These days, mentioning the name M. Night Shyamalan while in line at the cineplex is a good way to get a punch in the mouth. Over the last five years, the man named after an orbital phase has become synonymous with insulting, navel-gazing movies like The Last Air Bender, The Happening, and of course, the unforgivable Lady in the Water. People especially hate him because the worse his movies get, the more in love with himself he seems to fall. The reason producers keep giving him chances has to be that his first few films were true masterpieces. Critics and Audiences alike called The Sixth Sense (1999) one of the best movies ever made. Unbreakable (2000) was less impressive, but definitely fit the mold of “both new and good.” By the time Signs was released in 2002, Shyamalan had his own genre.
And then, in between these gems and Shyamalan’s crimes against humanity, there was … this. The Village (2004) occupies an odd spot in history; Shyamalan’s pivot-point between greatness and sucking. Some loved it. Some hated it. It definitely isn’t your conventional movie, but then Shyamalan was always anything but conventional. On which side of the fence does it fall? Is it more like Shyamalan at his best, or his worst? Let’s find out.
Warning: spoilers ahead.
It must be acknowledged that the biggest selling point in the way this film was marketed turned out to be a total sham. A village full of apparently colonial people lives isolated from the rest of the world, oppressed by the fear of “Those We Don’t Speak of,” creatures that lurk in the forest around them. Good ominous beginning. As you might expect, there is a twist toward the end. But while the twist in The Sixth Sense made us re-think everything that happened in the movie, and increased our enjoyment of the story, the twist in The Village is a massive let down: the creatures are fake. Yep. That’s it. They spend 1:45 scaring you with these things, only to tell you what anyone over 5 knew walking into the theatre: that they are people in costumes. From this, and the dialogue that follows, it’s not hard to figure out the other twist: that this is actually happening present day, and the town elders have attempted to create a utopian world by isolating themselves from the rest of civilization, using the creatures to scare villagers from exploring beyond the village outskirts.
So this one must be a turd, right? Not so fast. I first saw The Village when it was newly made and wasn’t sure what to make of it. Some months later I found I was dying to see it again, so I rented it. Obviously, I knew the twist, but I still was caught up in the story and the passion that the actors put into it. A young Bryce Dallas Howard and Jaquin Phoenix light up the screen as the primal couple, who only slowly begin to realize their love for each other. The older members of the cast include a number of actors who have had more glorious rolls, such as Sigourney Weaver, former slayer of aliens, now cast as a humble, devoted house wife, and Brendan Gleeson, who reveled in badassery in Braveheart, Gangs of New York, and 28 Days Later, now confined to a small roll as a man too old to do much more than smoke a pipe. You might think these post-stars would be a little bitter, but what they bring to the screen reminds us that there are truly “no small parts; only small actors.”
This film probably repulsed a lot of viewers on a first viewing just because of the obvious gaff discussed above, but it merits a second and third viewing. As I watched it a second time, I came to understand that the gaff doesn’t harm the film because it isn’t a film about monsters. It’s a film about the community on screen and the people in it. The power of the movie comes home as boys tease each other with dares and girls dream about boys. We are drawn deeper in as their utopian society is suddenly, unexpectedly shattered by the crime of murder. And, despite suspension of belief, we are on the edge of our seats as a young, frightened, and blind girl (Howard) is forced to trek alone through the forbidden wood to save the boy she loves. And of course, even after the “twist,” there are some scary surprises waiting in the wood.
As good as the cast is, they might be outperformed by the score. Composer James Newton relied mostly on the solos of violinist Hillary Hahn to enhance the picture. It serves well to reflect the isolation that the characters feel in many scenes. This is one of the few movies that is worth checking out just for the soundtrack. The music excites, builds tension, and carries emotion just as well as what we see. A great deal of effort was also put into the costumes and the set design, both for authenticity and beauty, and it makes for a lot of sumptuous visuals. And I have to say, Shayamalan’s directing was still pretty good at this point. One scene in particular comes to mind, in which Those They Don’t Speak of attack the village (below). The boy on the watchtower sounds the alarm, and there are several minutes of people scrambling to gather the children, get inside, and get into their hiding places. This can’t have been an easy scene to pull off, with the amount of fast activity that had to be captured, the number of child actors, and the number of plot points that have to be hinted at, but Shayamalan did it brilliantly. Not only is the story told, but it’s a truly beautiful scene. Even on a second viewing, when I knew there was no real danger, I was caught up in it. When the rubber meets the road, Shayamalan really can do it — when he’s not jerking us around, that is.
Even as early as Signs, some of Shyamalan’s annoying habits were beginning to come to light. He loved to have something really important happen, such as an alien attacking someone, at point A, and, for no reason, point the camera squarely at point B. Or else, force us to look through some distorting piece of scenery, or look at a poor reflection. There’s a lot to be said for not showing too much, especially if you want to build suspense or scare the audience, but in order to do those two things, you also have to make us feel with the characters. For example, in Signs, when the main family has retreated to the basement, an alien hand reaches through the coal chute and grabs Morgan. A scuffle ensues as Grant and Merrill try to pull him to safety. Shyamalan chooses this moment to wave the camera around incoherently, showing us nothing. The characters see what’s happening! Why the hell shouldn’t we? The next morning, Morgan is again grabbed by an alien. This time, for the first time in the movie, we get a really good look at one of these things. Merrill then kills the alien with a bat. And then Shyamalan treats us to one more bad reflection, in an over-turned tv, of the alien’s chest rising as it struggles to breath. What is the point of this? We’ve already seen the alien!
The Village takes this a step further. Some of the most crucial scenes are interrupted by completely meaningless things. For example, near the end, when one of Those They Don’t Speak of (who seem to get mentioned a lot) chases Howard’s character, Ivy, we see the creature lunge at her from behind a tree. She runs. Then, for no reason, we see an empty rocking chair in front of a grove of trees. Then we see the creature chasing Ivy. Then we see a close up of a weather vane, over looking a hilltop. Then we see Ivy running. Just when it looks like something’s about to happen, we see another grove of trees. What is the point of this? These cut away shots don’t even match the main scene, or each other; they were obviously shot on different days, in different weather at different times of the year, and they serve no purpose whatsoever.
Of course, Shyamalan went on to commit atrocities like Lady in the Water (2006), where we almost never see anything except as a distorted reflection. All in all though, The Village is well worth checking out. It’s not without its faults by any means, but when the dust settles, what you have is a series of great scenes, beautifully shot and beautifully acted, perfectly capturing the emotion of the moment, all with a haunting score playing in the back ground. Much like in Van Helsing, the power of the performances smooths over the imperfections in the plot.