Guest Post by Beth Pariseau
Before I saw this movie, I knew two things: 1) It was directed by M. Night Shyalaman, and 2) It starred, or at least involved, Joaquin Phoenix in some way.
Of course, way leads on to way, and it wasn’t until this past Saturday night that I wound up watching it on the tiny television at Tim‘s house. Before retiring to his abode to watch the movie (and, eventually, stay up till 4 a.m. talking), we talked about it, and movies in general, over dinner. Tim said before I watched the movie that our mutual friend Brandon (a notorious stickler for perfection when it comes to films anyway) had hated it, but in Tim’s opinion this had been because the movie had not fulfilled Brandon’s expectations of it.
Where it is not due to Brandon’s tendency to be critical of movies, it’s largely because the movie was marketed all wrong. Before its theater release the movie was painted as a horror film like The Sixth Sense, and this is understandable. Shyalaman and the production house would have been stupid not to use the overwhelming success of The Sixth Sense to market his new project. But rather than just dropping the name, with a line like “from the director of The Sixth Sense” in the previews, the movie’s trailers and advertisements played up its gloomier aspects, until audiences expected horror and suspense from it.
There’s a fine line between effectively using a director’s previous work to bolster confidence in a new offering and using it so heavily that audiences expect a re-tread of the earlier film and turn against the new one when it doesn’t conform to that expectation.
Add to that the fact that the audience for a movie like The Sixth Sense—or any suspense / horror flick—is a niche one with more exacting expectations and a much higher threshold of satisfaction, and this movie appeared to win the battle to get butts in seats, but catastrophically lost the war where movies are truly made or broken: word of mouth recommendations.
In the midst of all this, a fascinating gem of a film seems to have been lost.
Luckily, I never paid much attention to the marketing, because as I said, I knew that Shyalaman and Joaquin were involved. Therefore, I would have seen this movie even if it were a heartwarming children’s tale about circus clowns. I’ve been impressed with Shyalaman in the past, but here Joaquin is really my barometer for whether or not I’ll give a movie a chance.
I see his films no matter what they seem like in previews or reviews. If he is in it, even in a less-important part, I will see it. Period.
This is primarily because I enjoy watching him work so much. Even in the worst film he has made—the utterly god-awful 8 MM—I enjoyed his performance. It’s a little frightening, at times, to go into a movie worrying that he will disappoint, but so far, this has never happened, not even when everything else about the movie has been a disaster.
As I wrote in my review last October of Ladder 49:
Joaquin Phoenix should be more filmmakers’ first consideration… But he probably won’t be. He’s too good an actor.
What I mean is, the actors who become “STARS”, like Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise or even Tom Hanks, essentially play themselves in each movie, with more or less makeup. Whether Tom Hanks is sporting a crew cut and babbling about chocolates or overwhelmed with matted hair and beard and babbling to a volleyball, there is still an essential, inherent, Tom-Hanksness to his characters, a tone of voice, a squint of the eye, and more importantly, he’s always the good guy. Even when he’s the bad guy (cf. Road to Perdition) he’s a good guy.
Joaquin, meanwhile, in addition to distinguishing himself in a wide range of roles, has also shown a range remeniscent of Maria Callas within those roles. On his eerily beautiful face can be written a hero as well as a heel, and sometimes (for example, in the dark Mob film The Yards) both. A curl of the lip and he’s the reptilian Commodus from Gladiator. A widening of the eye and he’s the tortured priest from Quills. A gap-toothed smile, and he’s Jack Morrison, firefighter, reporting for duty.
As such, he will never be JOAQUIN PHOENIX, MOVIE STAR. He’s always going to be, for most of America, “That Guy.” And while I wouldn’t want to see him begin to be typecast or star in vacuous blockbusters, it would be nice to see a talent like his recognized.
Where [Ladder 49] was strong, it was strengthened further by Joaquin’s talent. Where it might have failed—times the dialogue descended into cliche, times a different facial expression might have sounded a sour note—Joaquin bailed it out. From wide-eyed rookie to swaggering veteran, Joaquin went effortlessly up and down the scale throughout his character’s stages. Whether or not he ever attains STAR status, he will probably always be my favorite actor.
But while simply enjoying Joaquin independent of the rest of the film has often made any movie worthwhile, 99 times out of 100 I have the utmost confidence in the movie he’s in precisely because he’s in it. With few to no exceptions, the projects Joaquin chooses to involve himself with have been excellent, well-written, provocative and innovative work. Maybe just to my taste. But that’s what matters to me, anyway. I’m lucky to have such a reliable indicator of what I’ll enjoy.
I also noticed that this is the second time Joaquin has worked with Shyalaman. For me, this is a sign that I need to pay more attention to Shyalaman.
With good reason. Shyalaman may be the finest storytelling director currently working. His films are always powerfully driven by plot, and his ability to mislead and then surprise an audience is unparalleled. It’s difficult to discuss his movies without giving something away, and this in itself adds value to them: you can’t just hear from your friend what the movie was about. You have to see it, experience it, be surprised by it, and then say to someone else: I can’t tell you why, but this movie is great.
I’ll do my best not to spoil the movie in saying what I liked about it, and Shyalaman’s direction. As with The Sixth Sense and Signs, Shyalaman is just such a clever bastard: just when you relax, he makes you jump out of your seat; just when you’re paranoid, the shock you’re expecting never comes. There’s one scene in particular in this film that I thought was cliche in principle but directed so well that it was refreshing.
His stories are just that—good, old-fashioned stories, a plot that plants its secrets behind enigmatic appearances in early scenes, and doubles back to reveal them later with a masterful sense of pace and timing. His movies are a reacquaintance with the idea that a good story in any form is made up of question marks, followed by exclamation points.
Shyalaman is also fascinating in all his movies with his use of color. In The Village, the importance of color is verbalized much more than in his previous work: certain colors are “bad” and others are worn by the characters for protection. It’s still something I’m wrestling with to find meaning, but at the very least it adds texture and depth to a movie that is preoccupied already with the idea of appearances and illusions.
Another thing I especially like about Shyalaman’s films—and this one is no exception—is that they use a very small world to tell a very large story. In Signs, one family farm and one family’s story is used to show a large-scale alien invasion of planet Earth. With the exception of one newscast the family watches showing footage of flying saucers over Mexico, the audience’s entire experience of the intergalactic invasion takes place on this one out-of-the way tract of American farmland.
With The Village, Shyalaman uses one insular, provincial community to tell a much larger human story about boundaries, about safety, about bravery, and about living in fear. The subtexts here are timely in the age of international terrorism and timeless where they address archtypal aspects of the human condition.
Another strength of Shyalaman’s that the movie brings to light is his compassionate yet realistic treatment of character. Shyalaman’s people are real, and their actions and reactions are at times heartbreakingly true to life. Love is messy, and often awkward; feelings are often beyond articulation; decisions are made in haste and according to personal failings; dialogue is rarely overly expository. And yet his characters are, at all times, completely dignified. Underneath them is an almost palpable sense of outrage at the disservice Hollywood idealizations do to characters in general.
By the end of this movie, I was completely emotionally engaged in the story. I was actually surprised, at some points, by how hard I was rooting for these characters—how much I needed them to succeed.
Oh, and Joaquin doesn’t disappoint, either. In one scene, he made me laugh out loud simply by standing still and adopting an expression of wide-eyed dread while another character proclaims—loudly and embarrassingly—her unrequited love for him. As with each and every one of his other roles, he throws himself into his part—not just speaking but walking, gesturing, moving, being differently.
That Joaquin. He’s never steered me wrong.