M. Night Shyamalan’s spectacular feature debut The Sixth Sense established him as a dyanmic new force in the world of supernatural thrillers. His follow-up efforts Unbreakable and Signs showed that he had staying power, that his creative energies were sufficient to enable him to single-handedly define an entirely new subgenre of a well-established category of film.
Shyamalan’s most recent offering The Village demonstrates how successful he has been in establishing the genre associated with him. The Village manages to be generic in the worst sense of the word, following all of the conventions without adding anything new.
The setup is spooky, to be sure. The residents of the tiny late 19th century village of Covington Woods live in isolation, cut off from the outside world by the surrounding forest, where menacing, unnamed monsters live. We learn early on that the villagers and the unnamed ones maintain an uneasy truce. The villagers do not enter the woods, and the monsters do not enter the village. The arrangement is rather one-sided however. The villagers keep their end of the bargain because they fear the man-eating monsters; the monsters honor the deal because, well, who knows why they do, or how they came to make the deal in the first place.
Lately, however, the boundaries have begun to soften. Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix), grieving the death of a village child due to lack of medical supplies, desires to travel through the forest to “the towns,” where life-saving medicines may be obtained, The village elders, including Edward Walker (William Hunt) refuse, on the grounds that the monsters will not approve. In the meantime, small animals are found around the village with their fur removed and their flesh torn, causing much consternation among the village inhabitants, already skittish about their mysterious neighbors.
Lucius is wooed by Walker’s daughter, Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is blind, but who is more confident and capable than the other young people of the village. She has a special relationship with the village idiot, Noah Percy (Adrien Brody), who has a capacity for violence, but submits to the calming influence of Ivy.
I can’t say too much more about the plot without giving away the surprise ending(s). Suffice it to say that things are not as they seem. The problem, of course, is that by now, we know not to believe the surface explanations of Shyamalan’s movies, and the surprises, while reasonably well-contrived, do nothing to amaze, astound, or stupefy. Instead, the feeling I was left with was, “Oh, yes, that makes sense now.” Many critics have complained that the plot twist was obvious from the beginning, and that Rod Serling did it first. I was unable to guess what was going on until it was revealed, but when I found out the truth, it didn’t much change how I experienced the story I had experienced up to that point — I have no desire to view the movie again from the beginning to see how my new knowledge changes my perception.
Even the direction is somewhat by the book as written by Shyamalan. The opening scene of the underappreciated Unbreakable is a marvelous bit of filmmaking, as we observe Bruce Willis’ character flirting with a fellow passenger on a train through the spaces between seats, as if we were a child spying on the couple behind us. The shot places the viewer right in the middle of the action, but at a distance as well — it’s intensely voyeuristic. Shyamalan uses the same trick several times in The Village, shooting the character or object of interest through the space between two people or a doorway, but to no discernable end, other than it makes for an interesting visual. Like much of the rest of the movie, the idea seems to be, “it worked before, so let’s do it again.”
The sound design is terrific as the prime means of conveying the menacing presence of the monsters, and Bryce Dallas Howard (daughter of Ron Howard) makes a fine feature film debut as Ivy, although she’s not terribly convincing as a blind person (perhaps a bit of an overambitious role for a newcomer). Joaquin Phoenix and Adrien Brody turn in servicable, if unspectacular, performances. William Hurt is ultimately unconvincing as a wise authority figure struggling with his conscience (although talk to me after you see the movie and I can give an arugment for why his performance is actually unintentionally excellent given the larger context of the plot). Sigourney Weaver makes an appearance as Lucius’ mother that could have turned into something interesting, but which is in the end unimportant to the plot.