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It Takes A Gay Twist Ending

For "Those We Do Not Speak Of" they sure talk about them a lot.

A Brief Chronology

I hear that M. Night Shyamalan is coming out with a new movie: My interest is piqued; I've liked three out of four of his films that I've seen, and enjoyed the other one okay – not a bad track record. (I thought The Sixth Sense was taut, exciting, and perfectly executed; I hated Signs, but only for scaring me so much – I really enjoyed the movie a lot; I was indifferent towards but appreciative of Unbreakable; and I thought his lesser-known Wide Awake was adorable and very good – not that The Village would be anything like Wide Awake.)

I find out that the movie is set in olden times: My interest slumps somewhat, plus the teaser trailer makes it clear that a) Joaquin Phoenix is in this movie, and b) it will be scary. I begin to remember that I've grown sort of tired of watching the whole movie in anticipation of a twist being shoe-horned into the ending. I go around saying, "He directed a film with Mel Gibson and a Culkin, and Joaquin Phoenix is the actor he chooses to work with again?!"

I see more trailers: Interest continues to wane. Phoenix is playing a dullard (what a stretch!) and the whole "will they breach our boundaries" thing just seems like a heavy-handed ploy for suspense and terror.

I read a profile of Bryce Dallas Howard in "Premiere": She's quite lovely, and the magazine says she's great in the movie. Okay, maybe I'll see it if people are going or something.

I read a blurb in the same magazine about the Sci-Fi channel's semi-fictional profile of Shyamalan, which borrows from the marketing plan for The Blair Witch Project: I'm not thrilled about this very stupid idea, but I have to admit it doesn't affect my feeling about the film.

Opening weekend approaches: I'm a red-blooded American, and thereby susceptible to Disney's marketing machine. I develop an interest in seeing The Village, although I'm not in any extreme hurry.

Friends see the film before I do: No change.

Arksie says the movie is kind of dumb: Interest wanes. Maybe I dodged a bullet here.

Arksie (on The Athletic Reporter) reveals the twist ending: The twist sounds kind of cool. I develop an interest in seeing The Village just to see how it's treated in the movie.

The Village suffers one of the largest drops in revenue between its first and second weekends in recent film history: No change; friends are simultaneously telling me that I have to see it so I can talk about it with them, so I'm resigned to the inevitability of my eventually viewing The Village, for better or worse.

About a week passes: Time goes by. The laughter of children at play echoes in the background.

I go see The Village after work on a Tuesday: I'm excited, interested, curious, amused, engaged, surprised, perplexed, and disappointed. I write the following review.

The Part of the Review Without the Spoilers

There is a dramatic twist towards the end of The Village. Ordinarily, I would consider the previous sentence a spoiler – although I'd be in the minority – but in this case, the entire point of the Shyamalan machine is to keep churning out movies that take a dramatic twist towards the end, so technically I haven't told you anything you didn't already know. As I feared, the twists become somewhat of an albatross around the neck of the Shyamalan films. Even if you try really, really hard, you can't watch them without being aware that some giant secret is being kept from you. You trust nothing. Every moment is a possible clue to the twist. I would have hated watching The Sixth Sense this way for the first time. I can't say for certain whether it's better to watch them with an existing awareness of what the twist is. It's definitely very different. (I was lucky enough not to have the ending ruined for me in much explicit detail, there was still a lot to be curious about.) There's less pressure to be alert about everything, but then again a lot of things that you're supposed to ignore in the beginning because you don't know the secret kind of jump out at you as silly when you do know the secret.

In my opinion, the problem with the Shyamalan machine as it is employed in the case of The Village is that the movie shouldn't be about the twist, unless there's something really interesting being conveyed by the twist. Take The Sixth Sense: this is a story about a young boy and his mother dealing with his special situation; it's a gripping and moving story of their relationship, and the relationship of the boy to Bruce Willis. The twist doesn't really add or subtract from that. It recasts a couple of the relationships slightly, but it is still a good movie if the film breaks right before the twist and you don't see the end. Same with Signs – gripping, terrifying, fun even without the somewhat contrived ending. With The Village, the same cannot quite be said. The story is interesting, and the performances are delightful, but the story doesn't build to anything within the pre-twist portion, the way it did in The Sixth Sense or Signs. It just builds to... the twist. The twist is there in service of itself, not in service of the story.

The first thing that I noticed about The Village is that there's a character named Jameson. (Well, technically "Jamison," but it's pronounced "Jameson.") Why didn't Joe tell me that? Of course I'd have wanted to see the movie if I'd known that! (Plus, it's Rodger Dodger's Jesse Eisenberg – who can say no to that kid? He's great!) Also, Judy Greer! Ever since her adorable appearance on Celebrity Poker Showdown, I'll take as much Judy Greer as I can get. (Fortunately, as far as Arrested Development is concerned, I can have as much as I want.)

The film tells the story of a small village of people who carry out an isolated, self-sustaining existence in a clearing surrounded by woods. Beyond the boundaries of the village live creatures, referred to as Those We Do Not Speak Of, which are regarded as dangerous but do not threaten the villagers because of a long-standing truce. (Although they stray into the village occasionally enough that men must keep watch in towers by night, and every home has a "panic room"-style cellar in case of an attack. Also, they're attracted to the color red, so even in daytime, there's always the chance that they'll come after you if you're doing something ruddy.) When a tragedy occurs in the village, it must be decided whether to breach the boundary and risk a trip through the woods in order to seek help.

[Fair warning: in a few paragraphs, we'll arrive at the section with the spoilers. If you're interested in preserving the twist ending, scroll carefully from this point on.]

Wrapped up in this calamity is Ivy, played by Bryce Dallas Howard. Wow. She's just as fetching as "Premiere" would have you believe, and then some. I'll just say this right now, in case there was any doubt: any time you create a genetic hybrid of Zoey Deschanel and Alicia Witt, then endow her with the acting chops of both, you will not hear me complaining. With the exception of one or two perfunctory scares, the early part of the film is pretty slow and uninteresting, but Howard makes it enjoyable nonetheless. Say what you will about Clint Howard, he has a gorgeous niece. She delivers her lines with apparent spontaneity that approaches Goldblum's. Once, in a one-sided conversation with near-mute Joaquin Phoenix, she says, "No, I will not tell you what your color is, so just stop asking" in such a way that "asking" almost seems like two words. (He hadn't asked, by the way.) I simply can't bring myself to give Shyamalan credit for writing one really good character among a bunch of dull ones, so I'm giving Howard all the credit for breathing such vibrant life into Ivy. She is the reason I will probably buy this film on DVD. A relative newcomer to the screen (hired when Shyamalan saw her on Broadway), she adapts perfectly to the necessary subtlety, while also playing a blind person very convincingly. Also, she does that thing where the tip of her nose moves ever so slightly when she pronounces certain words. (So cute!) I'll hand it to Shyamalan on this count: he has the presence of mind to shoot her in profile and backlight her with moonlight to show off this quality.

Getting to see this scene makes sitting through all the scenes after it worthwhile.

If you want to understand what good acting is, watch Bryce Dallas Howard in this film. She creates Ivy as a real person and even in scenes of great emotion she plays her with realism. If anything makes the suspense of the story come alive in the first part of the movie, it's her. William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver deliver fine performances, but their characters are stiff and not relatable. Ivy is someone we can care about. As Joaquin's character says, "The only time I feel fear as the others do is when I think of you in harm." (And, by the way, when you have a character saying things like that in a movie, you can go right ahead and recommend that movie to me. That's like my mantra.) Howard is the emotional center of this film, and anchors it with such astonishing conviction that you can hardly look away. After Natalie Portman in Garden State, I feel lucky indeed to have two stellar performances from young actress in a row. (Plus bouncy ringlets. Never underestimate bouncy ringlets.)

Shyamalan makes a point about fear and innocence in The Village but it's more of a jumping off point for discussion; he doesn't really say anything specific per se. What he lays out is muffled by the various contortions that his story must undergo in service of the almighty twist. With a few minor changes, the twist could be excised and this could be a compelling little story. As it is, the film is well directed and expertly performed, but constructed rather poorly. At times fascinating and entertaining, it's ultimately rendered silly by the ending. By Hollywood standards, it's hardly a severe disappointment; but Shyamalan has shown us that he can do better.

Now, for my chance to really pick the film apart. Starting in the next section, I'll assume you've already seen The Village or you don't care if the ending is spoiled for you. (I strongly suggest seeing the film without knowing the ending; but if you don't plan to see it at all, I suppose it can't hurt to read on.)

The Part of the Review With the Spoilers

From the very first scene, The Village tells us that it takes place in the year 1897. It tells us that the village is surrounded by carnivorous creatures who pose a vague but constant threat. As it turns out, the story takes place in the present day. The village "elders" are just a group of people who, unsatisfied with the random violence of modern life, decide to isolate themselves from society, like a cult or militia. They believe that by maintaining isolation they can maintain innocence. As a new generation of villagers grows up, they use fear to keep them inside the village, constructing big, scary, Crash McCreery-designed monster outfits, and roaming around outside the village boundaries. They teach their children to be terrified of the woods and the color red, just as Ed Harris taught Jim Carrey to be terrified of water in The Truman Show to keep him on the island. In The Truman Show it was horribly manipulative, but in The Village it's sweet and protective? I don't buy it. I think the elders are doing a terrible thing, lying to their kids about the world in so many ways. But perhaps that's the point that Shyamalan is awkwardly trying to make. The problem is, he makes it in a wholly implausible way.

I think Shyamalan is commenting on the use of fear as a means of control. If the whole idea is "innocence" then shouldn't they trust people not to go into the woods if they tell them not to? And, if you're going to tell stories of giant carnivorous animals, shouldn't that be enough? When the film opens, the villagers are already plenty scared of TWDNSO. Why does someone have to dress up as a creature and wander around scaring people on a regular basis? That's fucked up. It would seem, based on relatively little evidence, that Shyamalan agrees. Is he comparing the elders to the Ashcroft/Ridge fear machine? The wanton use of escalated xenophobia to whip a population into a frenzy and keep them compliant? Or is he just commenting on the tradeoff between innocence and freedom – the children don't have the option to choose between a modern life and a pretend period life; this choice is traded away on their behalf in favor of some vague promise of safety. It's hard to be sure exactly what Shyamalan's point is, because by the time the twist is revealed, it's so contrived that you can't really take it seriously.

First of all, why 1897? Perhaps Walker, the William Hurt character and ringleader, romanticizes that period in American history because he's familiar with it as a teacher, but it was really no less violent than 1997 or 2004 or whenever the film is supposed to actually take place. For one thing, the whole problem of infection, which rears its ugly head once Phoenix is stabbed by Adrien Brody.

(By the way, in a knife fight between Adrien Brody and Joaquin Phoenix, I would have a very hard time deciding who to root for. That's like a caged deathmatch between Julianne Moore and Michael Gross.)

But even if the elders were devoted to the lifestyle of the 19th century, why do they have to pretend the date is 1897? Why not just tell the kids it's 2004? The kids obviously believe what they're told. There's nothing intrinsic about the number 2004 that implies there has to be an Internet and a Clay Aiken. Just tell them it's 2004 and this is how people live in 2004. Why not do that? For the movie. If he doesn't open the movie with a tombstone that dates the film to 1897, if he doesn't put everyone in period dress and have them talk in archaic language, Shyamalan can't set up the twist. As I've said, I'm not against the idea of twists – but I'm against the idea of subverting the story just to make the twists work. The period dress and the antique language aren't necessary for the innocence. (In fact, practicing that dialogue until it became rote would be a boring waste of time for all but the most devoted re-enactors – even for the history teacher, it's a stretch.) Not knowing about the outside world isn't necessary for the innocence, either. But they're necessary for the movie.

If it's 1897, won't it eventually be 1997? At some point, will the elders "invent" the ballpoint pen or the TV? It's the same problem The Matrix had – when you go around telling people it's the past, eventually the past is going to grow up, and then what do you have?

Besides, you have to go back a lot farther than the turn of the twentieth century to find completely self-sustaining communities that are cut off from the rest of the world in every way. This village never needs supplies? The cast-iron wood-burning stove that gets its closeup while Phoenix lies exsanguinating? That was forged right there in the tiny village? All the lumber and paint? All the textiles? Nothing comes in by train from another village? Why even tell the children that "the towns" exist? What's wrong with, "It's 2004, there's no such thing as an iPod, and we're the only people on the planet"? It leaves no room for a twist ending, that's what.

As we learned in Jurassic Park, there's no such thing as a perfect system. Noah (Adrien Brody) is Dennis Nedry, the snide 'n nerdy Wayne Knight character who adds the human element of unpredictability. You can't create some closed system and expect nothing to come along and exaggerate its vulnerabilities. In the first generation of village-born children, you've got a blind girl (Howard), a half-mute dullard (Phoenix), and a crazy retard (Brody). You're telling me that a few generations of inbreeding in that small group are going to reduce those sorts of anomalies? If Walker conceived the village as a short-term experiment, great. But if he intended for it to exist forever, he's nuts. Way too many variables. Shyamalan himself steps in to explain away the lack of airplane flyovers (someone paid off the FAA to restrict airspace over the nature preserve Walker bought and placed the village in). But that flimsy reasoning doesn't hold water. As the elders know, making something "off limits" will only make people more curious. If a helicopter should decide to have a peek, is the FAA going to shoot it down? (Besides, you're already lying to the kids, why not tell them airplanes are monsters, or celestial bodies like the moon?) What about fireworks launched nearby? Little bits of trash that birds pick up outside the village and put in their village-based nests? A real professor would realize how impossible the charade would be, and try to make things easier on himself by cutting out the monsters and the period garb. Just cut yourself off from society with some thick woods, like any self-respecting cult, and leave it at that. The present can be out there, you just don't interact with it. The only reason all those other elements are added is for the movie.

That's the chief complaint I have with The Village – its entire world is contrived at every turn in slavish service to the twist. Even lazier, Shyamalan throws in Noah, a character who's insane in a vague, nondescript way. Not really violent, until his sudden stabbing attack. Not really malicious until he finds a monster outfit (for no reason) that was stored (for no reason) under the floorboards of the cell he's confined to after attempting murder, then puts it on (for no reason) and runs into the woods to terrorize (for no reason) his friend and possible crush, Ivy. Need to cover some quick expositional tracks? Patch up a few story holes? Employ the M. Night Shyamalan Vaguely Crazy Guy (tm). He'll take care of whatever you need. What's his motivation, you ask? Why, he's crazy!

Maybe I'd overlook the laziness in the construction of the twist if its reveal weren't just as sloppy. A pair of elders get weepy and pop open their secret keepsake box to look at a few artifacts from the past/future: the late '70s or early '80s, right before they started the village. This is just smack-the-audience-over-the-head contrived exposition. (By the way, knowing about the twist, it was hard to stop giggling every time anyone talked about those secret boxes in the home of every elder. I kept wanting them to say, "Oh, that box? That's my cable modem. Oops... uh, nothing.") Opening the box and staring nostalgically at a conveniently staged photo of all the elders in front of their "Violence Survivors Clinic" or whatever is just way too implausible. Why not have the elders get into a fight that reveals what's really going on and why they started the village? Or, if the photo is so important – I came up with this during the closing credits, and it's way better – how about the box contains a pad of official Walker Nature Preserve stationery that the elders use to send messages to the people outside? They need to get out the stationery so they can write out the medicine they need, and when Ivy delivers it to one of the guards outside, he'll know it's from the boss and they have to help her. Now, there's an actual reason to open the box, and the photo can just fall out.

It's interesting to think about. Is safety worth sacrificing freedom? And will the future generations of villagers even have the option? Was it always in the plan to let a few of their kids in on the secret, or did they have to tell Ivy because of the stabbing? Could the last surviving founder of the village just burn the monster outfits and photographs and trust future generations to be adequately scared of the woods to keep the village going? It's interesting to think about, but it's hard to get past all the holes in the movie.

And finally, God damn, do I hate people who talk in the movies; and it's so much worse when the theatre is almost empty. I really can't express enough how much this bothers me. When is someone going to realize my dream of an aerosol larynx anesthetic that we can pump into movie theatres to shut people up?

1 Comment (Add your comments)

"kotc"Mon, 8/16/04 8:45pm


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