Plot Twist! Why 2004 Was a Surprising Year for Movies

Plot Twist! Why 2004 Was a Surprising Year for Movies

“The Village” was a hit. You can tell, though, that the plot twist infuriated more people than it intrigued. Its numbers were down a staggering 67 percent from its enormous opening weekend. No one seemed to have the urge to protect the ending from being ruined the way they did for “The Sixth Sense,” a movie that inspired people to scream “I haven’t seen it yet!” when even strangers were overheard yammering about it and practically mandated the spoiler alert. Crossword fanatics turn to Rex Parker’s blog for comfort and commiseration. In 2004, frustrated Shyamaniacs had nowhere comparable to go. The ending was too — what? — insulting, pretentious, illogical to spoil. In the last month, I’ve encountered enough people who haven’t seen “The Village” that I’m compelled to preserve the surprise. There’s more to it than Shyamalan’s trap door, anyway.

The movie has a visual richness that rehooked me when I watched it again recently. Knowing the story’s conceit little diminishes Shyamalan’s skill in telling it. Roger Deakins’s cinematography frames shots through doors and windows; in one particularly deft move, through both. Christopher Tellefsen’s editing dances gracefully between excess and concision, between dream pacing and a nightmare’s rush. Shyamalan remains an underrated director of actors. Here, it’s William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Cherry Jones, Celia Weston, Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, Judy Greer, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Pitt, a barely there Jesse Eisenberg, lots of children and Bryce Dallas Howard, whose way with confidence and vulnerability should’ve made her a bigger star than she became. (I blame her central spots in Lars von Trier’s American slavery screed, “Manderlay,” and Shyamalan’s follow-up and first stinker, “The Lady in the Water” — which I like! — plus the arrival of the somehow gutsier Jessica Chastain.)

“The Village” is a strange movie. It works as a yarn that’s no bigger or grander than it needs to be. It’s got some of “The Twilight Zone”— Shirley Jackson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, too. The film’s characters have given up on an America they say no longer feels safe and wind up becoming a danger to themselves all the same. We’d call them privileged now. Assessments of Shyamalan don’t tend to wade into his Indian-American identity because the films don’t insist upon it. But with this movie, he’s built a world in which his own appearance would create suspicion in the dramatization of the conceit. The movie, therefore, becomes a tragedy about whiteness and its desperate preservation. The world beyond the village borders threaten its sanctity. One thing that remains so satisfying about the movie now is the director’s confidence. He believed he could get away with this thing, and, largely, he does.

You can see why Shyamalan was such a draw. The great pop directors know how to give us what we want without pandering to do it; and getting exactly what we want still manages to arouse surprise. Hitchcock, Spielberg, Tarantino; it’s early but Jordan Peele. Shyamalan was in good box-office company that week. That “Manchurian Candidate” remake, doing so-so in its second week, was Jonathan Demme’s. It’s all over the place and strangely dull in parts. The action and politics never congeal in the script, so Demme has to force them together. You don’t know what compelled him to take the movie on, aside from the chance to work with Washington again and with Meryl Streep, who plays the scheming, gorgon mother. Demme guided one of Washington’s most sophisticated performance (in 1993’s “Philadelphia”) but his star barely comes through here. Watchful passivity is something a star like Damon can do (he’s used to having to find other ways to get noticed in a scene). But Washington can’t do small because he’s not. And so when he sits around, so does the movie.

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