Posts Tagged ‘Joaquim Phoenix’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published September 19th 2002:

[Following reviews of Reign of Fire and The Importance of Being Earnest.] 

And finally, we look at M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, aka ‘I See Dead Corn’. Now I’m a bit of a fan of this director, and long-time readers may recall his last film Unbreakable did rather well in the 2001 Lassie awards. This time round he’s dispensed with both Bruce Willis and the twist endings he’s famous for – well, sort of…

This is the story of Graham Hess (Mel Gibson, as monumentally smug as ever), a priest-turned-farmer who lives with his jock brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix from Gladiator) and his two children – one obsessive-compulsive, the other precocious, and both annoying – in a quiet farmhouse. Graham has packed in being a priest as his wife has been run over by local vet (Shymalan himself – yup, he’s going all Tarantino on us). But something’s afoot out in the corn, as crop circles start appearing, strange inhuman figures start creeping around the farm at night, and Graham’s dog becomes grumpy and incontinent.

Yes, that’s right, it’s aliens! Quite why they should want to cause any of these phenomena – particularly the one with the dog – is not explained. The crop circles are apparently convenient rendezvous points for their vast armada of starships, which suggests they can manage steering all the way from Tau Ceti or wherever only to get completely lost and require landmarks as soon as they reach Earth. It also means they can only launch invasions during the summer or early Autumn months when the crops are nearly grown, thus depriving them of the plum holiday period and perhaps explaining their generally cranky disposition. Graham and the family soon get very nervous indeed, especially when the TV reports that the invasion proper has begun…

As you can probably tell, I found a lot of Signs rather difficult to take seriously: but for all the logicalities and lack of explanation in the story, it’s still in many ways a highly impressive piece of film-making. It works on a number of levels, most obviously that of an alien-invasion suspense thriller, and it’s here that Shyamalan excels both as writer and director, as you might expect. Large chunks of the film are very creepy indeed, as Graham wanders around in the corn by torchlight with strange alien chitterings emanating from the crops all around him, and unearthly silhouettes crash unexpectedly into the frame. (The braying strings of James Newton Howard’s score aids Shymalan a lot.) However, towards the end the film adopts a (relatively) straightforward action-adventure style, with which the director seems a lot less comfortable: his enormous talent lies in his ability to lull the audience into an almost lucid dream-like state, not hit them over the head with CGI nasties.

This is certainly a different take on the venerable ‘alien invasion’ theme, and it’s interesting to see the story told from the perspective of ordinary people thousands of miles from the action, rather than that of the US President or a scientific genius. But Shyamalan acknowledges his predecessors, by explicitly name-checking the daddy of them all, War of the Worlds, and also by – whether consciously or not – pinching part of the climax from the (rubbish) movie version of another classic British SF novel.

Signs had the potential to be a truly nerve-shredding horror movie, but it’s prevented from being this by a couple of slightly odd creative decisions on Shyamalan’s part. The unsettling atmosphere he creates in the key sequences of the film is almost without fail diluted by moments of strange, deadpan comedy occurring throughout, as Graham and Merrill (both of whom come across as fairly dim bulbs) struggle to comprehend events around them and are generally hacked off by their smart-aleck younger relations and peculiar neighbours. It’s almost like some strange agrarian amalgam of Frasier and The Simpsons, and for a film that already has a credibility gap this is a serious mistake.

And then there’s the ending. Shyamalan eschews the plot twists he’s become famous for in favour of a deeply didactic and folksy conclusion, preaching that ‘hey, bad things happen for a reason, just have faith and keep on trucking’. It’s glib and cloying, and it isn’t even subtext: this is out there to be seen in the meat of the movie (Gibson’s total inability to portray self-doubt doesn’t help: Phoenix’s performance is better in nearly every way). It’s here that Signs‘ status as a post-September 11th movie becomes clear: in the movie, as in life, America is under a terrible, inexplicable attack, but it’s ultimately for the best and if everyone keeps believing it’ll all turn out okay in the end. Signs sets out to comfort its audience when it would have been much better off simply trying to scare them. Even so, it’s still accomplished, engaging stuff, and only really a disappointment when compared to M. Night Shymalan’s two previous films.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 26th August 2004: 

Hello again, everyone, and it’s time for one of our occasional non-review reviews, which may be annoying to read, but – let me assure you – are a lot more annoying to have to write. The person responsible on this occasion is, of course, M Night Shyamalan, who’s built up quite a nice little reputation for himself as a purveyor of quality suspense films. It could probably be argued that Shyamalan does nothing more than crank out pretentious genre movies, and that his fame is mainly due to his penchant for sticking a flippin’ great plot twist into each one of them.

The problem with this as a trademark, as I may have said before, is that a twist is only really going to surprise people who aren’t expecting and trying to anticipate what it might be. (Knowing The Sixth Sense has a big twist ending makes it quite easy to guess what it’s going to be, ten minutes into the movie.) You can’t really make a career out of doing twist endings – well, not in the cinema, anyway. But Shyamalan seems to be trying anyway, as his new film amply demonstrates.

This is of course The Village, the tale of a rural community living in fear. The people live simple lives, but their lives are overshadowed by the knowledge of the presence in the woods surrounding their town of… creatures. Reputedly savage and terrifying, they have always stayed in the woods while the villagers stay in their own territory. But, following the untimely death of a village child, Lucius (Joaquim Phoenix), a young man of the community, wants to venture through the woods to one of the nearby towns so he can fetch medicines to avert any future tragedies of this kind. The village elders (amongst them William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, and Brendan Gleeson) refuse his request, and a brief foray by Lucius into the woods is followed by a terrifying incursion into the village from outside. With the village in turmoil, Lucius woos – or is wooed by – Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard, a leading lady rather in the tradition of Rosanna Arquette or Callista Flockhart), the blind daughter of the chief elder. But village idiot Noah (Adrien Brody, hamming it up a bit) takes against their betrothal and soon it seems Ivy will have to brave the woods – and whatever lies within – in order to help the man she loves…

Now looking back at that last paragraph, I can’t help thinking it constitutes a bit of a spoiler no matter how I word it – but this is a film it’s difficult to discuss in any detail without spoiling the story in some way. This is sort of a reflection on Shymalan’s style of storytelling, which relies on a very solid grasp of the importance of atmosphere, strong performances, and a good deal of sleight-of-hand and misdirection on the part of the script and direction. And it seems Shyamalan is aware that audiences will be coming into this movie looking for a twist, and adapted his style accordingly: you go into the movie expecting the big twist to come from one direction, but when it actually materialises it’s of a different tenor entirely.

Opinions seem to be violently split as to whether the big surprise is any good or not. Now I can see both points of view on this. It is, one the one hand, both massively implausible and somewhat predictable (I’d considered it as a possibility, but dismissed it as being too much of an anticlimax, and so was a bit surprised when it actually happened). But on the other hand it’s refreshingly different, and it’s clear that Shyamalan doesn’t intend his tale to be taken solely at face value. In fact, it gives the story a subtly allegorical quality that sits well with its general air of thoughtfulness (though it’s an element the film’s publicity has shied away from, probably quite wisely given the furore that’s surrounded another film apparently expressing vaguely similar sentiments this summer).

However, the fact that your opinion of The Village seems to depend wholly on your opinion of the twist indicates that this is a film with problems not shared by Shyamalan’s earlier pictures: I thought Unbreakable‘s twist was rather contrived, but I still thought it was a classy, well-made, atmospheric film, with a strong story. With The Village I seriously get the impression that the director thought up a set of cool plot twists and then wrote the story around them – in other words, the twists are the story…

And while what precedes them is well-mounted and photographed, it’s not that great. The top-quality cast give solid performances (well, Brody is a bit embarrassing). Hurt and Weaver (clearly not wanting to let her old sparring partner have the only hit of the summer) are particularly good. However, both the performances and the rest of the film are suffused with a subtle but still oppressive sense of their own importance. It’s clearly not enough for The Village to be appreciated as a piece of classy summer fun: this is obviously intended to be Significant Art. This pretentiousness is probably another reason why a lot of people have taken against it, because to be honest it’s a lot less deep and profound than it obviously wants to be.

It isn’t even particularly scary, apart from a few moments: Shyamalan wheels his monsters on quite early (admittedly in the background and out of focus), and it’s a smart ‘what the hell is that supposed to be?!?‘ moment. For a lot of the rest of the time, though, there’s little palpable sense of menace or mystery about proceedings, just lots of loving depictions of village life (which admittedly has numerous quirks of its own). Towards the end it even seems like the film is taking its cues from The Blair Witch Project, a very dubious course of action even for a director of Shyamalan’s skill.

I’ve heard The Village described as a really long big-budget episode of The Twilight Zone, and that seems to me to hit the nail bang on the head. It’s basically an extended joke with a punchline that isn’t quite up to scratch. Shyamalan’s ability as a storyteller is undeniably impressive but he needs to give serious thought to a change of tactics in his next project, as the twist-schtick is fast running out of steam. The best twist he could utilise in his next film would be for there not to be a twist at all.

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