The Village Review
In a remote clearing in the woods of Pennsylvania stands a small village. Its inhabitants are early American settlers who turned their backs on civilisation to raise their families in simplicity and peace. They soon learned that their new home was not without its own dangers. In the woods that surround their settlement, there lurk mysterious and ferocious creatures with hulking bodies, fearsome claws and blood-red cloaks. The town elders, led by Edward Walker (William Hurt) have forged a shaky truce with these beasts. The creatures keep to their woods and the villagers remain in their clearing. That truce appears to be coming to an end. The creatures are starting to stray inside the borders, leaving behind the bodies of skinned animals and bloody marks daubed on each house. Is it a warning to the villagers to leave or an omen of something worse?
There are further complications. One of the younger townsfolk, Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) wants the elders' permission to risk a trip through the woods to bring back medicines. The town council have been refusing but the recent sickness and death of a small child lends force to his argument. Edward's beautiful daughter Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), who has been blind since childhood, loves Lucius and suspects that the feeling might be mutual. There are other simmering passions in the village and, in an unexpected and shocking scene, one of them leads to tragedy. Suddenly the need for medical supplies becomes urgent. Someone is going to have to enter the woods and face the things that live there.
The Village, M Night Shyamalan's latest chiller has been stirring up strong feelings, both positive and negative, in critics and cinemagoers alike. Film Review called it a must-see and rated it five stars. Prominent American critic Roger Ebert gave it only one and wished for his time back. After a $50 million dollar opening in the US, its grosses fell by 67% in its second weekend, a steeper drop than Van Helsing or Catwoman, yet its Internet Movie Database score is a respectable 6.4. Its detractors and defenders are as passionate as each other.
Negative reactions inevitably centre on the ending. The director is now so strongly associated with his surprise endings that "shyamalan" could well turn up one day in the Oxford dictionary as a new noun meaning "twist". Ironically, of the director's three previous hits, only Signs depended on its ending, using it to simultaneously tie up the plot and add a spiritual level to the film. The Sixth Sense worked with or without it - the real emotional climax was the penultimate scene in the car. Unbreakable's revelation felt like a bad joke tacked on as an afterthought but the rest of the film was so good that you could just about ignore it.
The finale of The Village follows the example of Signs. Everything leads up to it and it changes the meaning of much of what we've seen. I have to be careful about what I write here. If you do see this movie, it should be experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible. I will say that I understand why so many people hate it and why one member of the audience I watched it with walked out. There's a very strong argument to be made that it's nothing short of a cheat. I don't agree with that argument. Yes, it's anti-climactic and your initial reaction may be to groan but if you accept it and stay with the film, you're left with a thoughtful and oddly touching parable. Some reviewers have even described the film as a political allegory but if it is, it's not an attack on the values it portrays, more a compassionate observation.
Shyamalan's plotting is not as seamless as it was in Signs and The Sixth Sense. The twist isn't as well integrated with what went before. Once we have all the information, too much of the story seems incredible or irrelevent. There are characters, including Sigourney Weaver's, who appear to serve no purpose and others whose behaviour serves the plot a little too conveniently.
While his scripting is not up to his usual standard, there's no faulting Shyamalan's direction. He can tell a story with a camera as well as Spielberg and when it comes to creating and sustaining an atmosphere, he's in a league of his own. His films are a pleasure to watch and listen to. (Composer James Newton Howard deserves a mention here for his beautiful violin-led score.) Shyamalan is also an excellent director of actors. William Hurt's authorititave presence is well used and it's good to see him back in a major role. Joaquin Phoenix and the ever-reliable Brendan Gleeson do good work too but the real star of The Village is Bryce Dallas Howard, the 22-year-old daughter of director Ron Howard. Her subtle, sympathetic performance goes a long way to brush over the cracks in the script. The Village doesn't measure up to Shyamalan's best work but it's still a unique film that is rewarding to look at, listen to and think about. Even if you hate it, I doubt you'll forget it.
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