A lot of internet critics are running around in a tizzy because Touchstone Pictures banned all online press from anything having to do with The Village. Granted, I was a little miffed, but tonight when I walked into the theater I was chiefly just hyped to get a chance to see the latest from one of my favorite writer/directors, M. Night. What I got was a major misstep. Cancel your Newsweek covers, Shyamalan just flopped off the road to becoming the next Hitchcock.
The difficulty in talking about The Village is in avoiding spoilage since the first twist happens not far from the movie’s halfway point. But the setup is basically what you’ve seen from the trailers. A bunch of people in an unspecified time period, but dressed like the Amish, live in a village. Around the village is a forest. In the forest are mysterious and unspecified creatures which for unexplained reasons really seem to hate the color red. As long as the villagers don’t go in the forest, the scary creatures in the forest don’t come into the village and do unknown things to the folks and their children who live there.
Of course a tense situation like that can’t go on forever, but the villagers live out an idyllic existence filled with meals at very large tables and children playing in fields. They all speak in a weird and unexplained halting dialect, which proves more annoying the longer you’re forced to listen to it. The accents in fact serve double duty, making even the best attempts by The Village’s actors sound as if they’re slowly reading their lines off of cue cards. Eventually, the local blind girl (Bryce Dallas Howard) falls for a boy (Joaquin Phoenix), while her mentally disturbed friend (Adrien Brody) does insane and comedically relieving things. Then everything gets really strange, creepy fiddling is played, and the movie struggles to seem suspenseful even though what it offers up as revelation isn’t all that much of a surprise. Even if it were, as surprises go it’s pretty bland… made even more so by the muted and disconnected way in which Night chooses to reveal it. Gone is the big, character destroying twist of Unbreakable, in which we watch Bruce Willis’ ego crushed by the weight of what he’s just discovered. Missing is the unexpected and heartfelt revelation of The Sixth Sense in which we finally understand something towards which the entire movie has been building. Instead we get a narrative voice over, half started, stopped, and then started again to show off Night’s lame duck surprise.
I never really understood what this movie was supposed to be. Is it suspense? Is it horror? Is it a serial killer movie? Maybe it’s a period piece. There are even times when it comes close to romantic comedy. It tries to be all of those things, but never really follows through on any one of them. It’s a hodgepodge of empty promises and weak kneed scripting that’s trying to squeeze something to say out of a story idea that just isn’t very good. I think Night convinced himself that his narrative had some deeper, darker meaning. That the creatures were an allegory for something important, that his idea had some sort of relevance as biting social commentary. But his idea isn’t all that interesting and where he chooses to take it only makes it even less so.
His visual style, usually so stunning and innovative is reduced to something appropriate to The Village’s already muted story. It’s dull, uninteresting, and poorly chosen. His most visually engaging shot in the movie has him filming his actors from behind while looking out on obviously fake, backlit fog. Night seems to be looking for excuses to do cool things with his camera when there’s really no reason to do so. In one scene two characters stand in a doorway, while the camera looks out, showing the steeple of a church behind them. Night almost imperceptibly begins rotating his camera to the left, giving me the bizarre impression that the church behind them was somehow attempting to slide off the screen in shame. His choice of camera movement added nothing to the scene and in fact took away from it, as I was rather pre-occupied with a bad case of church sliding vertigo and missed most of what his characters were saying.
Most of all though, The Village fails because the story fails to connect with it’s characters and subsequently it’s audience. Night’s strength has always been in telling bizarre stories grounded in a world of absolute reality. The Village isn’t grounded. It’s floating around out there in some weird fantasy land where it’s a good idea to send blind people stumbling around in the forest helpless.
I’m not going to lambaste The Village for being predictable. That’s too easy and often Shyamalan haters get so caught up in his movie’s twists that they miss the bigger picture. The twist doesn’t matter if the journey is compelling, if the journey is sound. In The Village, it just isn’t. Night presents generally static characters who end the film much as they began. He just doesn’t have anywhere to take us.
Really, I guess the movie isn’t a total waste. Night delivers some intriguing footage here and there, enough to keep it from being a total bore. William Hurt while generally wasted, gets a few really stunning and passionate scenes. Newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard proves surprisingly charming even though the somewhat stunted dialogue she’s given doesn’t leave a lot to work with. As much as it flails around and leaves things hanging, The Village is not a painful experience. There are one or two good jump out of your seat scares and enough questions raised to keep your brain thinking throughout. But for a movie being touted as suspense, The Village isn’t very suspenseful and for a movie with such big anticipation The Village doesn’t seem to have much to deliver. It’s not terrible, it’s just lame. In a way maybe that’s even worse than being truly bad.