The Village (2004)
When saying director names you can play a fun little game of word association. Someone says, “George Lucas,” and things like big-budget effects, empty storytelling, and wooden dialogue come to mind. Someone says, “David Lynch,” and weird, abstract, therapy sessions dance in your head. The behemoth of word association is M. Night Shyamalan. He burst onto the scene with 1999’s blockbuster, The Sixth Sense, a crafty, moody, intelligent thriller with a knock-out final twist. Now, though, it seems more and more evident that while The Sixth Sense was the making of M. Night Shyamalan, it also appears to be his undoing. His follow-up films, Unbreakable and Signs, have suffered by comparison, but what seems to be hampering Shyamalan’s growth as a writer is the tightening noose of audience expectation that he kowtows to.
With this in mind, we have Shyamalan’s newest cinematic offering, The Village. Set in 1897, we follow the simple, agrarian lives of the people that inhabit a small secluded hamlet. The town is isolated because of a surrounding dense forest. Mythical creatures referred to as Those We Dont Speak Of populate the woods. An uneasy truce has been agreed upon between the creatures and the villagers, as long as neither camp ventures over into the others territory. When someone does enter the woods, foreboding signs arise. Animals are found skinned, red marks are found on doors, and people worry that the truce may be over. Within this setting, we follow the ordinary lives of the townsfolk. Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the daughter of the towns self-appointed mayor (William Hurt), and doesnt let a little thing like being blind get in the way of her happiness. She is smitten with Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix), a soft-spoken loner. Noah (Adrien Brody), a mentally challenged man, also has feelings for Ivy, which cause greater conflict.
Arguably, the best thing about The Village is the discovery of Howard. She proves herself to be an acting revelation that will have future success long after The Village is forgotten. Her winsome presence, wide radiant smile, and uncanny ability to quickly emote endear the character of Ivy to the audience. She is the only one onscreen with genuine personality and charisma, and when shes flirting and being cute about it you cannot help but fall in love with her. And when she is being torn up inside, the audience feels the same emotional turmoil. I am convinced that this is more so from Howard’s acting than from the writing of Shyamalan. She reminds me of a young Cate Blanchett, both in features and talent.
It seems to me that Shyamalan’s directing is getting better with every movie while his writing is getting proportionately worse. He has a masterful sense of pacing and mood, creating long takes that give the viewer a sense of unease. The first arrival of the creatures is an expertly handled scene that delivers plenty of suspense, and a slow-motion capper, with music swelling, that caused me to pump my fist. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is beautifully elegant. Even the violin-heavy score by James Newton Howard is a great asset to the film’s disposition.
So where does the film go wrong and the entertainment get sucked out?
What kills The Village is its incongruous ending. Beforehand, Shyamalan has built a somewhat unsettling tale, but when he finally lays out all his cards, the whole is most certainly not more than the sum of its parts. In fact, the ending is so illogical and stupid, and raises infinitely more questions than feeble answers, that it undermines the rest of the film. Unlike The Sixth Sense, the twist of The Village does not get better with increased thought.
Shyamalan’s sense of timing with his story revelations is maddening. He drops one twist with 30 minutes left in the film, but whats even more frustrating is he situates a character into supposed danger that the audience knows doesn’t exist anymore with this new knowledge. The audience has already been told the truth, and it deflates nearly all the tension. Its as if Shyamalan reveals a twist and then tells the audience to immediately forget about it. Only the naïve will fall for it.
Shyamalan also exhibits a problem fully rendering his characters. They are so understated that they dont ever really jump from the screen. The dialogue is very stilted and flat, as Shyamalan tries to stubbornly fit his message to ye olde English vernacular (which brings about a whole other question when the film’s final shoe is dropped). Shyamalan also seems to strand his characters into soap opera-ish subplots involving forbidden or unrequited love. For a good hour or so, minus one sequence, The Village is really a Jane Austin story with the occasional monster.
The rest of the villagers don’t come away looking as good as Howard. Phoenix’s taciturn delivery seems to suit the brooding Lucius, but at other times he can give the impression of dead space. Hurt is a sturdy actor but can’t find a good balance between his solemn village leader and caring if sneaky father. Sigourney Weaver just seems adrift like shes looking for butter to churn. Brody is given the worst to work with. His mentally-challenged character is a terrible one-note plot device. He seems to inexplicably become clever when its needed.
The Village is a vast disappointment when the weight of the talent involved is accounted for. Shyamalan crafts an interesting premise, a portent sense of dread, and about two thirds of a decent-to-good movie, but as Brian Cox said in Adaptation, ”The last act makes the film. Wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit. You can have flaws and problems, but wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.” It’s not that the final twists and revelations are bad; its that they paint everything that came before them in a worse light. An audience going into The Village wanting to be scared will likely not be pleased, and only Shyamalan’s core followers will walk away fully appreciating the movie. In the end, it may take a village to get Shyamalan to break his writing rut.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Posted on August 2, 2004, in 2004 Movies and tagged adrien brody, brendan gleeson, bryce dallas howard, drama, joaquin phoneix, m. night shyamalan, michael pitt, monsters, sigourney weaver, thriller, william hurt. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.