For a filmmaker with Burton's priorities, Sweeney Todd would seem to be the ideal vehicle. The Broadway classic about a murderous barber whose companion serves up his victims as gourmet cuisine allows the filmmaker to place his trademark love of the gruesome front and center without having to dig too far for inspiration. Then, the fact of the film's setting (industrial Victorian London) allows Burton to create a typically fantasized world of gray skies and narrow alleys with the omnipresent smokestacks the dominant presence in the screen's background, a world that rivals any of his other fictional settings (Gotham City, the alternate universe of Beetlejuice) for imaginative grimness. But all this is par for the course for Burton. What defines Sweeney Todd is not so much the film's general morbidity, but a more specific representation of that morbidity, a repeated motif that becomes a fetishistic device for the director: the throat slit.
Sweeney Todd's preferred method of killing - luring his victim into his barber's chair under the pretense of a shave and then cutting his throat - becomes the occasion for a series of lovingly rendered shots of Johnny Depp applying his steel blade to his victims. The throat slit may be an integral part of the film's story, but Burton stages so many examples of this procedure (at one point assembling a montage of six or seven such slits) that he is clearly up to something more specific here. Rather than dismissing the bloody stagings as something peripheral to the film's program, they are so obviously at the heart of what Burton is getting at, that they have to be considered as central to whatever the picture is trying to achieve.
When we are confronted with the prospect of an ostentatiously violent sequence in film, we must ask ourselves what purpose the staging serves. The sequence may be thrilling to the viewer's sensibilities, it may cause us to question our own reactions to onscreen violence or it may be played for laughs. In the case of Burton's throat slits, none of these purposes really fits. Instead, they seem the expression of a very specific form of fetish on the director's part. They clearly aren't meant to entertain or to provoke critical reflection. Nor are they particularly gruesome. Their most salient quality is their frequency. From the moment Depp digs out his old blade and treats it to a loving serenade to the film's final scene when the blade is applied to his own throat, Burton treats the instrument as a fetish-object, filming rapturous close ups of the razor in Depp's outstretched hand long before he has a chance to put it to murderous use. If Burton's typical method as a director is to pick out a handful of morbid or gruesome plot points and provide them with graphic, if stylized, expression, thus confirming beyond a doubt his status as connoisseur of the macabre, then his insistent throat slitting represents a more pronounced expression of this system. Burton's source material already provides plenty of grotesque elements; to make his own hand felt in the staging, he hits on the device of the gratuitously bloody throat slit as an eminently repeatable motif (repeatable because of its centrality to the plot) that he can employ as a kind of artistic signature. The very fact of its superfluity is what defines it as an emblematic gesture.
That Burton is saddled with a particularly weak set of songs from which to fashion his film requires him to hit on different strategies for making his film palatable. One strategy is the casting of charismatic leads Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. Another is the creation of a heavily stylized fictional world, a squalid London which looks as good as any comparable screen treatment. But the most welcome strategy is the creation of two grotesque supporting characters who offer a welcome respite to the dreary proceedings. As played by Timothy Spall, Beadle Bamford, toady to the film's arch-villain, is marked by his long greasy hair, rancid smile and patronizing bow. Sacha Baron Cohen too adds some leavening humor as Signor Adolfo Pirelli, whose fake mustache, phony Italian accent and skin-tight pants obscure a devious set of motives and who provides the film with its finest moment when he engages in a public shave-off with Todd. But, terrific as they are, these caricatures aren't enough. What could have been a deliciously nasty picture just turns nasty as Burton settles in the end for an easy cynicism which culminates in Depp throwing Carter into the oven and Depp's young assistant providing one last expression of Burton's imprint by cutting his master's throat. Rather than making some sort of comment about (for example) the brutality of the industrialized marketplace, Burton stages his conclusion as a final expression of his desperately asserted morbidity. Content to push forth a weakly pronounced nihilism which obviates any attempt at providing a coherent viewpoint, he brings down the curtain on a notably downbeat tableau. After all, this is Tim Burton and, in case you hadn't realized, he's one sick fellow.