When watching M. Night Shyamalan’s most recent film The Village, one will be reminded of other horror films. The Blair Witch Project comes to mind, an excellent thriller which tapped our fear of the unknown and perhaps even more so our fear of the wilderness. The woods are dark and evil, and it produces inhuman noises that terrify. From the opening scenes of The Village, we know the woods hide a forbidden secret.
That is the heart of The Village and the stark images are unforgettable. Grays and browns dominate this film, which takes place in an isolated 19th century town somewhere in Pennsylvania. Log and stone cabins transport us to another time, lit by the yellows of candles and kerosene lamps. People farm and garden on a daily basis, producing food which is consumed during communal dinners. Men’s hair is long and uncut and shoes are crusted with mud. Women are adorned in long dresses, sitting by the warmth of pot-bellied stoves.
Shyamalan has skillfully transported us to another time and place, a grim fairy tale world where the big bad wolf is seemingly hiding within every shadow. The Village is a beautiful film, a Gothic play with minimal dialog and oppressive mood. Shyamalan has also cast extraordinary actors in this piece, most notably William Hurt giving one of his finest performances in years as the town elder. The characters are at times frustratingly passive, and you would like to see more work from such great talents as Sigourney Weaver, Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody and Brendan Gleeson. Their presence alone, however, adds great interest to the eerie proceedings.
As in all Shyamalan films, there’s one great performance which stands out, in this case Bryce Dallas Howard as the blind woman Ivy Walker, the heart and soul of the village. I have not seen this actress before, though have read she is the daughter of actor and director Ron Howard. It’s a splendid performance, as strong as Haley Joel Osment’s in The Sixth Sense. It’s difficult to discuss this film without giving away some of the surprising plot developments, but Walker must eventually enter the woods, handicapped and alone, and the moments are almost unbearable.
The village is an isolated town, residing within a clearing and surrounded by a forest. The residents go about their daily rituals, farming, eating and socializing. But dark howls can be heard coming from the woods. An agreement has been made with the unseen creatures of the forest. Residents in the village never enter the woods, and the creatures never enter the village. Never-the-less, torches are lit every night surrounding the village, and a guard tower is manned just in case the creatures decide to pay the village a visit. Lucius Hunt (Phoenix) is an independent town loner who aspires to enter the woods and visit neighboring towns to obtain medicine for village residents. The elders, a sort of pseudo city council that includes the characters played by Hurt, Weaver and Gleeson, refuse to let him go. Lucius is also in love with Ivy Walker, and their mutual affection is revealed in the film’s finest scene during a fog-covered evening.
Where The Village starts to stumble is when the forest creatures begin making appearances in the village. Town residents discover red markings on doors and animals skinned alive. It’s never very clear why the creatures decide to harass the village. Eventually, Walker must enter the woods where she is stalked by the creatures. These scenes are terrifying, though the resolution, which includes a terrible plot device where an important article is discovered beneath the floor boards of a home, weakens the film substantially. Other scenes could have been far more plausible had Shyamalan not been so lazy as a writer. A scene where medicine is stolen from under the watchful eye of a superior is poorly choreographed and unbelievable. But the love between Lucius and Ivy is very touching, and carries the film through it’s awkward concluding moments.
I was reminded of two films which I consider superior to The Village, including the 1988 New Zealand import The Navigator and an obscure 1983 horror/western Eyes of Fire. Both films are period pieces, where village residents must battle oppressive forces of nature. In The Navigator, medieval town residents are trying to survive the Bubonic Plague, and go on a quest in search of a cure. In Eyes of Fire, pioneers are trapped in a valley and molested by evil spirits of the forest. Both films detail a symbolic journey in which the protagonists must battle unseen forces of nature. The Navigator had similar plot devices, but the contrasting elements came together with great finesse, and the conclusion far more satisfying. Eyes of Fire, one of the creepiest films you’ve never heard of, had a nightmarish resolution suitable for its subject matter. With The Village, there’s a good chance viewers will feel manipulated when the end credits begin to roll.
Since exploding on the scene in 1999 with the brilliant ghost story The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan has carved out a nice career for himself. Unbreakable, Signs and now The Village continues his trend of thoughtful supernatural thrillers. His films are marked by a unique sense of mood and Alfred Hitchcock subtlety, going against the grain of the Hollywood product. I suppose it’s time we applaud Shyamalan, a talented filmmaker with trademark refinement. Where he stands in the pantheon of great directors is open to debate, residing somewhere between John Carpenter and David Cronenberg. I don’t think he’s reached the level of those directors just yet, but he has the talent to eventually do so.
Noted film critic Roger Ebert has panned The Village, and I feel unjustly so. Taken at face value, perhaps the film is unbelievable. But I think Shyamalan was attempting to create a fairy tale, with Ivy Walker serving as a sort of retro Little Red Riding Hood. One could find other analogies, with the isolation of the Branch Davidians and the superstitions of colonial Salem, Massachusetts coming to mind. This film is also boosted by an extraordinary, dream-like atmosphere. Had this been an obscure foreign film playing at the local art house, critics and fans would have hailed its vision.
I think The Village is Shyamalan’s best work since The Sixth Sense, but he has yet to equal the success of that near-classic film. What your expectations are will have much to do with your enjoyment of this brooding drama.