Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Village (2004)

Not Bad - But Not Shyamalan's Finest Hour


- Do not expect some kind of M. Night Shyamalan-bashing review here – I am a pretty big fan of the seriously underrated director and generally enjoy his 2004 thriller The Village. It has become incredibly fashionable to hate Shyamalan but, in my opinion, Signs (2002) and Unbreakable (2000) are terrific thrillers and even Lady In The Water (2006) is an misunderstood fantasy tale. The man has a talent for atmosphere and suspense – and The Village has both – but I was mildly disappointed with this Shyamalan film.

The atmosphere and visual presentation created by Shyamalan and company is certainly not the problem with the film. Shyamalan does an exquisite job creating a thick atmosphere for the film; The Village is effectively creepy when it needs to be and I would also argue that the more emotional pieces of the story are also handled very well. Shyamalan then relies on talented teammates Roger Deakins and James Newton Howard – as director of photography, Deakins creates a visually striking film world and as the film's composer, James Newton Howard writes a very powerful score.

The acting, however, is hit or miss. Joaquin Phoenix returns to a Shyamalan film after Signs and, while he has his good moments, is fairly lackluster; William Hurt and Brenden Gleeson act like they have no desire to be in the film (Hurt is wooden on top of it all); Weaver is miscast and particularly fails hard in delivering the film's old-fashioned dialogue; and Adrien Brody unfortunately goes "full retard" (as Robert Downey Jr. describes in Tropic Thunder (2008)) in the film to an embarrassing extent. Luckily, the cast is not all bad since Bryce Dallas Howard is absolutely incredible starring as main character Ivy Walker. Ivy is stricken with blindness but that does not affect her strong will, lust for life, and love of a man. Howard is phenomenal in the role and could make the film watchable all by herself.

Atmosphere, visuals, music, lead performance: all terrific. The Village is no dud. However, the major disappointment I have with The Village is Shyamalan's famous "twist" element. A director can employ a twist in the story well – see many Hitchcock films for some great examples – but the twist in The Village is an exercise in audience manipulation rather than audience stimulation.

The commonly held belief is that all of Shyamalan's films have twists. This is simply not true. First of all, The Happening (2008) and The Last Airbender (2010) simply have no twists at all. Secondly, there is a difference between twists as gimmicks and twists that serve the story. Signs and Lady In The Water have twists but they are not gimmicks – rather, they fulfill the film's general themes of "everything happens for a reason." The "twist" endings for The Sixth Sense (1999) and Unbreakable are gimmicks – but they work; successful in the way that they excitingly catch the audience off-guard.

The story twist in The Village is also a gimmick – but it is a forced and frustrating one in the way that it manipulates rather than stimulates the audience. When it is discovered that the village is actually a lie run by its elders and set inside a Pennsylvanian state park in the 21st century, the audience realizes that they have been duped. It would be one thing if Shyamalan had filmed the story with this twist in a more ambiguous way – but the more we think about the story and the twist, the more we feel like we have been cheated.

Unfortunately, Shyamalan did not film the story prior to the twist in an ambiguous way – everything is set up for us to believe that this story is set in the past. The opening shot of the 19th Century date on a grave stone and the characters' use of old-timey language throughout all point to a story that is supposed to be set in 19th Century America. When we realize that the story does not take place in the 19th Century but rather the 21st Century – we wonder why the characters had to talk with an old-fashioned speech when they were just going to raise their kids under false pretenses anyway. We wonder why William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver discuss events in the story as if they do not know about the monsters when they were two key people behind the whole façade to being with. Then we realize that the whole idea of the village was just to set up a story with a twist that was supposed to be really rad and that we were being deliberately fooled into buying into the twist and entire movie.

It is a shame, really.... The Village had potential to be a great thriller. But, in addition to some of the acting problems, the fact that M. Night Shyalaman conducts one of the most egregious cases of audience manipulation in film history makes The Village a disappointing film.

CBC Rating: 7/10

No comments: