Monday, August 09, 2004

The Village

I went and saw M. Night Shyamalan's The Village this weekend. It was quite good, despite the rather bad reviews it has been given. Lots of the complaints in the reviews were rather unreasonable (Roger Ebert's is particularly silly, and far, far below his usual standard; he apparently thinks a bored tone counts as a critical review). For instance, it is true that much of the dialogue is a bit stilted. It is also clear, and becomes clear in the course of the movie, that this was intentional. It's a bit corny at times, but for the most part doesn't distract from it at all.

Shyamalan has become famous for 'twist' endings. This is a case, I think, of the critics getting a notion into their heads and being unable to part with it. What do we mean by a 'plot twist'? We can mean, for instance just about anything that changes the story in any way. Shyamalan's endings are 'twists' only in the sense that he likes to run a plot with several loose ends that get suddenly tied up in a scene or two. If you want to bring a movie to a good climax, that's what you do; this is why Shyamalan's movies tend to be unusually good: he is a master of building a movie so that, in retrospect, all the prior scenes build up to that scene or scenes. Some of it obviously was building that way, some of it was a bit unexpected; but it was all building to those scenes. This is not 'twist' but ordinary story-telling. Critics, however, have gotten it in their hands that Shyamalan must always have a 'twist' that spins their heads, never quite realizing that the best way to guarantee their heads will never spin is to keep looking for the twist that will spin them. If you constantly are expecting something unexpected, you are bound to be disappointed sometime. But Shyamalan's endings, although they can throw the unexpecting for a loop, are not less good even if one can tell how they will turn out. It is the height of critical stupidity to demand otherwise. But critics stupidly demand it.

The ending of The Village will surprise some; but it is very clear from the movie that any surprise is not the point of the movie. For one thing, the thing the critics keep thinking is the 'surprise' or 'twist' was clearly not the surprise at all - the real surprise is rather subtle. It is also very quietly placed into the movie - nothing has been done to draw attention to it that would distract from the real point of the story, in which hope overcomes fear. Terry Lawson of the Detroit Free press wrote a review in which he said, "All this craftsmanship and a very fine performance by Howard (daughter of director Ron), however, is in the service of a story that unlike Shyamalan's previous films contains no underlying themes or ideas (the loss of faith in "Signs"; the hero-needs-a-villain comic book mythology of "Unbreakable"; the ghostly grief of "The Sixth Sense") to support the scares." No underlying themes or ideas? Even an idiot can tell that the underlying theme of The Village is the overcoming of fear by hope. For people who keep insisting that the movie is too obvious, the critics have missed a lot of rather obvious things. Lou Lemenick at the New York Post Online makes exactly the same point about the scares, for a different reason: The message keeps getting in the way. What message? He makes up a weird political allegory which doesn't fit with the plot or characters at all.

Another prejudice that seems to be getting in the way of critical judgment: the critics were all disappointed that it wasn't as scary as they expected. My view on the matter: so what? Some people will be scared by part of the movie, others will not. It changes nothing. The scare, to the extent there is one, is just the lure; it is not the point of the movie.

This movie is not Shyamalan's strongest work. But it is a good one. It requires seeing past period costumes and unusual diction, and some people don't really feel like doing that in a cinemaplex. That's fine; it's perfectly reasonable. But there's excellent work here that people with a bit more patience should enjoy, if they don't get silly notions in their heads.

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