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Is The Village really that bad?

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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.

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About Chris Wilson

  • http://www.mondoirlando.com Aaron, Duke De Mondo

    chris, i really look forward to reading this, but it aint out in The Northern Ireland til a little later in the month, and i wanna go in as fresh as possible (even though i DID follow all those rumours about the “twist” a few months ago, which i really hope weren’t true, cause A – it means i know the ending, and B – it sucked)

    But i’ll comment on the actual text soon, hopefully

  • Chris Kent

    Thanks El Senor Duke. I raced to this movie the day it opened because I did not want to hear about the “surprises” beforehand.

    My review does not give away any surprises. It’s an interesting film worth a bit of discussion. It was much better than I expected…..

  • http://www.unproductivity.com Tom Johnson

    Ebert’s review was spot-on: this was one of the worst, most disappointing movies I’ve seen in a LONG time. Terrible dialogue, stiff acting from all but a couple (Howard is amazing, despite the lameness of the movie itsel,) a plot so full of holes it was hardly a plot at all, and a twist so ridiculously stupid that it pretty much ruins the rest of the movie.

  • Chris Kent

    Tom, I disagree.

    For me, it was not anywhere near the worst film I have seen in a long time. While I was disappointed with several aspects of the film, I still found it’s creation of the hidden village to be fascinating. The dialogue was excellent, if a bit stilted due to the refinements of the odd society these residents were living in. I thought the acting was uniformly good (especially Howard, Phoenix and Hurt), though perhaps the actors should have been given more to do. It is a very passive film, but the atmosphere worked for me and I enjoyed how quiet this film was.

    The twist was disappointing, but I was not as angry as you. I would have loved to see monsters, though the monsters I imagined were far more terrifying than anything the film could have created. Taken as a fairy tale, the story works, and what fairy tale DOESN’T have plot holes?

    The Village was a fascinating mood piece and I enjoyed it immensely, mainly because I was NEVER sure what was going to happen next, and for me that is usually rare in a film. The twist bothered me a little, but the buildup to the twist was creative and suspenseful. This film was superior to Signs in many ways…..just not as good as The Sixth Sense.

  • mfj

    This was an absolutely HORRIBLE movie. Wtf was Shayamalan THINKING? He makes two great movies — and then this stupid horse$hit? Please. I give it 1 star. TERRIBLY cheesy, pedestrian film that reminded me of a cheap porn flick at times.

  • art

    as others have said- this was an absolutely HORRIBLE movie! i have seen people all over try to give sham’s movies like signs and this and all his others since unbreakable and try to tells us they are good movies. it makes them feel smart to say these things.
    this movie was so unbearably BORING. the fact that EVERY SINGLE movie since unbreakable has sucked has been proven with the fact his movies make less and less every time. if i could give it a negative score i would. in fact- i will. a negative 5 on a scale of 1 to 5.

  • Shannon Leigh Day

    When I saw the movie in theaters, I was outraged by the ending. It took a bit of time but I now see the brilliance of it. I bought the movie and I showed it to my kids. I guess they are smarter then I am. They love it. It is now apart of our regular movie night rotation.