Published at: Oct. 14, 2008, 10:36 p.m. CST by Moriarty
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
Before we begin, let’s get something out of the way. I’ve noticed a trend where people now have decided that I hate M. Night Shyamalan. Somehow, retroactively, they have decided that I have always hated M. Night Shyamalan. Let’s look back at the “terrible” reviews I’ve written for his previous movies, shall we?
His last movie, SIGNS, was reviewed by me just prior to its release. Follow the link and you’ll see that my review was primarily a positive one, with some hesitations. The more I’ve seen of the movie, the more I feel that it’s a damn fine film up until the family emerges from the cellar, at which point I think it becomes a clumsy mess. I’m not calling the ending a “twist” ending, since people have become fixated on that word. I just think it’s a ham-handed way to handle the ideas he was trying to convey, and I think it’s laughably staged. Still, if I can make a film as effective as the first 2/3 of SIGNS one day, I’ll be a very happy boy, indeed.
Then there’s UNBREAKABLE, which I also allegedly loathe. Here’s my review for that one. I see what happened here. I gave the film a “mixed” review, and evidently, you’re not allowed to have a mixed reaction to things. You must either worship a film or despise it. You’re not allowed to feel that a film is uneven, or to have issues with it while liking some of it. We are an all-or-nothing culture, and thus... I am labeled a hater.
I never actually reviewed THE SIXTH SENSE on the site, although I did praise the script quite unabashedly many months before it came out. I called the script “a near-perfect example of storytelling,” and I feel the same way about the final film. I think it’s a great movie, especially for a director coming off of a mess like WIDE AWAKE. To me, it was the promise of greatness to come.
Of course, I wasn’t considered the enemy until I published my script review for what was still called THE WOODS at that point. After that, I learned something very interesting about Shyamalan’s fans. They will tolerate absolutely no criticism of him. None at all. There’s one fansite that cracks me up where they discuss how terrible anyone is who dares question the “genious” (sic) and his work. There’s not an artist alive who can thrive artistically when walled off completely from their audience, and Shyamalan is no exception. Reading his comments in the ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY cover story last week where, even now, he tried to call me a liar regarding my script review is fascinating, since everything I wrote about (with the exception of the reshot last five or ten minutes that he tries to deny he reshot) is exactly the same onscreen as it was when I wrote about it last September. I love when William Hurt blithely confirms “Of course we reshot the ending,” after the official denials by the director with the studio backing him up. Why all the frustrating doublespeak? It’s almost like he didn’t even watch his own film, since THE VILLAGE is all about secrets and lies itself. I can’t think of a more ironic disparity between a writer/director and the message of his movie in recent memory.
Oddly, my reaction to THE VILLAGE probably isn’t what you expect. Many of you have been writing me, absolutely sure you know what I’m going to say about this film before I even say it. Let’s see if this is what you expected:
Expertly directed and impeccably acted, THE VILLAGE is proof that M. Night Shyamalan is one of the most confident directors working in suspense today. The cast hits every note confidently and precisely, and the technical credits are as professional as anything you’re going to see in a theater this year.
But wait for it... here comes the twist ending.
THE VILLAGE is also proof that as Shyamalan becomes a better director with each picture, his skills as a writer become more and more secondary to the process. At this point, the thing he became famous for seems to be the thing he is least interested in.
If you’re squeamish about spoilers, go ahead and stop reading now. I think it’s preposterous for any critic to attempt to discuss this movie without actually digging into the text itself, and there’s no way to accurately describe what does or doesn’t work if you have to be all precious and coy about what the film’s themes are, or how they are conveyed. Fuck the tapdancing.
THE VILLAGE is one of the first films by a major filmmaker to tackle post 9/11 anxiety head-on. This is a film about life within a culture of fear, about burying your head in the sand. In some ways, this is Shyamalan’s 1984. The difference is, Orwell didn’t have the full weight of a six-month ad campaign telling us that Winston Smith was being stalked by monsters. The greatest disservice that could be done to this movie is presenting it as a horror film in any way, shape, form, or fashion. It’s not. In fact, the scenes that fall flattest in the film are those that are supposed to be scary. Instead, the suspense that works in the film rises out of simple character interaction. Almost everyone in this movie has a secret to protect, and the nature of that secret has to do with the way of life they all seem so desperate to protect. Edward Walker (William Hurt) heads up a community that exists completely outside of time, and it seems to be the late 1800’s, a pastoral lifestyle of simple chores and simple pleasures. Even when death intrudes on these people’s lives, it is a natural thing, due to illness or age. They live an innocent lifestyle, and they hold it dear. Over the course of the film, an odd trend presents itself when the village elders talk about their lives. All of them seem to have suffered some sort of loss in the days before the Village. All of them have fallen family members who died violently. All of them nurse broken hearts, and that common thread that binds them also provides a powerful motivation. Powerful enough for them to do anything to maintain control of this bubble of bliss. They seem to have good reason to be afraid of the outside world, too. “The towns” all sound like terrifying, wicked places, but before they could even get near them, they’d have to pass through Covington Woods, which they’ll never do because of the presence of Those We Do Not Speak Of, fabled monsters who have agreed to a truce as long as no one leaves the Village and as long as a few basic rules are agreed upon. The rules may seem arbitrary, but there’s no mistaking how seriously the elders take them.
Much of the first half of the movie has to do with the younger inhabitants of the village. Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) is a very serious young man, bristling at the rules, sure that he can improve the quality of life for everyone if he just challenges the fears that seem to cripple the elders. Kitty (Judy Greer) is a flighty young thing, brimming over with love even if she’s got no idea exactly where to channel it. Noah (Adrien Brody) is a simpleton, a naughty child in a man’s body. And then there’s Ivy (Bryce Howard), Kitty’s younger sister, the daughter of Edward Walker, loved by both Noah and Lucius in their own ways. She’s a beautiful person, inside and out, and she has an enormous presence. Howard is a real discovery, and no matter what happens with THE VILLAGE in the end, she’s guaranteed to move on to a huge career from here. In fact, everybody does wonderful work. Phoenix takes a fairly one-dimensional character and gives him unexpected charm, finding the quirks and carefully etching in the details. Greer is one of the best comic performers of her generation, and she turns one of the most awkward moments on the page and turns it into one of the highlights of the film, an over-the-top declaration of love that is absolutely hilarious because it is so loopily heartfelt. Brody’s got a really difficult role to play, and he does it well, particularly in a moment between he and Phoenix where everything changes. You’ll know it when you see it. It’s just after Ivy and Lucius have declared their intentions to wed to the elders. Brody really nails it, and he deserves credit for his work.
I also think Shyamalan works very well with Roger Deakins, one of the most versatile cinematographers in the business today. Shyamalan is getting better and better as a visual storyteller. I have had issues in the past with some of his choices in editing, but this time out, he seems to have perfected a deft touch in terms of when to use his patented long, uninterrupted takes and when to mix it up. My writing partner observed that this is the first film that feels while you watch it like his best scripts feel when you read them. The first thing that impressed me about him was his economy on the page, the way he managed to say almost nothing, yet convey volumes of information. He seems to have finally perfected a visual style that is the same thing, elegant and unadorned, but which feels like it’s packed with subtext.
The problem here is that his script lets him down. He’s actually better than his own material for the first time, and so this incredible cast and all of this exceptional technique is all utilized in service of a ham-handed fable that shoots its wad early, then limps through a miserable final third that insults the audience over and over again. It’s sort of amazing to witness this much good work wasted on something so inconsequential, and it is hard to describe the emotional effect of something so frustrating. The film’s really only got one sequence that could be described as frightening, and it’s well-staged. The Ones We Do Not Speak Of invade the village one night, and the alarm bell is rung, sending the villagers into a frantic scramble for safety. As we see the creatures creeping through the village, catching only the slightest glimpses of them, it’s tense stuff, and the sequence builds to a beautifully realized moment of tension. But Shyamalan shoots himself in the foot before he’s ever able to stage another scare.
You see... there are no monsters. They are a creation of the village elders, a tool with which they instill fear in everyone else. Here’s where you can start to draw parallels to our current societal situation if you want. The leaders of the village create monsters which they use to scare people into doing certain things and behaving certain ways. They use colors to indicate whether the villagers should be afraid or if they should feel safe. If anyone starts to question the leaders, they arrange for the monsters to attack, reinforcing the fear. Sound familiar yet?
When Lucius is hurt, Ivy has no choice but to head into the woods, and here’s where the film spins completely out of Shyamalan’s control. Her father reveals the truth about the monsters to her, and to the audience. Then when she heads into the woods, he still wants to wring fear out of us, so he actually tries to convince us that even though we just saw the costumes hanging in a shed, maybe the monsters really are real, and maybe he was just fooling about the fact that he was just fooling, and he sends a monster after Ivy. If you fall for that scene, then you might as well tattoo the word “sucker” on your forehead, because it is the single worst sequence in his whole career, and I’m including WIDE AWAKE in that. The scene is pumped up with James Newton Howard’s overblown score and sound effects like a snarling lion, but to no avail.
After that scene falls flat, there are even more surprises supposedly waiting for the audience, and Shyamalan flounders even more dramatically as he tries to wow us with his reveals. I can't even get into the bizarre logic problems that riddle the final act, but they are overwhelming. When we learn that the entire film takes place now, modern-day, it's clumsy and poorly staged, and it calls into question every single line of dialogue that comes before. Deciding to remove yourself from society is one thing. Deciding to speak like you're in a badly paraphrased version of THE CRUCIBLE for no good reason is another. I understand exactly what effect Shyamalan is hoping for with the ending, but it's a fundamentally flawed premise, one that unravels the more you examine it. The reshoots only cover about eight minutes worth of material, and the strangest thing about them is that he didn’t change any of what we learn during the scene... just how we learn it. Gone now is the legendary “stupid fucking white people” beat, replaced by Shyamalan’s most obnoxious cameo appearance to date as Ranger Exposition, a character who shows up only to feed us information that ties everything up in a big bundle of obvious. When the laughter started tonight in the Cinerama Dome, it was the sound of an audience realizing just how completely they had been duped. The conclusion of the picture seems to be aiming for an emotional sucker punch, a crescendo that will send us reeling out of the theater, but our good faith has been abused too severely by this point, and it just doesn’t work. It’s too late to reconnect. The damage is already done.
Here’s the thing... if M. Night Shyamalan was a bad filmmaker, none of this would matter. I don’t give a shit when Howard Deutch releases a bad film, or when Shaun Levy makes a shitty comedy, or when Eric Shaffer releases another film in which he improbably bones supermodels. I expect nothing from those filmmakers or the dozens of other mediocre guys who crank out bland, forgettable product every year. I can’t get terribly worked up when a hack does hackwork. What else should we expect? The truth is that M. Night Shyamalan is obviously an enormously talented man, and for that reason, giving him a pass on a film like this is a disservice to him. He is capable of better, and no matter how much talent he brings to bear on this story, there’s simply nothing underneath. It’s a magic trick with no finish, a joke with no punchline. THE VILLAGE is going to buckle under the weight of word-of-mouth, and only his most ardent apologists are going to buy into this one. This won’t end his career. Far from it. I’m sure it’s going to open huge. But this is definitely a defining moment for him. Whatever he does next, he’s going to have to treat his audience with more respect. It’s one thing to want to make a movie about lies. It’s another thing to make a movie that is a lie. Understanding that difference and being able to illustrate it is something that seems to have simply escaped him this time out.
So I’ll cross my fingers now, and I’ll hope that he builds from here on all of the things that are wonderful about his work, like his obvious ability to elicit great performances from actors and his exceptional eye. Even the greatest filmmakers stumble from time to time. It is the way they recover from these missteps that truly makes them great. Only time will tell...