectionable scene implying the death of a child, and Crane has a lot more dots on his hands to connect.
While critics concur that, fifteen years after its release, Sleepy Hollow persists as one of the most visually pleasing films you will ever experience (I have seen it four times and it remains sensational), some have lambasted Burton's "infidelity" to the original story. But this is all hogwash. Irving's seminal tale implies something rather unfortunate about more than one of the characters, a scarcely-concealed reality that would play poorly on screen (although one brief scene offers a taste). No, Burton's vision has it right: the best tales do not undermine, but overmine, overreach, and overdo their passion. The trick to tempering those sentiments is to have superbly drawn characters, a tight plot, and, most importantly, a moral bearing, and what Sleepy Hollow does very well is allow Crane initially to exist in a parallel dimension. He does not believe, or does not want to believe, a word the locals tell him about the killer despite what we may justly term overwhelming physical evidence. When, at the film's midpoint, Crane comes to lend credence to the legend, he deduces the pertinent minutia – before the killer actually appears – with the same cold logic he sought to impose on the villagers. This is the script's finest touch: a skeptic contemning the people for believing what he deems a myth, yet once the myth seems true, expressing even greater contempt for their not combating it more vigorously. And what about that cardinal in a cage? Perhaps Crane's notion of truth and appearance might be better than we first thought.