by David Cornelius
Seeing how “The Village” is an M. Night Shyamalan film, I was compelled to ask myself as it started, “What’s the dumbest twist ending this story could possibly have?” And lo and behold, my guess was exactly what the movie gives us. It’s an ending so remarkably asinine in its contrivance that it could only come from Shyamalan.Of course, the guy’s been desperate to repeat the inexplicable success of the overrated assfest “The Sixth Sense,” and so he’s been putting out lame supernatural thrillers ever since, each one written from the twist ending backward. “The Village” is no different; it’s a boring, boring, boring movie that exists merely to have a shock finale, and that finale exists merely to be shocking. Shyamalan’s predictable twist endings make no sense in regards to the rest of the story, and the writer/director always gives us plots that seem bored with themselves, padded out bits of nothingness that pull us closer to the twist. This guy needs to break himself out of his rut, and soon.
"The big surprise? No refunds."
To his credit, “The Village” is his best work yet (despite its still being a stinky pile of gopher dung), with so many hilarious idiocies of his last three films replaced with a steady dullness. It’s not interesting, but at least this time it’s not too embarrassing (by Shyamalan standards, that is). There are still too many nuggets of unintentional guffaws, most of which come from hilariously misguided attempts at suspense, which themselves come from extremely overplayed and overserious performances.
Let’s look at Shyamalan’s method. The filmmaker has two distinct ways of getting a reaction from the viewer. The first is an attempt at creepy moodiness, in which actors whisper solemnly while nothing happens, the intent being that earnest whispering equals intensity and urgency (here, it actually equals tedium). The second is the cheapest trick in the book: the “sting.” Not trusting his storytelling to genuinely shock and surprise the audience, every surprise appearance (a monster suddenly jumping into frame) is accompanied by an overwhelmingly loud music sting from composer James Newton Howard, or a cranked up sound effect, or both. This is not suspense. This is surprise, the best scares Dolby Digital has to offer, and it’s a major cheat. Of course the audience jumps out of their seats - the very volume startles you. It’s the cinematic equivalent of someone sneaking up on you while you sleep and setting off an air horn. Cheap.
I suppose I should outline the film’s premise, which, like all Shyamalan films, is better than its execution. There’s a village in a valley, rural America circa the 1800s, where a good hundred or so settlers live in what looks to be three houses and a shed. (Sure, whatever.) Anyway, these residents live in constant fear of the creatures that roam in the woods that surround the valley. The creatures and the humans have left each other alone for a long time, until now, when the creatures come out and leave skinned Chihuahuas in the villagers’ fields, probably as some kind of warning. They also paint doors, making them not creatures to be feared but vandals that really annoy. Oh, and later, when we see a pile of sticks left in the woods, perhaps by the creatures, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Blair Witch knows these guys. When we finally do see these creatures, they’re so ridiculous in appearance that we kinda wish for the pajama aliens from “Signs” instead.
The creatures are known by the villagers only as the grammatically shaky “those we don’t speak of,” which is kinda funny, considering how much they speak of them. Sure, it sounds cool in a Voldemort kind of way, but the phrase makes absolutely no sense. If you’re not going to speak of them, don’t speak of them. Jackasses.
The majority of the plot follows - in excruciating detail - the courtship of Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) and Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is blind, not that we know this for a while. (Note to Howard: when playing a blind character, it’s not wise to follow the other actors with your eyes. Took me a good five minutes to figure out she was supposed to be blind.) Meanwhile, Adrien Brody pops up as the village idiot - the village idiot!! - in easily the strangest, most inexplicable, most ceaselessly annoying movie character in a good long while. And what to make of the unbearably sincere village elders, played by the likes of William Hurt, Brendan Gleeson, and Sigourney Weaver? This is a film stuffed with lousy performances from great actors.
There’s also some mystery about just how in the hell the villagers got to the village at all (what with having to have travelled through the impassable woods in the first place), and what each village elder is keeping hidden away in a secret box, and what’s locked away in a forbidden shed, and what, exactly, is the deal with the creatures?
The problem, or one of them, anyway, is that too much of the movie has the characters knowing more than we do - what’s in the boxes, what’s in the shed. And so instead of building genuine suspense over the course of the story, Shyamalan merely asks us to wonder when the plot will reveal what’s what, thinking that will add to the tension. It doesn’t. It’s not a mystery, just a waiting game, and where’s the fun in that?
Things get dumber as the plot trods on and Shyamalan drops in little twists on the way to the big one. These little twists are infuriating, mostly because (and this is without revealing any more than necessary) they invalidate the plot. Too many times does the screenplay lead us to an important point then drop a switcheroo that says “yeah, none of that meant anything, let’s go in this other direction for a while.” If ever there was a movie designed to convince the audience into thinking it’s wasting its time, “The Village” is it.
The script, however, has nothing on the incompetently showy direction that’s become the filmmaker’s trademark. What Shyamalan shows us once again with “The Village” is that he’s a guy who desperately wants to be seen as an artist on par with Alfred Hitchcock. Note how carefully he composes every shot - with empty pretentiousness. There’s one scene that reminds me of a failed film student’s attempt to copy “Taxi Driver:” in a famous scene in Scorsese’s film, the camera pans to an empty hallway while De Niro gets dumped over the phone by Cybil Shepard, the idea being that De Niro’s emotional pain was too excruciating to show on screen. In “The Village,” Shyamalan is constantly doing the same, panning away from important action, the camera stopping on, say, a pot stove, or a rocking chair. Why? Not because it heightens the impact of the scene, but just because the director thought it looked smart. It doesn’t. This is a movie filled with empty visual gimmicks that copy the cinematic smarts of Hitchcock, Scorsese, Kubrick, and so many others without actually understanding them.It pleases me that “The Village” is currently getting a shellacking from both critics and the public, all of whom are just now, apparently, getting clued into Shyamalan’s cheap tricks. A plotless movie leading to a meaningless twist? The guy’s a one trick pony, and now people are seeing him for the useless gimmickmeister that he always was. “The Village” may be his best movie to date, but it’s still a complete mess, a tiring, rambling story with no frights to make it worth the time. The ending is a joke, and so is everything that comes before it. In that regard, at least Shyamalan’s consistent.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=10269&reviewer=392
originally posted: 01/11/05 12:44:34