Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Village (2004)

M. Night Shyamalan has made a lot of money making what critics like to call thrillers and director Eli Roth correctly pointed out are horror movies. "The Sixth Sense" and "Signs" are high-end horror films, but are ultimately of the same genre ilk as "A Nightmare on Elm Street," or a well-made Corman classic. What separates the Shay-man from the pack are his tightly-woven narratives. Not a frame or word in the writer-producer-director's stable is wasted or winged. This obsessive attention to detail gives each movie a dreamy, fable-like quality. The viewer is intensely aware that a story is being told, and that the skill and charm of the story-teller, however visible the technique maybe, sweeps away the imagination and maintains a vice-grip on even a waning attention-span.

"The Village," Shaymalan's adventure into the collective unconsciousness of America's larger-than-life tropes explores a society born and bread on the tightly-knight community dealing with the fear of the "encroaching other." Just as he did with the ghost story, the comic book superhero, and little green men before, Shaymalan offers an astoundingly familiar story and attempts to surprise the audience with its very familiarity. However, while the director's filmmaking skills are as sharp as ever, "The Village" falters when attempting a new spin on the tribulations of isolationists.

The story unfolds, urgently at first, of the tiny village of Covington, surrounded on all sides by the Covington Woods. The townspeople, lead by a group of benevolent elders (including William "Dark City" Hurt, Sigourney " Alien" Weaver, Brendan "28 Days Later" Gleason, and Cherry "Cradle Will Rock" Jones) who tell stories of the evil towns that lie beyond the forest. The towns, where violence reigns, are impossible to reach, as the woods are teaming with deadly monsters, deemed "The ones of which we never speak." However, the elders and the "others" have reached a tentative truce, with no one venturing into anyone else's turf.
Sigourney Weaver....still an amazing actress

The younger generation seems no more interested in leaving Covington than their parents, save Weaver's son, played with brooding desperation by Joaquin Pheonix. He desires to move through the woods to find the latest medicine for the villagers (and, of course, not to go on a journey of self discovery beyond his imposed borders, wake me when it's finished). Pheonix finds love in the person of Bryce Dallas Howard, a spunky blind tomboy. Adrian Brody embodies the village's retarded man-child, who must fit into all of this somehow.

As with all Shaymalan's films, it would be cruel to give away too many pieces of the puzzle or any of the many twists and turns. However, this is the great downfall of "The Village." Instead of a creepy-campfire tale, which many fans have come to expect, "The Village" is a simple social commentary with some horrific undertones. However, the films biggest reveals may be spotted earlier on in the film but will still be shocked when they have been confirmed, and those looking for a signature "twist" will not be disappointed. As usual, Shaymalan is fantastic in style, but he falters here under substance. To be fair, multiple viewing may be necessary to gain a full appreciation of the underlying themes, once the tricks and dupes have been fully explored.

The acting is strong, with Hurt putting in a fine, muted performance, and Weaver still stunning and powerful as a secretive matriarch. Howard, daughter of Ron "Opie" Howard, is wonderful in her first major film role. She eschews Hollywoodesque "good looks" and allows her sexual power and maternal care to come out through a very open, emotional performance.

Shaymalan remains one of the strongest mainstream filmmakers working, and the flaws of "The Village" lie primarily in his script. I would like to see him bring someone else's script to screen, and use the same care and deliberate craftsmanship while eliminating the clunkier aspects of his work and freeing him from his self-imposed "trick" endings. "The Village" is better than most of the brainless summer fair, and it's always nice to see a major studio release a film with a perspective, but the interesting premise is not entirely served by its "shocking" finale.

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