In my review of 2002's "Signs," I wrote that filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan
had finally cemented his place as one of the great filmmakers working
today, a Steven Spielberg or Alfred Hitchcock of the new millennium
with the talent to mix deeply felt emotions and sharply written characters
with an unsettling, "less-is-more" visceral impact. Also known for
the revelations he carefully constructs at the ends of his movies—1999's
"The Sixth Sense," 2000's "Unbreakable," and "Signs"—that force the
viewer to look at what they have just watched from an entirely different,
more enlightened angle, M. Night Shyamalan seemed to be on a creatively
sumptuous, financially illustrious roll.
Shyamalan's near-perfect filmography record since hitting it big five
years ago finally catches its first snag with "The Village," a supernaturally-tinged
horror story with a whopper of a thought-provoking twist. On its own,
the true colors of the "Village," gradually discovered as the conclusion
approaches, work with evocative bravado, but the way it is handled
within the surprisingly muddy screenplay (also by Shyamalan) feels
strictly like a cheat. The writer-director-producer's previous trio
of motion pictures were so meticulously laid out and woven that there
was no gap in consistency or willful plausibility. From the ensemble
of characters and relationships, to the performances, to the story,
to the visual mastery, to the genuinely earned scares, to the eventual
and natural uncovering of the truth, Shyamalan's control over each
of his past cinematic efforts was unfailingly in high gear. "The Village"
holds no such scrutiny.
In a small Pennsylvania village, circa 1897, a tight-knit community,
isolated from the outside world, lives in peace and harmony. The tranquility
of their existence is threatened when the mysterious creatures who
lurk in the woods surrounding their "town" begin venturing onto their
terrain, killing small animals in their wake and leaving ominous red
marks ("the bad color," as it is known) on their houses' doors. When
the quietly earnest Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix), grown son of widowed
mother Alice (Sigourney Weaver), makes a plea to venture into the
forests on a trek to find medicine for the village's myriad ailments,
the elders, headed by schoolteacher Edward Walker (William Hunt),
deny his request. Their truce with Those We Do Not Speak Of, in which
they promise not to set foot on their land, is one the villagers are
not comfortable in severing, in fear of their own life. When one of
their own is critically hurt, however, in need of treatment for his
life to be spared, Edward is convinced by his blind daughter, Ivy
(Bryce Dallas Howard), that she is the right person to make the voyage
for medication. Although she cannot see, Ivy has sharper instincts
than the normal person and might just be able to use her vulnerability
to get past the creatures without them feeling threatened.
The culminative twists involved in M. Night Shyamalan's previous work
felt organic to what had come before, all the while strengthening
the film's existentialism without shortchanging its creep factor or
general one-of-a-kind allure. With a sad heart, it must be said that
"The Village" is too underwhelming and sloppily plotted to work the
same way. The central twist, when it arrives, has the potential to
be thought-provoking, commenting on the very real fears of today's
and yesterday's society while transcending such a one-hundred-year
time barrier. Nonetheless, the stream of revelations Shyamalan trots
out this time feel clever for the sake of being clever, as they have
not been tightly and unmistakably woven through the rest of the story.
Instead, they feel irritably contrived, as if Shyamalan felt pressure
to give the film the same sort of surprise-factor as his past oeuvre
and, in response, cooked up the most unlikely twist he could think
of on the day of filming.
The star of the film—nay, the only actor given anything resembling
a satisfying, three-dimensional role—is newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard
(23-year-old daughter of Ron), a soulful show-stopper as the wise
Ivy. Howard enriches her blind character with both meek poignancy
and unstoppable determination, a richly ironic combination that makes
her feel all the more real. It is she who leads us through most of
the developments, and Howard is a fascinating, lovely talent worth
following. This is one of the strongest debut performances of the
year, and her chemistry with Joaquin Phoenix (2002's "Signs"), charming
but hard to read as Lucius, is subtly powerful.
The other actors (in a cast of respected veterans and younger stars
on the rise) find their talents squandered in glaringly uneven parts.
Each one—Sigourney Weaver (2001's "Heartbreakers"); William Hurt (2002's
"Tuck Everlasting"); Judy Greer (2004's "13 Going on 30") as Ivy's
caring older sister, Kitty; Michael Pitt (2004's "The Dreamers") as
Lucius' friend, Finton, among others—disappears for uncomfortably
long stretches of screen time when their reactions to the events occurring
are vital missing links. There is no real sense of who these people
are and how they function within the village and in their families,
and the way Shyamalan juggles the many roles borders on haphazard.
Full subplots—one involving the questionable relationship between
Alice and Edward strikes instantly to mind—are brought up and then
forgotten about by the end. As for the other adults making up the
head elders, including Brendan Gleeson (2004's "Troy"), Celia Weston
(2003's "Runaway Jury"), and Cherry Jones (2002's "Divine Secrets
of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood"), they are lucky to escape with a single
"The Village" is certainly technically accomplished. The cinematography
is given a stylishly vivid autumnal palette by Roger Deakins (2004's
"The Ladykillers") that sparsely but indelibly uses scarlet hues to
great effect. The music score by James Newton Howard (2002's "Signs")
is classy and tense without getting bombastic. And the sound effects
of the forest surroundings that elicit fear in the characters are
used to optimal effect. Furthermore, there are a couple unforgettable
moments destined to raise the hairs on the back on any viewer's neck.
Unfortunately, there aren't enough of them. Writer-director M. Night
Shyamalan unveils the cards he's playing too soon, and when he does
all feelings of uneasiness evaporate before your eyes, like some sort of dirty trick.
"The Village" will polarize audiences, there is no doubt. But for
this true fan of Shyamalan, the end product is all talk and no action,
a disappointing stumble for a filmmaker who will no doubt get back
on his feet by the time his next cinematic endeavor comes around.
Shyamalan's ambitiously haughty ideas have finally gotten too large
for him to handle this time. When the screen went to black and the
appearance of the director's end credit flashed on the screen, my
silent response was one of enraged bewilderment. "The Village" offers
the ultimate conundrum. It is a complex motion picture that demands
a second viewing, yet doesn't offer enough that is scary or emotionally
resounding to really be worth the first.
Copyright © 2004 Dustin Putman