Many people think M. Night Shyamalan has a Sixth Sense for movie-making. He’s raised the bar for story-telling through such works as Unbreakable and Signs, and is well-known for leaving a trail of wicked surprises that stump fans and critics alike. Mary Huang returns from her visit to The Village, his latest work and one of the most awaited summer movies of the year.
For starters, if you’re looking for an action-packed, screaming (not that there isn’t screaming here), mommy-help-me movie, you don’t see Shyamalan movies. For leaning-forward-what’s-going-to-happen-next psychological suggestion, then keep reading.
As with Shyamalan's other films, the story of The Village was so closely guarded that the actors were sworn to secrecy regarding the script – but judging from numerous cast interviews, it wasn’t like any of them wanted to spoil the mystery anyways.
This time, the tale takes place in 19th century Pennsylvania, involving the inhabitants of a close-knit community living in the centre of the woods. Their daily existence is simple and sheltered, overseen by a group of Elders who lovingly dispense wisdom and experience.
But something’s wrong in this pretty picture.
Strange, distant howls can sometimes be heard from the woods. Children and adults murmur about sharp-clawed creatures known only as Those We Do Not Speak Of. Red is the “bad colour” that attracts them, and as soon as something red is found, like a small flower, it is removed immediately, plucked and buried. The border of the village, just at the edge of the forest, is ringed with yellow banners – the “safe colour”. A guard in yellow keeps watch at the tower. When the warning bell sounds, people flee for their homes, hiding under trap doors.
As all the children in the village know, the Elders and the villagers have had a truce with Those We Do Not Speak Of for years. No one goes into the woods and Those We Do Not Speak Of do not come into the village. But when Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix), son of Elder Alice Hunt (a solemn and dignified Sigourney Weaver), wishes to travel through the woods to the towns to get medicine, a chain of events begins that leads to the potential undoing of the village.
Now, if you’re familiar in any way with Shyamalan’s work, you should know that he has an incredible reputation for creating atmosphere– and it’s well-deserved. Minimalism is key to his technique, and it’s fascinating to watch him work his magic without any reliance on fancy special effects. Here he’s created a strange little fairy-tale world in his Village: stay out of the big bad woods, don’t talk to the scary wolves, don’t do this, don’t do that, and everything will be perfect. But people get curious, of course, and you know what they say about curiosity and the cat. From the opening credits watching the tree branches sway against a gray sky, and seeing all of the villagers going about their business – children playing, friends tending to the gardens, women sweeping the porches – there’s a very tangible sense of community peace, but also one of underlying tension: self-repression and buried secrets. While the fright you get from this movie is driven mostly by the inner fears and apprehension of the characters, there are a number of scenes that will make you start - the first few glimpses of Those We Do Not Speak Of are quite hair-raising.
It’s not all mind-games. There’s plenty of room for laughs, and see if you can catch Shyamalan’s own cameo appearance (hint: it’s around the end of the film). The supporting cast is strong, making the main actors’ performances only that much more breathtaking. The language of the village is elegant and formal, something that could easily have come across as silly, awkward or pretentious. But it’s kudos to the strength of the cast that it is none of those things, and that each character’s individual quirks and personality shine through. Phoenix skillfully uses understatement as introverted-yet-brave Lucius. The mentally unstable Noah Percy (Adrien Brody) is heartbreakingly amusing, sympathetic and tragic at the same time.
The star of the show, however, is definitely Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard), the blind daughter of the village teacher/Elder Edward Walker (a kindly William Hurt). Howard’s performance cements the character’s role as the unlikely heroine of this fairy tale.
And what would a Shyamalan movie be without the quintessential Shyamalan Surprise – a twist that pulls the carpet out from under the audience’s feet and stuns them by answering all mysteries? True to form, the story of The Village rests exactly on this secret. Without a doubt you’ll be guessing furiously throughout the movie.
But when it comes, it doesn’t satisfy at all. It feels so out of place with the rest of the beautiful film; it’s not mysterious or scary anymore, and the story loses much of its psychological impact. The fairy tale disappears; it's replaced with morals, the loss of innocence cliché, and you're jolted back to reality. Instead of feeling astounded, you'll probably feel tricked.
The problem is not that it’s a poor solution; it’s that the punch line simply doesn’t live up to the brilliant expectations set up by the rest of the captivating joke.
And that is the Achilles’ heel of what Shyamalan is known for – the story built around the twist, a reputation that overwhelms and overshadows everything else. The sad fact is that the rest of the movie is truly mesmerizing, but if the surprise falls flat, it takes everything down with it.
In the end, the lasting impression of The Village is that it’s extremely human. And like humans, it seems too good to be true when it’s born – then it begins to reveal its flaws. But that beginning was bloody beautiful, and you just wish you could reverse time and go back to not knowing the truth.
Just like the people in The Village.