For fans of the two masters of their own trades, getting to see the trademark eeriness of Roald Dahl’s symbolism-infused short stories mingle with Wes Anderson’s auteurist approach would be nothing short of a dream come true. Netflix’s acquisition of the rights to the celebrated author’s collection of stories only brought that very dream strikingly close to materializing. The result? Four of Dahl’s obscure stories get to fit into the signature Wes mold and are reshaped to take up the form that complements the director’s vision.
Harry Pope cries snake in Poison, In the dollhouse-like structure that the director deems a fitting home for something vile, the stakes shift at an odd moment, and the threat shapeshifts to take on a human form. Benedict Cumberbatch, the ferocious racist bound to his bed by an imaginary fear, grows more appalling with every passing second. With Wes’ unapologetic style that invariably overshadows every element of every story only to paint each frame with a dreamscape-ish quality, Dahl’s tale gets that extra dosage of surrealism that elevates the pervasive spookiness. Concluding the carnival that started with The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, what Poison treats us to is the very antithesis of a happy ending. Given how well the underlying gloom that’s almost never betrayed by the sunny symmetry of Wes’ frames can gel with Dahl’s not-so-secret bleak themes, Poison is arguably where the two artists are at their most sincere.
Here, Ralph Fiennes’ fourth-wall-breaking representation of Dahl himself has a grander purpose to serve. Challenging his own subtlety of dialogue, where cryptic sarcasm can easily be mistaken for awkward candor, Wes shrewdly utilizes Fiennes’ Dahl as a means to nudge the audience in the right direction. Here’s how Poison perceives the imminent danger of a possible snakebite:
What Happens in the Film?
Supervisor Woods (Dev Patel) is rather cautious about his car’s headlight waking up the formidable man he lives with in the pastel bungalow in British-governed India. The light being on surely means that Harry Pope (Benedict Cumberbatch) is up, right? But the man Woods comes in to find frozen in his bed hasn’t been up for a peaceful late-night read. It might’ve started that way, but Harry claims that he’s since been under the constant threat of being bitten by a venomous krait. Woods shudders at the petrifying thought. Surely there can’t be a Krait sleeping under Harry’s sweat-soaked pajamas? With every twitch of Harry’s smile muscles heightening our manic narrator’s anxiety, we are told to grow wary of the approximately 10-inch snake.
The snake that now cautions Harry against raising his voice a notch above a faint whisper is even more terrifying in Dahl’s (Ralph Fiennes) anecdote about a poor sheep with pitch-black blood. What is Woods to do? Call a doctor, of course. At least, Dr. Ganderbai (Ben Kingsley) is quicker to reach the bungalow with his preventive serum than Woods has been with his course of action. Tiptoeing around so as not to startle the Krait, the serum is administered with the utmost caution. Will Harry now be immune to the possible Krait bite? Dr. Ganderbai certainly doesn’t seem too confident about that. Off to pick up a bottle of chloroform goes the frantic Woods.
A battle of rageful looks ensues between the doctor and the man being crushed under the fear of a little snake. Woods can only hope that the effects of the chloroform go beyond nauseating the people in the room. Time to lift the sheets and check if all the whispers, pearls of anxious sweat, and Dr. Ganderbai’s diligent effort paid off. It is as though an earthquake rattles the room awake from the delusion it’s been under when no snake is found. And the Indian doctor pays dearly for making the grave mistake of trying to alleviate the tension by merely suggesting that Harry might’ve dreamed it all. More venom than a hundred Kraits can contain is hurled at the doctor by the vicious Harry, whose choicest weapon of defense seems to be the most deprecating racial slurs.
How Does The Film End?
You never really go into a Wes Anderson film expecting a world that matches the one you know. You hardly even expect the characters to bear the closest resemblance to real people. Yet, the aura that Wes’ characters exude is not exactly what you’d call the uncanny valley effect. It is more of a fantastical reimagination of people in houses and landscapes that are faithful to the auteur’s perception of the world he wants to create. Staying true to the close-to-life symbolism that runs rampant throughout the 17-minute runtime of Poison, Wes has appropriately toned down his bold color grading to maintain a certain relatability. Instead, he turns his attention elsewhere and makes the most of the themes at his disposal.
From the very first frame, the tone of Harry’s formidable authority in the bungalow is set by Woods’ trembling attempts at doing everything he can to appease him. Harry’s as cruel as they come. And even though there was no Krait reminding him of his fickle mortality, you’d think that a man in his position would be a tad kinder to the only person giving it his all to help him out. But from the looks of it, Harry’s gotten used to treating people as badly as he can and still getting his way. And considering the privileges that back his abusive, draconian nature, sustained only further by the mother-of-pearl button that Woods can never ever dream of sewing onto his pajamas, Harry’s got no reason to reflect on his actions.
The fictitious snake that the petrified characters had been trying to get away from could never be as venomous as the one that lay on the bed, unmoving, soaked in more foul hatred than sweat. The atrocious racial insults that are shot out of Harry’s nasty mouth are, unfortunately, only a rather downplayed representation of what an Indian doctor would’ve been subjected to in India under British rule. It is, however, the only time Woods is bold enough to scream at the top of his lungs to put a stop to his sickening attacks. And when an apologetic Woods follows the doctor to console him with a fabricated reassurance of how he’s effectively saved a life, Dr. Ganderbai is far from interested in the patronizing validation Woods has to offer. He hasn’t saved a life, for someone like Harry Pope is beyond saving.