I approached M. Knight Shyamalan's newest offering, the Village, with some trepidation. While I am a big fan of the Sixth Sense and Signs, and I loved Unbreakable (all but the last 5 minutes) with all my heart, I had heard some terrible things about this latest film from many prominent reviewers. Roger Ebert was particularly nasty. If I may interrupt my own review with a quote:
"Eventually the secret ... is revealed. To call it an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes. It's a crummy secret, about one step up the ladder of narrative originality from It Was All a Dream. It's so witless, in fact, that when we do discover the secret, we want to rewind the film so we don't know the secret anymore.
Wow. And Ebert was only one among many to savage Shyamalan's film.
And then keep on rewinding, and rewinding, until we're back at the beginning, and can get up from our seats and walk backward out of the theater and go down the up escalator and watch the money spring from the cash register into our pockets."
Well, I have this to say: Fuck. Them. All.
I LOVED the Village. Sadly, I can't tell you too much about it -- you should discover for yourself. This is the best I can do: the year is 1897. The village is surrounded by forest, in which scary, mysterious monsters dwell. People are dying for lack of medical care, but everyone is too afraid to cross the forest to get to help. And nearly everyone in the village, it seems, has a terrible secret.
The acting in this film is top-notch. Frankly, it's beyond top-notch. Masterful, restrained, understated performances are expected from William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver, and they do not disappoint. And Bryce Dallas Howard (yes, Ron Howard's daughter) is absolutely lovely in her role -- wonderful and achingly sad, when need be. (Thank goodness the overrated Kirsten Dunst, to whom the role was supposedly offered, could not work this into her schedule.) Adrien Brody is pleasing as the village idiot, and Brendan Gleeson wears his heartbreak with purpose and dignity. But the star of this film, undisputedly, is Joaquin Phoenix, who fills the screen, whenever he is on, with an overwhelming sense of simple nobility and innocent goodness. His acting in the Village is stark and honest at every turn, and as soon as he leaves the screen, despite the fine performances of his fellow cast members, you simply cannot wait for him to come back.
One hardly need mention Shyamalan's direction. Whatever you think of his films in general, you must admit that he shows a mastery of filmmaking that is almost unbelievable, given his scant years (he's barely older than me -- somewhere in his early 30s). His ability to spin mood into image is uncanny, and his patience and careful pace as his stories unfold is almost without peer. To top it all off, there is not a single wasted shot in this movie. Each image, each scene, is simple, economical, beautiful and, most importantly (despite other directors' tendencies to do otherwise) necessary to complete the story. He's not a filmmaker that trades on beautiful bullshit -- he's got a story to tell, and he uses his incredible tools: stellar actors, gorgeous cinematography, and careful pace, to tell that story to it's fullest.
Ah, yes -- the story. This is where the Village gets dicey -- most all those who panned this film simply hated the story. I, on the other hand, loved it. Shyamalan is one of the few big, successful screenwriters working today who asks "what if...?" He doesn't think to himself, "I'm gonna make a heist picture," or "I need to write something with a 'period' feel." He says, "hey -- what if this happened?" And, from there, he tells you about it. Granted, the story, like a good fairy tale, will not stand up to endless empirical analysis -- I, for one, am willing to let that go, especially when the experience of the tale is so enjoyable. And, too many viewers are hung up on the "Shyamalan Twist" or are waiting for "big scares" that, admittedly in the Village, never come. The Village, while it contains a definite twist (or two), and more than one "hold your breath" moment, is not about those things or, rather, is about much, much more than those things. It's about the human relationships in this strangled, isolated hamlet, and about the triumph of human courage, despite a life filled with, and built upon, fear. It's about human society, about the inevitability of its evolution, and both the hope that we could, given the right opportunity, get it right, and the failure to actually do so. And it's about the idea that, as the film says, however bleak things look, "the world turns on love."
In the end, the Village hinges on story. If you like the story, if you get it (and by "get" I mean something more than just intellectual understanding -- I mean a connection of some kind), I think you will love this film. If you don't, sit back, enjoy your popcorn and drink in the stellar acting. The movie will be over soon, and then you can sneak into Alien vs. Predator, you soulless asshole.*
* "soulless asshole" does not refer to Jeanette, who's review of this movie was, "It SSSUUUUCCCKKEEDD," but who can also beat my ass due to her Super Secret Lesbian-Ninja Skillz.