Time has a way of moving films onto a binary spectrum. Looking back on a piece of work ten years after its original release, our brains usually flag it as a good movie or a bad one. Most who remember seeing M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” when it hit theaters on July 30, 2004 would definitively and irrevocably categorize it as the latter.
It was the movie where it all went wrong. No matter where you stood on the final twist of “Signs” — Was it a simple story of a man regaining his faith or much too convenient? — “The Village” was the Shyamalan film that proved the brilliance of “The Sixth Sense” was a fluke.
Though his filmography since 2004 would support that conclusion, Shyamalan displayed too much talent in those early movies — and in the maligned tale of false Victorian horror movie, for that matter — to write off “The Village” entirely.
Pre-release, all the audience had to go off was the promise of Shyamalan’s first venture into period, Roger Deakin’s superb cinematography, a strong ensemble led by a promising newcomer, and the expectation of a twist that would completely change everything that came before it.
It was that final presumption that doomed “The Village,” but the blame ultimately falls on Shyamalan. While looking for the twist you know is coming can ruin a film, what the audience finds, however, decides its fate.
The setup was simple and so seemingly snug within Shyamalan’s wheelhouse. It’s why the trailers seemed so promising. A small group of people lives in a settlement on the edge of a forest in what we’re told is the late 19th century. The community, governed by a council of elders, lives a simple life, with the expectation of the three rules outlined in the poster.
The rules pertain to Those We Do Not Speak Of, the supposedly carnivorous beasts that supposedly live in Covington Woods, the forest that surrounds the town.
“The Village’s” first act delivers on the promises of the setup, punctuated by a charming performance from Bryce Dallas Howard and shot beautifully as always by Deakins. Shyamalan’s restrained camerawork adds elegance, appropriate to the supposedly period setting, but most everything else in front of the camera struggles to match it.
Even before getting to the twisty elements of Shyamalan’s script, the dialogue and personal drama between Howard’s Ivy and her suitor Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) lacks all of the energy of the Austenian romances they should have evoked. Roger Ebert said it well in his review. “Everyone speaks in the passive voice. The vitality has been drained from the characters; these are the Stepford Pilgrims.”
Low energy levels aside, what Shyamalan does with the first act is far from career-ending. In fact, the first encounters with Those We Do Not Speak Of actually come with genuine dread.
Well, they do at first.
Once we get a good look at the red-cloaked creatures, the illusion begins to fall away. They look bad — and not in the same way the “Signs” aliens look bad. Those We Do Not Speak Of immediately appear to be what they really are: costumes, or a farce as Elder Walker explains midway through the movie. The first twist is D.O.A.
So the Elders created the illusion of monsters in the woods in order to trap would-be explores inside their agoraphobic haven. It’s a fine, believable — albeit predictable — development, that fits the narrative that has come before it, but the movie is only halfway over at this point. What else does Shyamalan have up his sleeve?
For his third movie after “The Sixth Sense,” Shyamalan was smart enough to predict the audience guessing game that would start with the very first frame, so he packaged “The Village” with a second, even more ludicrous surprise.
The film ends so quickly after the revelation that it’s set in modern time that the audience has almost no time to question it, and it’s probably for the best. There’s allegory to be found within the twist — oppressive rule through fear in the name of safety cannot prevent violence and death, even in the most extreme of settings — but a shoehorned moral cannot heal the severe whiplash the audience just experienced. Especially when you consider that the same conclusion could have been reached without the time period twist.
What’s most frustrating about “The Village” is that you can see the threads of a much better movie. With a little rearranging, things could have gone very differently not only for the film, but also for the man behind it.