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M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village: Romance of the Woods

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As part of the publicity for The Village, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan apparently pretended to have a falling out with the makers of a supposed documentary about the new movie that aired on the Sci Fi Channel. The falling out wasn’t real and the documentary turned out to be a three-hour infomercial. News outlets have reported that the American press is angry about the “hoax.” In addition, a Disney representative reportedly asked critics at press screenings not to reveal the new movie’s plot twists.

Maybe the clumsy p.r. explains why the reviews of The Village have been so harsh. The critics focus almost exclusively on the plot, insisting like children that they weren’t taken in or scared, and like undergraduates that they’re far too sophisticated for Shyamalan’s pretentious and either simplistic or indecipherable “message” or “allegory.” (The latter term is used as a pejorative synonym for moralizing though without comparing the movie, favorably or otherwise, to such undeniable classics of allegory as the Romance of the Rose, The Faerie Queene, or The Pilgrim’s Progress.) The booby prize may go to Chris Kaltenbach who carps in the Baltimore Sun that the setting anachronistically looks like 16th-century Salem, Massachusetts, but altogether a more obtuse set of reviews, a more gruesome compendium of sarcastic “wit,” would be hard to fake.

Is being able to guess the movie’s surprise entirely a bad thing? First off, a surprise works only once. And if it’s essential to enjoying the movie, wouldn’t that mean that the more successful the surprise the more disposable the movie after the first viewing? To me, the foreseeability of the twist at the end of The Village indicates that it’s plausible.

The story takes place circa 1897 in a rural Pennsylvania community the elders of which have arranged an anxious truce with the malevolent creatures (referred to as Those We Don’t Speak Of) inhabiting the surrounding woods. The elders require villagers to request permission to go into the woods, or through the woods to the “wicked” towns beyond, which is always denied, even to get medicine not otherwise available. When the creatures make a spate of attacks on the settlement’s livestock, the elders hold meetings to discover who has roused the enemy. But The Village isn’t like Shirley Jackson‘s story “The Lottery,” in which there has to be a scapegoat. Shyamalan’s elders, who have raised their children to speak what they seem to think of as a wholesome version of English, without slang or even contractions, in which it’s all but impossible to speak deviously, want everybody to be safe and happy. The question is whether the elders can remain mild-mannered and still enforce their better way of life.

The plot secret involves the nature of the creatures, but also the reason the elders have formed this community out in the woods. They have a specific reason, as do the transcendentalists in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance (modeled on Brook Farm), and the escapees in As You Like It, for that matter. It strikes me as believable enough, given the history of such American utopias as New Harmony and the Oneida Community. My own sister moved to rural Vermont in the 1980s in order to live where she wouldn’t have to lock her car; she ended up living in a cabin a mile’s walk through the woods from where she parked it.

The explanation in The Village also justifies the inauthenticity of the movie’s recreation of the 19th-century setting, but at the same time this is where Shyamalan has brought criticism down on his own head. He cantilevers that explanation against too much of the running time of the movie during which you feel veteran performers like William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson, and Cherry Jones conveying more information than you can make sense of, without creating adequate characterizations. (The elders would be more memorable if the movie were more allegorical, i.e., if each one represented a singled-out human trait.) You just think they’re overacting, and even once you know what’s behind their efforts, it’s not as if you can replay the movie to appreciate the nuances. This aspect might be better on second viewing but doesn’t encourage you to give the movie a second shot.

That isn’t the case with The Sixth Sense (1999), which gets to you because the boy’s extra-sensory perception stands for the vulnerability of childhood. His sixth sense makes him a little clairvoyant detective, and what he exposes–a crime against a girl by her own mother–shadows your concern for the boy whose heroic power is both a gift and an affliction. He’s deeply spooked, and the movie makes you feel for him as intensely as his own mother does. (Toni Collette’s intent naturalistic acting thus works in this ominous supernatural context far better than in the friendly but thin realism of About a Boy.) I was surprised by the ending of The Sixth Sense, but I was already securely in the movie’s thrall, held by Haley Joel Osment’s rapt, reluctant-sibylline performance.

With Unbreakable (2000) Shyamalan tried to do it again with adult stars playing grown-up traumatized children. But the situation doesn’t tap into our remembered vulnerability as effectively, perhaps because the concept of two adult men discovering their comic-book opposition–one an unlikely and hesitant superhero, the other a villain whose ironic quest is to get the superhero to fulfill his role so that his own twisted life will make sense–is too “nifty,” not primal enough, to be played straight in the manner of The Sixth Sense. The incongruity of Bruce Willis’s depressive loser coming to accept that he’s invincible isn’t developed and so can’t work in the movie’s favor. We keep getting the giggles but the movie is too muted to know what to do with them. (At the train station, for example, when Willis has visions caused by criminals brushing against him, he seems to wait for a really good one before acting, like a fisherman throwing puny trout back into the stream of consciousness. What follows is standard serial-killer movie suspense.)

That’s why the openly comic approach of Signs (2002) was such a satisfying next step for Shyamalan. Mel Gibson slows his timing down so that the hurting-widower gaze and the cartoony bug eyes that he used alternately in the Lethal Weapon movies merge. Gibson is woeful as all get-out as the preacher who’s fallen from grace after the death of his wife, but he delicately plays the helplessness that this exposes him to in the face of an alien invasion for laughs. At times he keeps the comedy zinging just by observing how the invasion is affecting his brother and kids. Though himself a notorious true believer, Gibson daringly gives us spiritual slapstick. And he teams up wonderfully with Joaquin Phoenix as his brother, who somehow combines brute lumpishness, athletic masculinity, and childish openness, and makes this threatening, stunted young man comic. The moment when Gibson discovers his children and brother wearing the tin foil hats is as deliberately wacky as anything in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! (1996), and funnier for being unexpected.

Signs, too, has an allegorical level of meaning–faith is for the moments that most cause you to doubt–and no, this meaning is not especially profound. But who goes to these movies with a reasonable expectation of profundity? What’s important about any movie, including those that are profound, is the experience of sitting through it, how it plays. Shyamalan is an ingenious popular entertainer–when did that become an affront to critics?

What nobody has mentioned is that Shyamalan has done something new for him in The Village: at the center is a stirring love story involving Joaquin Phoenix and Bryce Dallas Howard, and if the studio had any sense they’d be pitching the movie to women.

I can’t be the only person who’s always glad to see Joaquin Phoenix onscreen. The kind of young actors who get a lot of attention either have flashy technique (Nicolas Cage, Sean Penn) or are sold like reliable-but-always-updating products (Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt). Phoenix hasn’t received, or perhaps isn’t receptive to, buff-and-polish star processing and has never had much in the way of technique. Yet he so thoroughly, so physically, imagines his way into character that there isn’t a lot refined technique could do for him. When Penn’s dramatic-technique switch is on, his sensitivity switch is off. Phoenix is always sensitive, and has been since his earliest adult appearances, in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1995), Inventing the Abbotts (1997), and Return to Paradise (1998). In Gladiator (2000) he drew me in playing a sadistic, incestuous, literally back-stabbing villain more than Russell Crowe did as the stolid hero (and Phoenix was totally unself-conscious about the period setting to boot, just as he was in Quills (2000)).

Phoenix is probably the best tender juvenile since Anthony Perkins or Timothy Hutton, but without the sense of sexual blockage that limited their careers. He has bluff masculinity without callouses. His boyish nerves are fully exposed, but he’s too butch, and even menacing, for pathos, which could be grotesque given he can fill space like an adolescent bull. Instead, at his best, he manages to play his natural-manchild persona for comedy that is broad and yet slyly understated–he gets a big laugh in The Village just by standing stockstill and mute when the wrong girl joyously proclaims her love for him. Foolishness just seems to add to his underlying strength, and his boyishness creates drama–you want to see him grow into adult awareness and mastery of that strength.

Although Lucius Hunt, Phoenix’s character in The Village, is tongue-tied, you’re always aware of what he’s feeling, and it’s always noble without being icky. Phoenix as Lucius quietly embodies the ideal the elders created the community to foster. For her part, Howard’s character Ivy Walker, who’s (mostly) blind but radiantly vital, matches a popular contemporary female self-image: she’s a tomboy who likes physical activity and joking but she’s also somewhat helpless. Bryce Dallas is Ron Howard’s daughter; growing up in a moviemaking family may account for her utter ease in front of the camera. Personality just shines off her, but she can also focus and direct it. For both Howard and Phoenix the awkward dialogue presents no bar to expressiveness.

Howard spectacularly combines self-reliance with rescue fantasies, but Shyamalan is better at filming the latter, perhaps because they tie in to male fantasies he shares. Boy, does he film them well. When the creatures interrupt a wedding, we see Ivy purposefully taken by the hand and led to safety before we see who’s taken her, and yet we know it’s Lucius. And the scene on the porch in which Ivy’s teasing and Lucius’s own emotion sweep him past his inarticulateness is one of the most stirring declarations of love I know of. Phoenix gives it the force of an outburst, a breakthrough into the kind of romantic bond we dream of.

Lucius’s declaration is so simply shot and surprisingly potent it’s possible that Shyamalan himself didn’t know what he was going to get from Phoenix–it feels like an upsurge of naked emotion. By the end, however, it’s Ivy who has to undertake a quest through the threatening woods to save Lucius. The female version of the journey-as-ordeal is not unheard of in romance: the most realistic and the most powerful may be Jeanie Deans’s walk to London in Walter Scott’s The Heart of Mid-Lothian (based on the historical, and aptly named, Helen Walker), the best known nowadays, and the most fantastic, Dorothy’s journey to the Wizard of Oz. This narrative trope also includes Little Red Riding Hood, Little Nell on the road with her grandfather in The Old Curiosity Shop, Eliza’s dash across the frozen river in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Scarlett O’Hara’s arduous return to Tara from Atlanta with the postpartum Melanie in the wagon in Gone With the Wind, and Katharine Hepburn’s transformative river voyage in The African Queen.

As a romance device, the journey/ordeal is more common with a male protagonist, (e.g., Odysseus’s wanderings, the adventures of all knights-errant, Tamino’s Prüfung in The Magic Flute, Martin Chuzzlewit’s fevered, abortive sojourn in the U.S. and David Copperfield’s trudge to his aunt’s in Dover, Huck Finn’s trip down the Mississippi, etc.), but it serves the same function either way. And Ivy’s blindness doesn’t make it ridiculous: it’s a test of spirit not a literal Olympic event. (Click here for the etymology of “ordeal” and here for historical accounts.)

The problem with this final section of The Village is that it’s intertwined with the surprise revelation, which is in a realistic, rather than a supernatural, mode and thus blunts the impact of the ordeal, which is essentially a romance element, i.e., fantastic (Ivy is blind, after all). Shyamalan does not show Scott’s ability in The Heart of Mid-Lothian to dovetail genres. This may also be why the ordeal is so indifferently shot (unlike the act of violence that necessitates the ordeal, which is as unaffectedly startling as any I can recall). By the time Ivy sets out we know too much to have responded if it were made spooky, and yet it needs some stylized distancing technique because it’s symbolic, an internal struggle projected out onto the world. Not to mention, by this time Lucius is out of commission, and, as good as Howard is, she’s better when she’s provoking and responding to Phoenix.

Shyamalan works out a solid premise and expands his range, but makes some miscalculations. The combination of genres is altogether stumbling. The problem with Adrien Brody‘s role as an unbalanced young man isn’t that the character is the village idiot, or that the actor overdoes it, but that his symbolic function as the personification of the folly and criminality that are inescapably human (like Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge) doesn’t quite mesh with the realistic explanation any better than the ordeal does. They might have, perhaps, but don’t.

In addition, the movie could use more humor. Having one of the kids make a crack about the fact that they speak of Those We Don’t Speak Of all the time could have turned a minus into a plus. (If Shyamalan didn’t intend this irony then the name must be an error for Those Whose Name We Don’t Speak, or some such.)

Finally, I’m not too attached to the movie’s intimations about how fear can unite a community. The experience-tested home truths dramatized by the love story, however, along the lines of, “Love heals … the wounds it’s responsible for inflicting in the first place,” do resonate, because of the performances and direction. And as for the deficit of humor, the grave, tremulous mood protects the love story and it’s more than a fair bargain. The scene on the porch between the two young, uncorrupted stars suffuses the entire movie and has made me forgive, if not forget, the movie’s flaws.

You can find this review and a lot besides at The Kitchen Cabinet.

Alan Dale is the author of What We Do Best: American Movie Comedies of the 1990s and Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.

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