M. Night Shyamalan is one of the few working writer/directors with as much name recognition and drawing power as today’s top actors. His first major film, The Sixth Sense, was a runaway critical and commercial success, earning six Oscar nominations and grossing nearly $700 million world-wide. The deliberate pacing, understated performances, and “twist” ending made the film markedly different from what most audiences were used to seeing in a movie, and Shyamalan would carry these elements, as well as the film’s Philadelphia setting, over into his subsequent efforts. His next film, Unbreakable did for superheroes what Sense did for ghost stories, taking the fantastic and grounding it deeply into reality. And 2002′s Signs used many of the same tactics, making it markedly different from any other alien invasion film. Though neither film matched Sense at the box office, both cemented Shyamalan’s status as one of the hottest writer/directors in Hollywood. It is entirely due to this status that he was able to make a film like The Village.
With a solid cast, but no major stars, and a script and story that have been closely guarded, The Village enters theaters this week largely under the weight of its creator’s name alone. Without Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson to draw the crowd, this movie is Shyamalan’s first real test as a singular box office force.
For those concerned with such matters, this review contains significant information about elements of the film’s plot and characters, but no major “spoilers.”
The nineteenth-century village of the title is a small, isolated settlement in a valley surrounded by dense woods. Its inhabitants, we learn, have abandoned civilization and its ills to live a idyllic existence as a peaceful, self-sustaining community. They refer to the outside world as “the towns,” and speak of their lives before in sad, hushed tones. By cutting themselves off from the greed and malice of society, the villagers have built a small utopia, free of the sorrow that drove them to abandon the rest of the world.
But in the woods surrounding the village live mysterious creatures who seem to only just barely tolerate the presence of the humans in their midst. Torches line the perimeter of the valley, and a guard tower with a permanent watch sits at the border. No one is allowed into the woods, and no one dares venture there for fear of enraging the creatures, who are referred to only as “those we do not speak of.”
Bryce Dallas Howard, in her film debut, stars as Ivy Walker, a young blind woman and the daughter of one of the village elders. Howard is an amazing actress, and her performance carries the film. Her deliberate and punctuated delivery clearly originate from her stage training, yet seem perfectly natural in the not-quite-real setting. Among a cast of complex characters, Ivy is by far the most nuanced and interesting.
Involved in a sort of love triangle with Ivy are Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) and Noah Percy (Adrian Brody).
Lucius is a quiet, brave man with a deep, though unvoiced, devotion to Ivy. During a crisis early in the film, we follow him through the village as he assists all those he comes across, young and old, yet at the end of it he makes sure to return to Ivy.
Convinced the creatures will not harm him if his intent is pure, Lucius repeatedly petitions the elders for permission to travel to the towns to obtain supplies and medicine that the villagers lack. Phoenix does an excellent job with the part; he has almost no dialogue for large parts of the film, letting his eyes and body speak for him instead.
Noah is a mildly retarded man who fawns over Ivy endlessly. Though she is clearly younger than him, he treats her as an older sister and she indulges him gladly. Incapable of understanding the dangers posed by the creatures in the woods, Noah is fearless when it comes to the rules and safety of the village. The role is a departure for Brody, and he plays it well.
Rounding out the cast are William Hurt as Edward Walker, Ivy’s father, and the severely underused Sigourney Weaver as Alice Hunt, Lucius’ mother. The few scenes between Hurt and Weaver are amazing. The two actors convey their characters’ obvious attraction without ever once touching.
The pacing of the film is as methodical as Shyamalan’s previous work, and the camerawork by Roger Deakins perfectly underscores the deliberateness of the story. By virtue of the setting, the majority of the film has a natural, organic look to it, though this is punctuated by several visually arresting moments.
The twists, when they come, do not seem contrived, but neither do they attain the shock value of the surprises in The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable. While there is more than one revelatory moment through the course of the film’s two hours, the rest of the story sits well enough on its own. Thus, while the writer has given his fans what they expect, it is more than just a token effort.
In theory, The Village is everything one should expect from M. Night Shyamalan’s fourth film. There are more than a few nail-bitingly tense scenes, solid performances from all the actors, and a well-earned “surprise” ending.
Though the movie does not have the logical fallacies that plagued Signs, it does suffer from some of the same problems with the third act. Shyamalan does a superb job of detailing the central mysteries of the film, dropping numerous clues left and right over the first two-thirds of the movie. However, the set-up is so well-crafted and executed that when it comes time for the big pay off, Shyamalan can’t quite deliver.
Moviegoers who see The Village only for the surprise ending will most likely be disappointed. Those who go for a solid thriller will leave happy.