With M. Night Shyamalan filming a new flick with Will Smith right now, we look at his 2004 effort, The Village . . .
STARRING: Bryce Dallas Howard, Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Brendon Gleeson, Cherry Jones, Jayne Atkinson, Judy Greer, and Michael Pitt
2004, Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
There are those classic episodes of The Twilight Zone which send a thrill through our spine and leave us marveling at the clever twists thrown at us.
Then there are those less-than-classic ones… the ones where the lesson is worn too openly on the sleeve, where the unexpected doublebacks can be spotted a mile off, and where the final revelation evokes not shock and awe, but a derisive “What?!” The Village is the second kind.
Director M. Night Shyamalan continues in his self-appointed quest to uphold the legacy of Rod Serling, and once again, the mechanistic demands of such work do battle with the more thoughtful human drama they’re intended to reveal. This time, the wrong side wins.
At least there are benefits to the equation, as there always are. Shyamalan is an unparalleled cinematic technician, and the way he constructs his films — including The Village — is a joy unto itself. Every aspect serves a purpose, every seemingly odd or inappropriate element ties into a larger vision. He lays strong foundations to the storyline, providing tasty philosophical questions in addition to the expected clock to the skull.
His visual sense is quiet but intense — here portraying a 19th-century Pennsylvania settlement in the rich greens and yellows of late summer — and he constantly finds new ways to structure sequences whose cadence and rhythm we thought we knew by heart. Watch, for example, how he develops a surprise knife attack midway through the picture. Other directors rely on noise and suddenness to affect us. Shyamalan draws us in with such subtlety that we’re fast within its grasp before we realize what has occurred. It’s a giddy thrill, and even in imperfect form, the confidence with which he wields it is quite impressive.
On the other hand, The Village depends so much on that artistry that other equally vital considerations start to slip. Everything is geared towards the big climax — every character tic, plot development, and stylistic choice — which costs the remainder of the drama dearly. The Big Whatsit here entails a group of unseen monsters in the nearby woods, with whom the settlement has struck an uneasy accord. The villagers remain within the strictly-defined borders of their township, and in return, the creatures do not intrude upon them from the surrounding wilderness… in effect, serving both to protect them from the outside world and to prevent them from ever leaving.
The concept works well for Shyamalan’s preferred form of Hitchockian suspense, and posits some fascinating questions on the nature of fear and safety. The less-is-more approach to the scares is on full display: we rarely see the monsters, save in unsettlingly soft focus, and the woods around the village have a real Blair Witch feeling to them. And yet despite that, we don’t get the sort of menace that such an equation entails.
The dread, the palpable unseen terror which Shyamalan takes such delight in conjuring, is diluted by the human story which never really connects with us. Great pains are taken to establish the authenticity of the setting, but some real awkwardness lingers. The characters are often distant and obtuse, which makes it hard to empathize with them (and be scared for them) the way we did in Shyamalan’s earlier work.
The period dialogue is unusually formal — not strictly bad so much as drawing undue attention to itself — and while the cast (including Adrien Brody, Joaquin Phoenix, and newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard) is in a stellar league, their performances suffer from a uniform stiffness. Brody’s resident man-child is uncomfortably broad, and while Howard’s heroine has an endearing pluck about her, her supposed blindness feels unconscionably staged. Similar issues trouble most of the principal characters.
None of it’s accidental, of course, though it sometimes appears so at the time. Shyamalan’s approach to filmmaking means that all the twitches and hiccups are aimed towards turning our expectations on their ear. His stories make a unique pact with the audience, a magician’s trick that depends upon our trust to work. The ultimate failure of The Village comes because that trust — earned so dearly in his previous films and now taken for granted — is inadvertently breached.
The presumed kicker, encompassing the monsters in the woods and their ultimate purpose, is actually there to set up a much bigger kicker. Unfortunately, in so doing, it has to bend over backwards in order to accommodate logical necessity, and the payoff is simply not worth the effort. It squanders our willingness to suspend disbelief, leaving us incredulous and skeptical for the final, stunning bombshell… which isn’t nearly as elegant as it could be. While the film plays fair with its denouement (i.e., it never contradicts what’s come before), it simply requires too many dramatic licenses — asking us to swallow too much — in order to work. As a consequence, we greet it not with impressed gasps, but exasperated snorts.
Despite that, however, it would be harsh to describe the film as truly bad. There are some meaty issues on display, and credit Shyamalan for letting us chew on them without forcing us into an answer. His filmmaking expertise is a rare and wondrous thing — as craftsmanship, The Village is gorgeous — and watching the likes of Brendon Gleeson and Sigourney Weaver strut their stuff will never be tedious. But with this, his fourth version of the same basic Sixth Sense template, the creaks and groans have grown too loud to ignore. The dismount is too all-encompassing here, inflicting terminal damage on the routine preceding it.
In plain terms, it just doesn’t kick us in the guts like it should, and it sacrifices far too much for too small a payoff. As a failure, The Village is certainly interesting, but a failure it stubbornly remains. Of course, Serling had his missteps too, but then again, his were only half an hour long… and he never charged us nine bucks to see them!