(There Will Be Spoilers)
There’s a sequence of scenes in Water for Elephants (Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, dir. Francis Lawrence) which set up a serious tension for the characters with no clear happy resolution. In them, the three main characters interact variously with a newly acquired, unresponsive and possibly untrained circus elephant. These scenes show us the violence and rage roiling in August’s soul; the gentleness, care, and willingness to do what is good and right of Edward Cullen—er, Jacob—the pain and love in Marlena, among other things. The tension hinges upon these elements as well as the silence of the elephant, and seems to point toward a collision not far ahead.
What this sort of quadrangle of a relationship does—really a triangle, for our purposes, since Marlena doesn’t figure in it at this point—is present a problem that the viewer wishes to see resolved happily. The elephant, being a gentle and generally well-behaved but possibly untrained animal, is perceived as innocent. Jacob, the veterinarian-cum-elephant trainer, as sympathetic hero, cares for the elephant but can’t get it to perform (he doesn’t know how to train elephants, or how to deal with trained elephants). August, the circus owner and ringmaster, needs the animal to perform to recoup his investment and save his circus (and his own and Marlena’s lives, financially speaking). Yet he doesn’t know animals or gentleness—his method is to beat the animal to make it afraid and submissive. When the elephant misbehaves, he takes an elephant hook to it, opening large wounds, and then menaces Jacob: if the elephant won’t perform, Jacob gets fired, and the elephant gets killed and fed to the other animals.
After the beating of the elephant, we are faced squarely with this problem. Jacob clearly won’t stand for such treatment of an animal, and will likely stand up to August, but we know that this will probably end badly for both him and the elephant; and even if Jacob doesn’t do so, the elephant will lose, and so will Jacob and August and the whole circus. August, who is a complex character full of love, passion, anger, and business, clearly won’t stop (or can’t control) his violence even though he equally clearly regrets it. And it is equally clear that such violence may soon be brought to bear on his wife, Marlena, given what we have seen of the edge of it during one of August’s drunken moments. And again, Jacob has the hots for her, and she may feel the same though she guards her feelings and for the moment seems to know better than to let them out. Which all still means that both she and Jacob may come under August’s scrutiny and rage at some point.
The moment after the beating, when Jacob is standing by the wounded elephant, trying to comfort and assuage it and figure out what to do, is strung taut with anxiety. We, as an audience, have no idea how things will develop or resolve. The situation seems untenable, and the characters probably doomed, though through animal sympathy and the likability of both Marlena and Jacob, we hope nonetheless for some happier resolution.
Yet the film will give us neither of these things, not fully. Here, the filmmakers are too cowardly to let things play out amongst the characters and see what happens, whether tragic, triumphant, or bittersweet. Instead, deus ex machina: a drunken Polish roustabout to whom Jacob is talking while caring for the elephant is too inebriated to understand English, so Jacob gives him a command (“Move your leg”) in Polish, and the elephant, surprisingly, responds. Jacob notices, tests again, confirms, and then races to show August: the elephant miraculously understands Polish! Problem resolved, tension alleviated.
This is, however, a cop-out. While it is indeed conceivable that a circus elephant was trained by a Polish trainer before being sold, etc., the discovery of this fact at such an opportune moment in the story smacks of the writer(s) feeling written into a corner, unwilling to write what might organically come out of the characters’ situation and so seeking a way to happily (if temporarily) resolve the problem they’ve created.
The world is not often so clean and neat, though. Sometimes, sure. All sorts of different outcomes for all sorts of relationships and situations do exist. Some are happy, others less so. But the artist’s foremost duty is to truth of feeling and expression, and such a magical, happy, make-everything-better coincidence—which may occur only rarely, and in any case circumvents the “natural” development of plot and character interaction—rings flat. It is, in the end, avoidance of what is difficult to face, via means unavailable to any real human being. That is, the artist (writer, director, whole ensemble) has access to the magical, reality altering tools of his or her craft, and can thus dictate what happens in a story in ways that we real people cannot in our own lives. Yet to do so in such a way as to seem magical, amazing, and completely outside of the already-established logic of character interaction and in-world causality is crass and wrong.
Instead, it is the artist’s duty to face what is difficult in story, poem, song, and to present it, unflinchingly. That is how truth gets told and art is expressed, performed, created.