Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Pines Thrills, Misses the Thematic Mark

M. Night Shyamalan's cinematic career saddens me to no end. Like countless others who saw The Sixth Sense in theaters, I felt convinced that a new voice was on the scene, one that could manage intense character drama and jaw-dropping plot twists simultaneously. But that promise didn't pan out as you doubtlessly know if you somehow made it all the way from Haley Joel Osment's visions of dead people to Bryce Dallas Howard's ludicrous turn as a pool nixie in Lady in the Water. After that, I stopped watching Shyamalan's films, although I still kept an eye on his new releases out of a hope almost perverse in its perseverance that he'd revert to form. It hasn't happened yet, and I doubt that his latest project, a TV adaptation of Blake Crouch's Pines, will signal a new start.

Clean-swept streets lined with clapboard houses. Mountain air so clear it almost sparkles. Acre after acre of rolling woods stretching far as the eye can see. How could such a community hold the greatest horror secret service agent Ethan Burke has ever known? After all, Burke was once captured in the Middle East and subject to days of torture by a master of the brutal craft. But Wayward Pines, Idaho, is worse. How? Burke awoke in a glen near this idyllic town remembering his age, the president's name, and precious little else. Time brought back to him that he'd initially come to Wayward Pines in search of two other missing secret service agents, and he'd ... he'd been in an accident, right? He has vague recollections of a Mack truck plowing into his car. The town's residents confirm this, but something isn't right. For one thing, he can't reach anyone in the outside world on the phone. Also, the rotting body in a shack on the outskirts looks a lot like one of the agents he was supposed to find. And no matter which road he takes when he tries to leave, he finds himself circling back to First Avenue. Wayward Pines has a secret, and it might kill Burke before he uncovers it.

Just to let you know, I'm going to critique Pines pretty strongly in a moment, so let's start with the good stuff. Blake Crouch obviously knows his way around a thriller, sowing seeds of doubt in readers' minds from the first page and nursing them along as they bloom into pure paranoia. I made several guesses about what was going on in Wayward Pines -- computer simulation? near-death hallucination? time travel? -- and it pleased me that all proved wrong. Sure, you have to suspend your disbelief (by the neck, sometimes), and a few mysteries never get adequately answered. But Pines is anything but a dull read. Also, Crouch writes like a Dean Koontz might if he'd grown up reading Raymond Chandler, putting beach-read action in punchy, fragmented prose. A welcome departure from the stylelessness of standard pulp. I understand why it piqued Shyamalan's interest.

What I don't get, though, is its theme. I doubt I'm spoiling anything by revealing that the residents of Wayward Pines really like centralized rule of the nigh-totalitarian variety, so much so that they try to kill Burke when he attempts to escape. During the climax, Burke protests, "These people aren't really free. ... They could decide for themselves. There'd be dignity in it at least." His antagonist's reply? "Dignity is a beautiful concept, but what if they make the wrong choice?" Normally this would be standard final-act banter -- except that Burke eventually acquiesces. Of course, he feels conflicted about it and the narrative leaves him with precious few options in the end. I balked at the conclusion. Can you think of any totalitarian regime that doesn't try to justify its denial of individual human rights by appealing to the greater good? Perhaps it's a mistake to mine too deeply for philosophy in what's obviously intended to be a light read. Still, I find myself shaking my head over the fact that Crouch seems to provide a justification, however slight, for the worst sort of dictatorship.

(Picture: CC 2012 by OneModel)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

The martial arts film Hero might be a more successful riff on that theme. It is a myth of a hero strong enough to realize that extended chaos is worse for the nation as a whole than strong, if morally conflicted, central rule. Coming out of Communist China...the politics are rather obvious, yet the movie itself is rather thoughtful, in a deeply-Buddhist all-is-illusion-and-suffering-lies-at-the-center-of-existence way.

Re. Shyamalan, he also made the film Unbreakable, which is quietly excellent. But somewhere along the line, he lost his two prime abilities: a brilliant understanding of color, and the ability to direct actors (especially child actors) into phenomenal, subtle performances.

The Villiage was a masterful demonstration of light, color, and atmosphere (and I actually liked the self-consciously artificial archaism of the town's language.) Even Signs was visually arresting, though also demonstrating that Shyamalan isn't the narrative craftsman some thought him to be. But when he turned Avatar (the greatest children's cartoon ever made, period) into a boring mess where children give poor performances, I knew the director who made The Sixth Sense had vanished to the same place where Young George Lucas resides.

Loren Eaton said...

Shyamalan's first three films are amazing, and Unbreakable is a forgotten gem despite it's bad ending. But you could tell that his ego was getting the best of him when he started giving himself more and more screentime in his movies. Though The Village was visually arresting, it alerted me that serious trouble was brewing in Shyamalan land. Such a convoluted twist!