August 03, 2004

Roger Ebert is a hack

Way back in 1999, a sleeper hit by a new director, M. Night Shyamalan, made a bundle of money thanks to word of mouth. When I heard that The Sixth Sense was a horror flick, I gave it a pass, as generally speaking that sort of thing isn't my cup of tea. (Horror fiction, on the other hand . . . well, it's no secret that Stephen King is my favourite novelist.) I think I actually felt my brain putting all the pieces together at the end. "This guy is the next Alfred Hitchcock," I thought.

By contrast, Shyamalan's next effort, Unbreakable, was also good, but by the time the credits rolled I didn't feel that the payoff was as great. Still, it was an excellent play on comic-book conventions.

I have yet to see Signs, but now that I've seen Shyamalan's latest release, The Village, I'll soon be beating a path to the friendly neighbourhood video store to rent a copy.

The Village opens with the funeral of a seven-year-old boy; according to the date on his headstone, the year is 1897, and the setting is a New England village isolated from the rest of the world by forest. It is ruled by a council of elders, most significantly the schoolteacher, Edward Walker (William Hurt), and the widow Alice Hunt (Sigourney Weaver). About 100 people live a quiet, peaceful life, eating communal meals and raising crops and livestock.

All is not well, however, because the villagers live in fear of "Those We Do Not Speak Of" (whom for brevity I shall call "Those" hereafter), carnivorous creatures that lurk in the woods. The villagers and Those have an uneasy truce: the people don't go into the woods, and Those don't come into the village. Anything red (the "bad colour") is forbidden within the village and must be buried, as it attracts Those. On the other hand, the perimeter is marked with poles sporting torches, yellow flags, and yellow paint blazes, and those walking near the perimeter are required to wear yellow hooded robes (yellow being the "safe colour"). Occasionally a slab of meat is thrown out of the village, apparently as an appeasement. The unseen creatures make feral noises in the forest; a popular game amongst the young men is to stand at the perimeter with their backs to the woods, and see who can last the longest before succumbing to his terror. Obviously, Those We Do Not Speak Of are spoken of an awful lot.

The village blacksmith, the taciturn Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) believes that the young boy's death was avoidable. When Noah, the village idiot, played adeptly by Adrien Brody (The Pianist), ventures into the woods and returns unharmed with bright red berries, Lucius forms a theory that Those are attracted to fear. Since Noah does not fear them, he was safe. Since Lucius himself does not fear Those, he wants to leave the village and go to "the towns" where they have medicines that will save lives. However, he is refused permission since the founding families of the village, having all suffered tragedy in the towns, formed the settlement as a refuge from the evils of the rest of the world. To break that isolation would deny all the village stood for.

Meanwhile, someone discovers that some of the livestock has been mutilated, and the culprits are automatically assumed to be Those. And when Lucius defies the law of the elders by deliberately stepping outside the borders, Those retaliate by coming into the village and, while the occupants huddle in their cellars, leaving bright red slash marks on the doors of the houses. Apparently, the truce is deteriorating.

But when Lucius himself lies dying of an injury, his devoted fiancée Ivy Walker (played beautifully by newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard), the blind daughter of the elder Edward Walker, insists on going to the towns in his place. Edward, realizing that Lucius' injury is due to circumstances that by rights ought to overrule the laws of the village, but unable to go himself because of his vow as elder, reluctantly permits her to leave. (As the remainder of the story relies upon Shyamalan's trademark plot twists, I will say no more about the plot itself.)

It's no fault of Shyamalan's, I presume, that the marketing for this movie has been a bit of a bait-and-switch. The trailers make it look like a horror movie something along the lines of The Blair Witch Project, which it isn't. It's a morality tale reminiscent of the original Twilight Zone. Then again, Shyamalan is a master of misdirection and manipulation in the same style as Alfred Hitchcock, so maybe he was in on the joke. The monsters-in-the-woods motif is a veneer for the real themes of the story: love and devotion, loyalty to family and community, the evils of the world and the lengths that some people will go to to shelter their loved ones from its influence.

This isn't to say that The Village isn't a nail-biter. Take a date, and count the number of times she jumps. Tension is high every time Those are on camera, despite the fact that every one of their appearances is telegraphed. This is largely due to Roger Deakin's excellent cinematography, which is downright claustrophobic in all the right places. Deakin uses handheld cameras and extreme closeups to hide, rather than reveal. The tension is heightened by the sound; excellent use is made of the theatre's aural space, especially in the forest scenes, where noises both natural and unnatural come from all sides. James Newton Howard, who has scored all of Shyamalan's movies to date, provides a suitably haunting accompaniment featuring Hilary Hahn on violin. You can bet I'll be adding this CD to my collection.

Another of Shyamalan's trademarks is the symbolic use of colour. In addition to "bad" red and "safe" yellow, green is the colour of secrets. The village elders keep mementos of their former life in locked green boxes, which they do not open. A broccoli patch in the background while Walker and the widow Hunt discuss the future of the village provides a very subtle clue that all is not what it seems (and if anyone can tell me why, you have my immediate respect).

Though Phoenix gets top billing as Lucius, this movie is really Howard's, who steals the show as the blind Ivy willing to confront her fears for the sake of her husband to be. William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver perform competently, although the latter's role is quite minor, and their love interest never really goes anywhere. Brody also distinguishes himself as Noah, who pops up giggling in some of the tensest moments. His antics serve to heighten the tension much as the Porter did in Macbeth.

I originally found certain other characteristics of the film problematic, but on second thought I wonder whether they weren't deliberate plot devices, so for the time being I've reserved comment. Judge for yourself:

  • What's with the stilted, formal dialogue? Did people really speak that way in 1897?
  • Why is there no church in the village? Their lifestyle appears to be secular, apart from a few mentions of prayer, at a time when the church would have been central to their community.

But if there's a major weakness to this film, it's the plot. The scary monsters in the woods, along with their "bad colour" and the "shed which is not to be used" make for a paper-thin premise. It's part of M. Night Shyamalan's genius that he starts with something so weak and turns it into something so strong.

Incidentally, the word is that for his next project, Shyamalan will be adapting the acclaimed Canadian novel, Yann Martel's Life of Pi, which I shall now have to read.