To talk about a Night
movie is to talk about its twist so, without further ado, I will spoil the twist.
The basic premise of the movie is that, despite appearing to take place at the end of the 19th century in a small village somewhere in the middle of the woods, it in fact takes place in the present. The elders of the village decided to move away from a world filled with violence and so create their own society where such things cannot happen.
As a result, the elders try to keep everyone inside the village by dressing up as monsters that live in the woods and, occasionally, come into the village when others cross the barrier. They create an unknown fear to keep people in check. It's an alright premise but, as my father said, it was a Twilight Zone episode and could have been done in half an hour -- and probably should have been.
Part of Night's dilemma, and part of his problem in making successful movies after The Sixth Sense, is that it is extremely rare for a viewer to come to the movie as a work in and of itself. Instead it is bound up in his reputation and in his previous movies. This works against him most profoundly in this piece.
Everyone expects a twist. Not only that, this is Shyamalan's first work outside of the modern era. That, alone, combined with the isolationism of the village, can give away the twist before the viewer even watches the movie. As a result, he has to work for the entire movie to throw people off and runs into some real plot holes in doing it. At the very beginning of the movie, a child is buried in a grave marked with 1890's dates on it. But why would they have decided to advance the date backwards at all if the people they taught had no knowledge of things before? I suppose to correspond with books they had in their possession but -- it is a lie to the audience, instead of a piece of misdirection. Likewise, all of the characters talk with 18th century language and accents which is an unnecessery complication that stems not from the situation of the plot and characters, but instead from a desire to misdirect the audience. No convincing motivation is made for the accents at all. There are other holes as well, but I prefer not to dwell on this -- as it is not the largest problem with the movie and, in truth, if this were the only problem it might still be an alright film when taken out of its cultural context.
However, it is not. The scriptwriting is, to be generous, poor. The dialogue is wooden and the emotional moments of the film, while successful, are stimulus-response machines set up to create a specific reaction. To the movie's credit, they succeed: the scary parts are indeed scary. You laugh when you're supposed to and likewise cry when Night decides you'll cry. The problem is that these moments stick out like a sore thumb, moments of critically engineered emotional reaction in a movie that is, really, more of a cerebral endeavor. Between these moments there is no character development to speak of nor any other work except that done to simultaneously foreshadow and misdirect the final revelation.
The characters are almost uniformly flat. The only characters with any sort of depth are the three main characters: the fool, the hero, and the blind visionary. The fool, of course, is the only one who knows the truth of what is happening and ends up hurting the hero badly because of his own lack of a sense of right and wrong. The blind girl can see certain people, and actually looks at them and other places breaking the sense that she is blind fairly thoroughly, and she is the one who ultimately discovers the secret of the village and brings it back. And the hero is pure of heart and purpose and, because of his nobility, sends the false world around him into a tailspin that results in his being wounded. All three of these characters are the oldest of archetypes -- the first three Major Arcana of the Tarot, in fact, work well to represent each respectively -- and the only relation among them is a love triangle of sorts that is just not explored enough for my taste in the story, but is rather alluded to in the past and thus taken largely for granted.
If the scriptwork weren't bad enough, the camerawork keeps the watcher from even attempting to be immersed in the world by, ironically, attempting to immerse them in the world. The camera becomes intensely obtrusive through the movie, becoming worse and worse.
The essential problematic technique is that the camera is almost always kept close in the ranks of the actors and rarely cuts, making it extremely obtrusive: instead of cutting between characters in a dialogue, the camera often pans, and sometimes even walks -- the footsteps of the cameraman sometimes audible, I'm sure I'm making it seem as if the audience is in the film, but far too obtrusive. The closeness to actors and the lack of cuts ends up with people's heads being cut off, people looking at the camera (sometimes 'accidentally', sometimes on purpose) and, at least in me, a general confusion about what the hell is going on as I pay more attention to the movements of the camera than to what is inside the frame.
When the camera is not at/just below eye level, it is viewing from some unnatural angle -- looking down on two conversants who are very close to the camera from ten feet up, viewing a dark corner that is being inspected by two cast members, and so on.
Of course, the music was good and, beyond the obtrusive camera, the visuals were really quite stunning. In the end, however, this is a B movie made by A talent. It occurs to me that, ten years from now, I could see this movie while slipping through the cable channels, and sit down and watch it at about three in the morning because nothing else is on. I'd be interested in it, I might get hooked for a while, but in the end I will feel that I've wasted my life because I could have been watching something else.