M. Night Shyamalan is the spiritual P.T. Barnum of the film community. Like the famed circus entertainer, he is terrifically skilled at manipulating an audience’s feelings. Writer/director Shyamalan knows what an audience expects from his movies (“The Sixth Sense”, “Unbreakable”, “Signs”), and has the uncanny ability to deliver just that.
His latest film, “The Village,” again follows the pattern of having a twist ending that has become the trademark of a Shyamalan thriller. It is also a crutch for sure, but “The Village” is an intriguing, if not wholly implausible film. It’s so close to being a feature-length “Twilight Zone” episode that I wouldn’t have been surprised if Rod Serling had strolled out during the closing credits. Especially since Shyamalan “sees dead people.”
The movie opens with grieving father August Nicholson (Brendan Gleeson) cradling his young son’s coffin. Many of the residents of the late-19th century settlement have experienced much loss in their lifetime, it seems. The town’s elders, such as stoic leader Edward Walker (William Hurt), tell tragic stories of close relatives and untimely deaths. Repressed feelings also run like raging water in the village, built up and forced stagnant like a dam. Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix), a quiet and serious young man, secretly pines for Walker’s daughter Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is cursed with blindness. She is, however, blessed with perception and courage. His mother, Alice (Sigourney Weaver), secretly has feelings for Edward.
The isolated town shares an uneasy truce with unseen creatures that live in the woods. Suddenly, a watchtower guard signals that their borders have been crossed. Those Who Shall Not Be Named begin venturing into the village, issuing warnings to the townsfolk. The color that attracts them is red, and slashes of red appear on the frightened residents’ doors after one particularly scary nighttime visit. Lucius, it turns out, has breached the territory that the monsters claim for themsleves and the warnings have begun.
This element of the story, as we know because it is a Shyamalan film, is what keeps us entertained and scared. The movie’s premise and its slowly mounting drama are handled with skill and precision. In “The Village”, there are less sudden jumps and scare tactics than a normal horror flick. The slow creepiness and sense of dark foreboding withers consistently, though, as the picture enters the last leg of its run toward the inevitable shocker ending. But the second hour also contains more plot surprises, most of them quite affecting.
One in particular, was not. Adrien Brody, coming off his Oscar-winning turn in “The Piano”, is wasted in a silly and somewhat insulting role as (no pun intended) the village idiot. Without ruining the movie too much, I can say that what his character coincidentally finds at just the right moment in the story and what he does with it is ridiculous. It is an action clumsily placed at a moment where Shyamalan desperately needs to inject a little suspense, and it’s the first big misstep in the movie.
The big twist will most certainly not be met by all with the same reaction. Some will declare it to be a betrayal of the entire rest of the film. Others will say they guessed it way before it was revealed. I honestly didn’t know what to think of it for a long time. This is partially due to a distracting and pretentious cameo by the director himself at a moment where you are still processing the information. It’s almost as if he’s winking at the audience from the screen, saying “Good one, eh I really fooled you.”
Once I washed that scene from my mind and let the dubious nature of the ending go, I found that the themes resonated in a way I also had not expected. What makes Shyamalan a gifted storyteller is not that he can come up with twist endings, but that those endings suddenly reveal his loftier goals. “The Village” is no exception, as it explores the theme of how fear molds all of us. The creatures stand in as an example of what extremes we will go to in order to avoid the hardship and pain of life’s tragedies. You can see it in the people of “The Village”, willing to sacrifice important things that are sometimes taken for granted in life, so that they may experience a world of simpler pleasures.
Shyamalan surely revels in his ability to put one over on an audience. And while “The Village” may be a dam with a lot of leaky holes, it is still interesting see how the rushing water has changed the landcscape of the story once it finally subsides.