M. Night Shyamalan, not unlike his films, is a bit of a Hollywood wonder. Breaking onto the scene with The Sixth Sense, he's quickly risen to the top of the list of directors whose films are highly anticipated by the North American and international movie-going public. Not bad for someone who just a few years prior had only directed one critically successful but largely ignored comedy/drama starring Rosie O'Donnell. However, all this changed when The Sixth Sense became an unlikely monster summer hit. Since then, he's delivered us Unbreakable, a moderately flawed film about super heroes and human nature, and Signs, an old-fashioned alien story that dealt with the notion of faith. Now a full two years almost to the week after Signs, M. Night is back to unleash this latest and perhaps most ambitious project to date, The Village, a film which the marketing notes have promoted as being about love and fear in a small rural community.
As is the case with any M. Night Shyamalan film, it has been closely guarded by the studio and multiple requests have been made in many forms by Touchstone personnel as to not give away any of the key plot elements in any pre-release or release coverage. In fact, in some areas of the United States, internet press were not even invited to pre-release screenings. Most of the fun in seeing a new M. Night film comes from trying to figure out and decipher any clues as to just what might actually be occurring. Do I feel ruining the surprising twist would harm your enjoyment of the entire film? Yes and no. It might allow you to look for little clues along the way, but I doubt it would totally ruin the film. Still, it's always best to error on the cautious side and therefore I'll try and keep things as simple as possible in terms of the plot and characters.
The 'Village' in the title refers to a small community somewhere in rural Pennsylvania around the turn of the century. It's a sad time for the village as the seemingly preventable deaths of the sons of one of the community elders has left the town in mourning. Wishing to do more than just sit back and do nothing, the quiet and reserved Lucious Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) makes a request to the elder's council to go through nearby Convington Woods to the nearby towns to retrieve medicine and other supplies that may prevent further tragedy. This reply is denied outright, given that the woods are the home to "those of who we don't speak", a group of red-hooded creatures that prey on humans but have not breached the village's boundaries in quite some time. Meanwhile, Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) confesses her love for Lucious, which upsets her friend and town simpleton Noah (Adrian Brody), who just might have been going into the woods on regular occasions to pick berries. Suddenly and without apparent provocation the creatures come out of hiding and roam freely through the community one night. Amongst all the fear in the town, Lucious and Ivy begin to fall in love. However, when something happens to a member of the town, Ivy must push forward with Lucious's plan to leave the village in order to find the needed supplies in the nearby towns. Will she able to navigate through the dark dim woods and return unscathed or will she be forever lost to the residents of the village?
M. Night Shyamalan is the master of twist cinema, where suddenly and without warning his stories take an unexpected turn. This worked well in The Sixth Sense and Signs because the plot twists were believable, and upon further study of the films it was easy to see a number of clues that led to their existence. The same can't really be said for The Village and at the end of the day that's the film's biggest problem (though it does have others). Regular internet readers may have already stumbled upon the big secret as it's mentioned on a number of popular movie websites and anywhere movie fans congregate online. Still, as someone who didn't do any reading, what ends up happening in the film's last 10-15 minutes shocked the hell out of me and not in a scary way. Quite frankly, I was sitting wondering what the [expletive deleted] had just occurred. Not 45 minutes earlier during a key scene in the film, I thought the twist had already happened, so when this second one hit it did so like a tonne of bricks. Never in a million years would I have thought what happens could possibly have occurred. Though looking back, there are some possibilities that clues were left. Still, the twist comes out of nowhere and doesn't make much sense. That and the twist feels like a cheat when you realize the whole story would fall apart if things played out even just slightly different.
Aside from the aforementioned twist and its dependance on one aspect of the story or the whole thing falls apart, this is yet another interesting tale from M. Night Shyamalan. Slowly paced, the director allows you to become familiar with the characters and the setting so that you really feel as though you're a part of this community when it's time for the twists and turns to unravel. Written, directed, and produced (with the help of Scott Rudin), once again every aspect of the world in which the village takes place is 100% Shyamalan. This time around, in addition to exploring the central theme of fear, he also tries to tell a bit of a love story and interconnect the two characters to come up with the film's real message, and that is love can overcome anything in a time of fear. I'm not really all that sure that it comes across as well as it should as the film's best moments deal not with the Ivy and Lucious characters and their minimal connection, but instead with the town and how the events that occur affect the town's residents. The screenplay in general is good and the dialogue isn't as laughably bad as it possibly could have been. However, the fact that many elements in it exist solely to make the twist seem even somewhat believable does harm its overall effectiveness.
The cast of The Village is made up of names like Joaquin Phoenix, Adrian Brody (Oscar Winner for The Pianist), Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson, William Hurt, and the little-known but always superb Judy Greer. With a cast that good, one would expect the performances to be of a superb nature. That isn't the case here, as many of the characters are underwritten and undeveloped, some of which seem to exist only to create plot points in the film's early half. However, while as a whole the characters are underwritten, such isn't the case for lead actress Bryce Dallas Howard â€" daughter of Oppie himself, Ron Howard â€" who makes her screen debut as Ivy Walker. Fully realized down to almost the small detail, Howard plays Ivy with a refreshing elegance and a caring nature. Originally offered to Kirsten Dunst, who dropped out of the project, this was a smart move on Shyamalan's part as Dunst showed in Spider-Man 2 just how bad of an actress she can be when given less-than-stellar dialogue. Although Howard's character doesn't always give a convincing portrayal of a blind girl with a heart of gold and a genuine interest in Joaquin Phoenix's character, she does get most of it right and doesn't have trouble with the period-style dialogue. Also worth mentioning performance-wise is Joaquin Phoenix, who annoyed me much less than normal as the silent and scared but strong Lucious. I don't know what it is about him, but he has always just crept me out. Astute viewers will also notice M. Night Shyamalan in his most visible cameo role yet. He even has a fair bit of dialogue this time.
Besides the already talked-about ending and the poor character development, there was one big thing that bothered me about The Village, and that was that the musical score by James Newton Howard takes every opportunity afforded to him to create lush orchestrations that have no place in this type of movie. The score didn't add to the so-called scariness of the movie and in fact the orchestrations during key moments seemed to be overwhelming and unneeded. I have nothing against Newton Howard's work, and his scores for the upcoming film Collateral as well as Shyamalan's other movies have been generally strong. But here, he just misses the mark.
One's enjoyment of The Village all depends on how you look and feel about the film's surprising twist and your thoughts on M. Night Shyamalan's past work. Although he's been called this generation of filmmakers' Steven Spielberg, I have never seen the intense appeal of the guy's movies. He struck it lucky with The Sixth Sense, a film that had a terrible-looking trailer and was released in the dumping ground known as August. The follow-up, Unbreakable, was a disappointment and Signs was an improvement over the previous one but never reached the level of The Sixth Sense in terms of creative achievement. Now with The Village, he has created his most polarizing effort yet. Wandering out of the screening with a number of colleagues, reactions varied from "what the hell is he thinking?" to "I didn't see that coming!" to my own "that was one messed up and unexpected twist". It's clear that this film is going to be a hotly contested one amongst the critics and probably the general public as well. I for one feel that there's a limit to how much of a twist the audience will accept and in this case Shyamalan might have crossed it for some people. Still, he's created an entertaining piece of motion picture cinema that does keep audiences glued to the edge of their seats with its ever changing direction. That being said, it does all go south in the last 10-15 minutes, leaving audiences guessing as to what the hell they just saw. It's not perfect, but it's not the horrible movie that some critics are making it out to be. The Village is a fun film, but not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination (and trust me, you need one to figure out this film's secret).
Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.