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Let's twist again, like we do every summer...
A film review of THE VILLAGE incorporating an overview of the cinema of M. Night Shyamalan by Camus
 

SPOILER ALERT - The last paragraph discusses the merits of the 'twist' and in so doing reveals it. When you get to the straight line, stop... You have been warned.

 

"Beneath the trees, where nobody sees, they'll hide and seek, as long as they please..." The "Teddy Bears' Picnic" lyric may have been written for M. Night Shyamalan. "If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise..." indeed. Well, kind of. Yeah. Maybe. The original title of The Village was The Woods but legalese arm-locked Shyamalan into the change. Did you know that the major studios employ people to come up with and register movie titles and make them unavailable to anyone else? Isn’t that the tiniest bit mean spirited? Colour me shocked.

In acknowledgement and defence of the basics: a narrative is a series of related and escalating events relayed to provoke an emotional response in an audience. Twists or surprise endings are often superfluous to the actual narrative. But not always. In The Sting, the twist was important in the sense of knowing the 'good guys' won. In Fight Club the twist suddenly made a glorious mockery (and a perverse glorious sense) of what you had been watching. The Sixth Sense's narrative was primarily someone helps a young boy understand his gift and teaches him how to control it rather than have it control him. The fact that his principal helper turned out to be a ghost himself was a twist that re-defined the adult's sub-plot story but was largely narrative-redundant. But the twist is what made The Sixth Sense famous - or so it's generally believed. Do you think that movie would have gone financially stratospheric if the basic narrative had been flawed or not worthy of our emotional investment?

Shyamalan flirted with, caught and in triumph hung around his neck the 'twist ending' albatross, such a heavy weight of expectation. I believe The Sixth Sense was not a hugely successful worldwide hit because of the revelation that Bruce was dearly departed. I submit that The Sixth Sense’s strength was a clear and hugely satisfying narrative that would have worked regardless of the twist. It was about a boy - NOT the man.

Unbreakable was an immensely satisfying take on the 'what if' there really was a Superman? Yes, many thought it ponderous and overly portentous (I can appreciate that point of view) but I loved it for those elements despite themselves. Shyamalan's direction is precise and deliberate. You hear the storyteller's voice in each shot. Usually that’s a great aspect of a movie. I found Unbreakable thoroughly rewarding and hugely entertaining. The twist? The hero's mentor is in fact his arch nemesis. Big deal. It gave the film an ending but again, it wasn't so vital to the narrative. The narrative was about a man understanding his purpose, realising that his gift was in helping people and realising how he could do that. It was about a man whose life suddenly works because he is nurtured to understand who he is. Let's not trivialise the importance of James Newton Howard's score. Unbreakable has a distinctive and powerful score to rival any being produced in mainstream movies these days. Since Jerry Goldsmith's death, I do not see any other composer stepping up to the plate so to speak. Newton-Howard's work has been steadily becoming more assured, more confident. He followed Unbreakable with his score for Signs, Shyamalan’s follow up.

I found a lot to fault in Signs (anticipating Slarek's editorial hand here, so did he, the whole picture), principally the polarised nature of the lead character, a man of God who suddenly denounces Him due to the inexplicably random death of his wife. I felt the story would have been better if the man had not been an ex-preacher but an ordinary guy who used to believe. Gibson was an interesting casting choice given his well documented religious ardour. But as a piece of story-telling, setting up and delivering, I found Signs almost sublime. I squealed with glee at the 'glasses of water' revelation and rate Newton-Howard's final two cues of the soundtrack to be some of the best film music I have ever heard. You can forgive a movie a lot if it makes you squeal. I played those cues to death in the following months. Interestingly, I played the score before I saw the film and invited my imagination to come up with the visuals knowing little as I did about the actual content of the movie. But there was a piece in Hand of Fate Part One (the CD's cue name) that just had to be a huge space ship taking off... It was to accompany a spilled glass of water.

God, I love movies.

So to The Village. Hey, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody! God - such huge talent! Brendan Gleeson is also on hand looking eerily like Wayne Rooney's father. But most of all there is expectation. No film maker should work with the yoke of such pressure. I don't care if the higher flying Hollywood set are lauded with obscene amounts of cash, they are still expected to deliver the goods. With The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan got lucky. Lightning strikes are rare enough. The idea that powerful men and women ply him with unending cash to repeat what is essentially unrepeatable... He did it once therefore he is infinitely more qualified that Joe Schmoe to DO IT AGAIN... Art does not serve such facile masters.

So, seeing the world - cold and violence ridden - through the media's many lenses, the director envisages a way back to innocence and purity. The 19th century village community live almost Amish-like, secluded in the enveloping woods of Pennsylvania. There are elders, many secrets, unusual creatures in the woods and a devoted young couple. There's a twist (naturally) and once again it does little to further the story itself which simply put is 'young blind girl risks all to save her beloved'. Shyamalan's style is punctuated with hand held camera (I've never seen a film with so much of the backs of actors' heads) which I assume is meant to unnerve and unsettle given his usual tripods-and-dollies-set-in-cement style. His framing is such that it's your expectation of a shot that provides the suspense. There is a two shot of the lovers-to-be with a misty background that was screaming for a creature to emerge. Nothing happens but because of the suspense, I certainly wasn't paying attention to the dialogue. There are moments of directorial control that stand out - twice, Phoenix whisks his love away hand to hand as she blindly stumbles forward.

Lighting-wise, the film is also curiously overcast, (presumably to up the ante on the colour red which seems to be forbidden in the community). But it does make the film look drab and flatly lit during the daylight scenes. The most shocking part of the film, one that drew audible gasps from the audience, is a simple encounter between two men. The action is almost mundane but the staging tremendously effective. It’s the incident that threatens to upturn everything those in the village hold dear... This is perhaps not worth the price of admission but without Shyamalan's name and the expectation of a satisfying twist, The Village would have been remarkable as a movie, twice more remarkable as a Hollywood movie.

The vast marketing machine, emphasizing the creatures and the danger of the woods, so spectacularly misleads that it is no surprise that the box office dropped sharply after the first weekend. The Village is a boy meets girl tale. Most other considerations don’t really enter into it. If you want to go deeper into the woods then cross the line

(SPOILER ALERT)...


The head of the community played by William Hurt, had an epiphany. What if it were possible to go back to the good old days before oil turned nations into warmongers to maintain a lifestyle? How could decent folk protect their children from the horrors that terrorise the world? Well, with enough money (money again), the disillusioned parents of the 1970s, could create a 19th century community (Hurt was a history teacher), one in which their children would be raised oblivious to the fact that 9/11 actually happened, a world in which 'the middle east' was some far off land of great tales and legends. The surrounding woods were supposedly full of creatures that would attack if provoked - something to keep the kids at home. But in adhering to the strict 19th technology the village forwent modern medicine (big mistake) and so modern parents see their children die from preventable diseases (I can’t imagine any parent standing by watching their children die from something a simple anti-biotic would cure). Of course, the blind girl goes looking for help (she has to be blind, narratively speaking) and finds it, out there is the nasty 21st century. Shyamalan's idea is a sweet and sentimental one but it doesn't serve the basis of what's advertised as a horror film... Let's hope he can keep the twist at bay and try his hand at a waltz next time...

The Village

USA 2004
108 mins
director
M. Night Shyamalan
producers
Sam Mercer
Scott Rudin
M. Night Shyamalan
screenplay
M. Night Shyamalan
cinematography
Roger Deakins
editor
Christopher Tellefsen
music
James Newton Howard
production design
Tom Foden
starring
Bryce Dallas Howard
Joaquin Phoenix
Adrien Brody
William Hurt
Sigourney Weaver
Brendan Gleeson
review posted
2 September 2004