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The Village

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  • Noel Vera
    Village of the dumb Noel Vera It would have been nice to go against the negative critical tide washing all over M. Night Shyamalan s latest movie The
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 19, 2004
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      Village of the dumb

      Noel Vera

      It would have been nice to go against the negative critical tide
      washing all over M. Night Shyamalan's latest movie "The Village"--to
      find some kind of virtue where everyone else found endless fault--
      but I didn't like it enough to want to defend it, even, if only, out
      of a sense of perversity. Not a big Shyamalan fan, even if I did
      enjoy "The Sixth Sense"--enjoyed Bruce Willis' whispery lead
      performance and Haley Joel Osment's easy intensity (back before it
      started feeling so manufactured), though I had reservations about
      his ultimately benign vision of the afterlife; enjoyed "Unbreakable"
      even more, because it was Shyamalan's coming-out movie, the picture
      where he declares "I'm a comic-book geek, and don't care if everyone
      knows about it." "Unbreakable" didn't do well, commercially and
      critically, possibly because people were turned off by the fact that
      he WAS a comic-book geek, but for some reason I found that kind of
      nutty confessional fantasy filmmaking appealing.

      It was with his third movie "Signs" that a sense of apathy began to
      overcome whatever mild appeal he had for me--never mind that Mel
      Gibson gave his least egotistic performance (as either actor or
      director) in years, or that Joaquin Phoenix had a whispery intensity
      (whispering apparently being a popular mode of expression in
      Shyamalan's pictures); the movie's villains--extraterrestrials
      attempting to take over the Earth--were some of the lamest, laziest,
      most unenterprising alien invaders I've ever seen (they might have
      done better to have watched Nigel Kneale's "Quatermass" series

      "The Village" again has Phoenix--Shyamalan must have adapted him as
      a collaborator of choice (or vice versa)--and he plays one of the
      village's few eligible bachelors with understated authority,
      trusting that his notable lack of dialogue would make him compelling
      both to us and to the village girls (it works, somewhat). It also
      has the charming Bryce Dallas Howard as a beautiful blind girl of
      some spirit making eyes at Phoenix, plus a handful of overqualified
      supporting players: William Hurt, former hunky '80s lead star turned
      creepy character actor, as a heavily whiskered village elder;
      Sigourney Weaver, impressive regal cheekbones and all, given little
      to do as Phoenix's mother; Adrien Brody, enjoying himself
      tremendously after suffering through Roman Polanski's "The Pianist,"
      playing the village idiot.

      This happy few--vaguely Amish-looking and living in what looks like
      the late 19th century--speak formally stilted English (a real
      vacation for Shyamalan, whose dialogue in his modern-day screenplays
      keep acquiring distractingly odd, presumably Indian, cadences) and
      live their innocent lives next to a mysterious, somewhat threatening
      forest. Strange things happen: monstrous sounds are heard deep in
      the woods; skinned and mutilated animals are found; much mention is
      made of "Those We Do Not Speak Of" (why do they keep getting
      mentioned then?). The villagers are basically happy, but the edge of
      their consciousness is surrounded by a misty anxiety.

      Everyone has pointed out how Shyamalan's insistence on having his
      movies finish on some kind of plot twist has raised audiences
      expectations, probably past the point where he can actually fulfill
      them, and while this in some part is true, I don't feel it's the
      core of what's wrong with his recent work. His real problem is that
      he's under so much pressure to surprise his viewers that he's ready
      to sacrifice everything--credibility, consistency, and worse of all
      characterization--to his all-important shock ending. I mean, granted
      the villagers' fear of "Those We Do Not Speak Of"--would any of them
      really stand at an open doorway, waiting, while those Unspeakable
      ones walked about? On the other hand, granted their fear of the
      forest, would any of the villagers really leave one of their own,
      helpless, behind (you'd think they'd at least try harder to talk
      them--maybe even force them--into coming back)? Alejandro
      Amenabar's "The Others," to name a better example of contemporary
      horror, had a mildly startling finish (and one you can see
      beforehand if you pay attention carefully enough) but what stays in
      the memory isn't the ending but Nicole Kidman's compelling
      performance as a control-freak mother whose mind is slowly,
      convincingly giving way to hysteria, and Amenabar's evocative

      As for the ending itself (skip this paragraph if you want to
      actually see the movie)--it raises so many questions that the whole
      movie collapses (unlike in "The Sixth Sense," where the ending
      answers enough questions that the movie makes more sense--somewhat).
      How did the elders get the kind of authorization needed to isolate
      the village? How do they expect to keep up the illusion with future
      generations? Why would Hurt's character allow his daughter to
      venture off (it's possible, I suppose, I just don't think what I saw
      onscreen sufficiently explained what he did)? Worse of all, just
      when things start to get really interesting--when we learn the true
      nature of the relationship between the elders and their children--
      the movie ends, just like that.

      The sad thing is, it's not as if Shyamalan is totally devoid of
      talent--what may have made audiences and critics so unforgiving of
      this movie (and of the previous "Signs"), must have been the
      expectations he raised in the first place. "The Sixth Sense" was a
      huge hit, and its mildly inventive visual style, odd storytelling,
      and (yes, yes, admittedly part of the package) twist ending helped
      make it so. "The Village" is, if anything, even better looking
      than "The Sixth Sense" with its shockingly bright reds, warm torch-
      lights, and brooding forest mists (photographed by the wonderful
      Roger Deakins, who took over from Barry Sonnenfeld's former job as
      the Coen brothers' cinematographer); even its sound design is a vast
      improvement over "The Sixth Sense," which relied on cheap-sounding
      shriek music, played loud for maximum shock effect. More, Shyamalan
      still eschews digitalized and processed shots (far as I can see,
      anyway), preferring to create his special effects on-camera, to
      achieve mood and atmosphere through visual style and music.
      Shyamalan has grown in skill as a director, you just wonder if he'll
      ever grow up as a storyteller.

      (First published in Businessworld, 8/13/04)

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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