Director : M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay : M. Night Shyamalan
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Bryce Dallas Howard (Ivy Walker), Joaquin Phoenix (Lucius Hunt), Adrien Brody (Noah Percy), William Hurt (Edward Walker), Sigourney Weaver (Alice Hunt), Brendan Gleeson (August Nicholson), Cherry Jones (Mrs. Clack), Celia Weston (Vivian Percy), John Christopher Jones (Robert Percy)
Around this time two years ago, I wrote about M. Night Shyamalan's Signs, "Those expecting a Sixth Sense-style twist will invariably be disappointed. This is probably for the best, though, as Shyamalan's future success as a filmmaker rests on his ability to get out from under those kinds of audience expectations and tell the stories he wants to tell without feeling the need to twist every ending just so."
Unfortunately, those audience expectations are exactly what have been built up into a fever pitch by the marketing campaign surrounding his newest film, The Village, and it largely backfires because the big twist at the end doesn't quite sustain the weight of the previous two hours' build-up. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if many audience members walk out of the theater feeling like they've been used-pawns in a cheap con game.
In one sense, though, that's unfair to Shyamalan because, like Signs, the ending of The Village doesn't exist solely to justify its own trickery, but to make a larger thematic point. Like Rod Serling, Shyamalan is interested in fantasy, horror, and science fiction for their ability to function as social allegory. While the twist at the end of The Sixth Sense functioned emotionally, in addition to turning what had been a chilling, though often touching, ghost story into a jaw-dropping last-minute shocker that demanded a repeat viewing, the twists in his last three films have all had a "message," and how seriously you take that message largely determines your response to each film. In The Village, Shyamalan critiques the violent tendencies of modern society, a Serling-esque message if ever there were one, although good ol' Rod would've gotten it through in a half-hour TV episode.
But, every time you start thinking about the message, you run up against the twist. In The Sixth Sense, it worked because the film played straight and fair and also because no one knew who the hell M. Night Shyamalan was and certainly didn't go to the theater looking for a surprise. Now, his name evokes the expectation of a twist, and The Village can be ruined simply by the understandable tendency to watch with one half of your brain and use the other half to look for clues and hints, thinking ahead to what he might be up to.
Unfortunately, Shyamalan encourages this viewing strategy by making much of The Village stilted and boring. It takes place in a remote American hamlet at the end of the 19th century. A quaint, insular village has been established in a beautiful open valley that is surrounded on all sides by dense woods. According to the village elders, these woods are populated by large, hostile creatures. At some point in the past, the village struck a truce with these creatures: The villagers will not venture into the woods, and the creatures will not venture into the village. It's a tentative bargain at best, as the villagers are constantly on their guard and freeze to a halt when they hear grumblings and rustlings in the trees just beyond the village's well-demarcated borders.
That is the basic set-up, and Shyamalan milks it for all it's worth. Even his worst critics cannot deny that he is one of the best suspense filmmakers since Hitchcock, an elegant craftsman virtually without peer. Without showing us more than a fleeting glimpse of the beasties in the woods, he can evoke a constant sense of impending dread just by slowly dollying in toward a grove of trees. He knows just how to use sound and camera angle and editing to generate tension through the power suggestion, which in today's hyper-mediated, overcooked movie marketplace is a skill worth cultivating. He also makes clever use of fairy tale tropes, sometimes turning their visual tropes inside out, as when he inverts the use of the color red in an extended homage to Little Red Riding Hood.
Shyamalan is not so good this time around, however, with his characters. Perhaps it's because of the period setting, but his screenplay serves up a platter of mostly uninteresting or cliched characters who speak in ridiculously stilted English—not the kind that people actually spoke in the 1890s, but the kind generated by movies and pulp fiction to stand in for the past. Joaquin Phoenix looks especially lost as Lucius, a young man of the town who is supposed to be shy, but comes across as nearly catatonic. Adrien Brody overplays his role as the village idiot, and William Hurt makes no real impact as the schoolmaster and town's unofficial leader. Relative newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of director Ron Howard, makes some headway in her performance as Ivy, Hurt's blind daughter with whom Lucius is in love, but you can't help but feel that she is played too much as a pawn in Shyamalan's elaborate chess game. Her romance with Lucius has a few moments of genuine tenderness—particularly a conversation on a porch late at night that plays almost entirely in a single shot—but mostly it falls prey to the same awkwardness and forced solemnity that mars the rest of the script.
The Village is certainly an ambitious summer movie, although it fails on most counts. Shyamalan is a deeply talented filmmaker, and this misstep was bound to happen at some point. Perhaps its failure will finally convince him that the "big twist" has played itself out at this point and that he needs to concentrate on his other areas of strength as a filmmaker. The best twist he could give us in his next film would be to have no twist at all.
Copyright © 2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright © 2004 Touchstone Pictures