Jacob Jankowski is a happy young man with big dreams. Among them: He's just about to take his final college exams and earn a veterinary license like his dad before him. He's all set to live happily ever after, in spite of the Depression that's currently hitting the country in 1931.
Then Jacob's parents die in a car crash, and he quickly learns that the bank owns everything. He's now penniless and homeless. So Jacob does what many other distraught young men did in that day and age: He hops a freight to anywhere.
This particular train, however, belongs to the owners of Benzini Bros. Circus. And they know exactly where it's going and who they want on it. Fortunately, an old Polish roustabout named Camel takes Jacob under his wing and saves him from being tossed back onto the tracks. He gets the drifter a job, saying, "Hold on, you're in for the ride of your life."
And what a ride it is. From shoveling out the animal cars to pounding tent stakes and raising the gigantic big top to squeezing the rubes for every cent they carry, this is a rough, colorful world of wonder and want.
The tightly wound boss, August, takes something of a shine to the new kid—especially when he learns that he's an Ivy Leaguer with some animal skills. He figures that this kid could be the key to adding a coveted elephant to the circus. And that would take the Benzini Bros. to a whole new level.
August can almost see it.
The only thing Jacob is looking at, however, is August's wife, Marlena. She's an elegant woman whose gentle ways and fragile beauty seem suited for much more than the big top center ring. But that's exactly where the mercurial-tempered boss wants her. And his cutthroat cruelty will make sure that's where she stays.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
At the beginning of the film, Jacob's parents hug their son and speak words of love and encouragement to him as he leaves for college. We later learn that they mortgaged everything so he might have the opportunity of going to an Ivy League school. And then when the Depression hit, the kind, decent person rendered his veterinary services for whatever people could pay or barter.
Jacob and Marlena fall in love and eventually run off together. That's not positive, considering the fact that she's a married woman. But initially Marlena pushes her attraction to Jacob away, trying to uphold her marital commitment. Both are rightfully hesitant to show their growing affection.
Jacob displays a tender kindness for man and beast. Even though ordered to make a suffering horse continue performing, he mercifully puts the animal down. And the elephant named Rosie receives his compassion as well. While August demands that he pick up the prod and show the beast who's boss, Jacob want to befriend the animal and lead her with love. He gently cares for her inflicted wounds.
After Jacob's parents are killed in an auto accident, he's led into the mortuary by a priest who attempts to comfort him. After a stretch of sold-out performances, August stands before his circus mates and says, "Thank the gods … we close our eyes and thank whoever's up there."
A circus "coochie girl," dressed in a skimpy bra and panties type of outfit, is seen performing a striptease for a tent full of male customers. When she removes her top, the camera watches from behind, eying her naked back and swinging tassels.
A female "fire eater" performs in a grass-covered bikini-style top. Marlena and a number of the circus's acrobats and gymnasts wear formfitting outfits and leotards. Marlena also wears low-cut blouses and a backless dress.
Marlena and Jacob steal away to a hotel room, passionately embracing and kissing before falling back on the bed together. The two caress each other (Jacob runs his hand up her leg and under her skirt, for instance) and begin removing each others' clothes before the scene fades out. Elsewhere, Jacob and Marlena kiss several times.
At one point the coochie girls all surround Jacob in the narrow hallway of a passenger car. There he's playfully fondled and pushed to the nearby wall before being pulled away by Camel. A drunken Jacob is also grabbed by the circus crew in an initiation exercise that results in him waking the next day wearing a female clown's costume with his chest partially exposed. People later talk about the former night's sexual situations, including Jacob having his crotch shaved. Another circus welcome involves Jacob being hit with pies and seltzer water, and being kissed by female members of the troupe. Jacob alludes to wanting to be the one who takes a girl's virginity. August mentions a night of passion with his wife.
August can change from smiling good guy to brutal killer in an instant. We even see him forcefully grab and hurt Marlena. Repeated comments are made about his tendency to throw circus members who displease him off the train while traveling at full speed. We never see that happen, but we do see his thugs pick up Jacob and threaten it. We also see two bloodied dead men who were thrown onto the rocks beside the tracks.
August and Jacob end up in a fistfight, pummeling each other about the head and face. The younger man ends up with the worst of it, sporting a cut lip and bruised cheek. When August's thugs catch Jacob with Marlena, they batter him mercilessly, leaving his face a bloody mess.
August unleashes his temper on Rosie as well. When the animal refuses to move, he jabs her viciously behind the shoulder with a pointed bull prod. (We see a bloodied gouge in the animal's flesh.) Later, when the elephant endangers Marlena's life, a crazed August closes the elephant's rail car door and lashes the screaming beast with the prod. When the man emerges, the animal is on its side with blood streaming from several wounds.
All of these things prompt Jacob to sneak into August's private car with a knife in hand, intent on slashing his throat. But as he puts the blade to the man's neck, he finds that he can't do the deed. Rosie, though, has no such restraint. She pulls her chained spike out of the ground and—as August is choking Marlena—slashes the man across the back of his head. He falls to the ground with blood dripping down the side of his face.
All of the animals are let loose during a show and the roaring creatures leap into the unsuspecting crowd, terrorizing and tackling adults and children alike. (Explicit killings aren't shown.)
Crude or Profane Language
One s-word. One or two each of "a‑‑" and "b‑‑tard." A handful of uses of "d‑‑n," a vulgarity that is twice combined with God's name. Two or three times rough slang is used for male genitalia.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Even though the story is set during the era of American Prohibition, alcohol flows freely throughout. Marlena, Jacob and August drink wine, champagne and whiskey on a number of occasions, including one time in a speakeasy that's raided by police. All three become inebriated at various points, which leads to them lowering their inhibitions—showing their illicit affection in Marlena's and Jacob's cases, and showing a violent anger in August's.
The regular roustabouts drink quite a bit too. But their drink tends to be a rubbing alcohol derivative called "jake." In fact, Camel's habitual consumption of this foul stuff eventually leaves him crippled from the waist down. Rosie and a pet dog get in on the boozing when humans feed alcohol to them.
A number of people smoke cigarettes, including August and Marlena.
This adaptation of Sara Gruen's Depression-era romantic-adventure has a strong appeal. The film's big top production design, dodgy carny characters and colorful costumes come off as eye-catching and entertaining. And its depiction of the rough-and-tumble, poverty-ridden world of traveling circus shows rings true.
And the romance? Well, that side of this rail-riding yarn is involving, if not quite as compelling. Twilight heartthrob Robert Pattinson is still a bit glaze-eyed and bloodless, even though he's in a decidedly non-vampire role this time around. But his Jacob is handsome, kindhearted and easy to root for. And we can see why he falls for the fragile, golden-haired Marlena. We certainly understand why he wants to rescue her from the clutches of her hateful husband and take her away to a better life.
That romantic but forbidden affair, though, is the movie's biggest deceit. Let's face it: Animal cruelty, heavy drinking and coarse language are all easy things to spot. But the siren's song of seemingly justified infidelity is a much more subtle thing.
Water makes its moral lapses appear perfectly righteous by portraying husband August as a megalomaniacal killer. And so, from this pic's perspective it would almost be a crime if the heroic Jacob didn't steal the man's wife away so they could have babies together and a happily ever after of their own.