Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #93
Director: David Lynch
Starring: John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins
Between the years of 1977 and 1980, David Lynch, one of my all-time favorite directors made two movies that I can't watch. Don't get me wrong – I'd count both of them among my favorite films. It's just that I find both Eraserhead and The Elephant Man deeply unsettling, and for completely different reasons. The former is a visually striking, surreal journey that sees Lynch pulling out all the stops to deeply disturb the psyche of the viewer. The latter is actually a "normal" film when compared to most of its director's output, but the light it shines on the human soul is so tragic that I find it unbearable to watch more than once every few years. I have notoriously dry tear ducts, but The Elephant Man has made me cry. More than once. It makes you feel infinitely sympathetic toward a character with a beautiful heart and mind but an ugly exterior, then makes you watch how horrible more physically attractive human beings act toward him. It shies away from nothing, and it fills its viewers with a sense of self-loathing for even being a part of a race that is capable of such cruelty. Pair Lynch's approach to telling Joseph Merrick's heart-wrenching true story with my own childhood phobia of physical deformities – one which I am thankfully long since over – and you have a cocktail tailor-made to get the tears flowing.
David Lynch has gone on record as saying he chose to shoot The Elephant Man in black and white rather than color so that people wouldn't misinterpret it as a horror movie when they saw the eponymous character on screen. I don't think that would have been a problem given the nature of the script, but it's difficult to imagine this film any other way besides black and white now. The cinematography is gorgeous and Merrick's deformity is never hard to look at. What's much harder to look at is the behavior of the people who are not (physically) deformed, which is all, of course, by design.
Lynch as a director has been criticized as not being able to make movies that don't fulfill his surrealist idiom. That's a generally fair criticism – have you ever seen Dune? – but in this case, he takes the techniques that served him so well in the film's less accessible predecessors and uses them to create a movie that a broader audience can enjoy. It's difficult to watch, but unlike the bulk of his filmography, it's not difficult to understand. I haven't seen The Elephant Man in over a year, and I may not watch it again for a while, but it has stuck with me in an irreversible way, and possibly even made me a better person. It's not a point of entry for getting into Lynch's trippier works, but as a standalone film, they don't come much better – or sadder – than this.
The Good: Lynch's approach to telling Merrick's story which is at once sensitive to the subject matter and unflinching in showing its harsher realities.
The Bad: If it counts as a negative, I find it very difficult to watch. I cry every time Merrick cries out "I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am...a man!" Chills just typing it.
The Skinny: Deserving of its spot, even if it's a bit odd to see it ranked higher than any of Lynch's films that are more indicative of his style.