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I don’t mean to sound boastful, but I figured out The Village‘s big twist a few days before actually seeing the movie. While it was vindicating to see my theory play out on the screen, knowing the secret did not for a moment diminish my enjoyment of this stark, allegorical tale, or my admiration for M. Night Shyamalan, whose gifts as a filmmaker remain as considerable as ever.
Ever since The Sixth Sense, which remains the director’s best work, Shyamalan has forged his career on simmering, atmospheric thrillers founded on a single crucial moment of revelatory surprise. The “Ah, ha!” in The Village is, admittedly, somewhat lame — but not as lame as the one in Unbreakable or, even worse, the “Let’s throw water on the aliens and see if they melt” scene in Signs.
What’s remarkable about The Village, which is set in the 19th century, is how relevant it seems within the context of today’s terrorist-stoked climate of fear. It speaks to our underlying human desire to shelter ourselves from the violence plaguing the world. Shyamalan isn’t offering up anything new — he’s just adding his voice. Yet long after the movie’s surprise ending has faded away, the film’s mix of cautionary sobriety and passionate undertakings stick with you. It’s a deep, involving story, filled with an abundance of subtext. And it is every bit as rich and unforgettable an experience as Sixth Sense.
The basic story involves a group of people who live an isolated existence in a Pennsylvania village framed by an imposing forest. In those woods dwell fearsome beasts with whom the village elders have forged “an uneasy truce.” The villagers don’t go into the woods. The creatures don’t rampage through the village on a killing spree.
When the truce is breached by the curious but well-meaning Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix), the creatures return the favor with a series of visits that leave the villagers in a state of absolute and utter terror. A cataclysmic, unforeseen event involving the simple-minded but emotionally aware Noah (magnificently played by Adrien Brody) forces a resourceful blind girl, Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard), to venture bravely into the woods in an attempt to reach a distant town for medical aid.
It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure out the movie’s big twist. But there is plenty of satisfaction to be found in the small, significant details and elegant narrative nuances Shyamalan strews, like bread crumbs, along the path.
My guess is that most audiences will be disappointed by The Village. But that’s because they’ve been sold a false bill of goods by the Touchstone Pictures marketing department, which is promoting The Village as an out-and-out horror film. While Shyamalan’s film has horrific elements, it’s a far cry from a hack ‘n slash creature feature. If anything, it’s a gothic romance along the order of Wuthering Heights, complete with desire, heartbreak, jealousy and revenge.
Shyamalan has a natural way with actors (I’m impressed by anyone who can get a halfway decent performance out of Joaquin Phoenix), and pays meticulous attention to the craft of screenwriting — an art lost on many modern-day filmmakers. Period dialogue that could have easily come off as stilted and laughable instead rings magnificent with poetic resonance. And screen veterans like William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver and Brendan Gleeson give the words sincere heft.
One has to feel a little sorry for Shyamalan, who, like the demon-enslaved villagers, seems expected to concoct tricky plot machinations that may not benefit the stories he chooses to tell. His twists have become foregone conclusions, and with The Village, he fails to put any real effort into the story mechanics. Instead, he focuses on the fundamentals of suspense-based filmmaking: dynamic, off-putting compositions, precise deployment of color, and dramatically heightened sound effects. All combine to create a potent, increasingly menacing atmosphere.
Still, we sit through The Village only partly engaged, as a good portion of our brainpower is given over to continuously looking for clues that will reveal the secret before its time. As a result, we never fully give ourselves over to the movie; we are never as immersed as we should or could be.
And that’s a shame. It would be well worth Shyamalan’s time to wrest himself free of this career-and-box-office imposed yoke and make a motion picture that dedicates itself to the art of suspense without adding the onus of a surprise ending. Then, and only then, will he become a true master of his chosen art.