A Trip Back To: The Village (2004)

By Christian DiMartino

Around the release of M. Night Shyamalan’s Old, I decided to revisit his disastrous The Happening. With the upcoming release of A Knock at the Cabin, I decided to revisit Shyamalan’s perhaps the beginning of the end, The Village. Here’s the thing, the guy can miss. No doubt about it, he’s made terrible movies. The thing is, some of his misses are interesting misses. Misses where you can sense that he at least had an interest in the subject. Other misses, where you can sense that he was probably just creatively bankrupt (The Last Airbender, After Earth), are about unwatchable.

My favorite film of his is Signs, with Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense right behind it. Those three films are so good, and the strengths of those film are so strong, that we continue to return to his work to this day. The strengths of those films are even present in his misfires. The guy knows how to stage a set-piece, he knows how to grab our attention. It’s just… well… he really needs to start collaborating with other people. Because a lot of the time, the ideas are there, but the writing can’t pull through. He also became known as “the twist guy.” So we expected that from him and he delivered for a bit. Alas, the wheels came off, which ultimately culminated in The Happening and After Earth.

WHICH… all probably began with The Village.

When you jumped ship on him may vary. Some might’ve jumped after Signs. For some it could’ve been The Happening. I find The Village to be the ultimate summation of his career. Here is a film that begins really well. Sure there’s a thing you could pick apart here or there- an overt seriousness, perhaps part of the screenplay feels a bit much, etc. But I really do find the vibe of this film, and the execution of what he’s going for (it often feels like an old timey fable with chilling undertones) compelling and well executed. This is a film that is filmed by the legendary Roger Deakins, and scored terrifically by James Newton Howard. It also features some pretty damn good acting from Joaquin Phoenix, Bryce Dallas Howard, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, and others (one I won’t message because… yikes). It just… well…

This is, unfortunately, a film that didn’t need a twist, but at this point in his career, Shyamalan felt the need to include one. What he has here is interesting enough to where he could’ve gotten away with it. But perhaps we expected too much of him at the time, and he felt the need to deliver. OR, he had this concept in his back-pocket the whole time and really thought that he’s blow us away. I saw this film nearly 20 years ago, as like an 8 year old, and the reveal was so underwhelming that I haven’t returned to it. Revisiting it, I love the mood and the atmosphere that Shyamalan is able to conjure… it’s just ultimately a movie that doesn’t live up to it.

See, the film has this aesthetic that feels like you’re watching a Brother’s Grimm fairy tale, and had he simply just done that and made everything as creepy as possible, it might’ve worked. When he has a passion for a subject, you can at least sense that he has an artist’s eye. This film takes itself very seriously, which, if he had stuck to the Brother’s Grimm thing, would’ve been okay. Alas, the fact that it builds to the twist that it does makes it all a little silly, and you just sort of begins poking holes in the logic of all of it.

The film is set in like a pilgrim village in an unspecified time period. William Hurt’s Edward Walker appears to kind of run things. Everyone in the town has an awareness that certain colors (red in particular) are bad news. Wow, what a sentence. Anyways, much of the film goes for melodrama, which is entertaining but maybe not what we totally signed on for. Walker’s daughter Kitty (Judy Greer) has the hots for Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix), son of Alice Hunt (Sigourney Weaver) who kind of has the hots for Edward. Lucius rejects Kitty but soon develops feeling for her sister, Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard, in her debut role).

Looming in the background of all of this are these creatures that are attacking in the night. They are referred to as Those We Do Not Speak Of. I love the design of these things- they have creepy faces, spikes coming out of their backs, and they wear red cloaks. TWDNSO are striking at night and skinning the animals of the town. A member of the village is brutally injured, and soon the other members decide that someone has to walk to the forest in order to obtain medicine from another town. Why Ivy, the blind girl, has to do it is beyond me, but it certainly makes for some tension.

Is it really a big deal to spoil a movie from nearly 20 years ago? Eh. I’m going to do it anyways. So all of this would be acceptable (though maybe not Adrian Brody’s performance as a dude on the spectrum who is in love with Ivy) except that it all feels as if it’s building to a conclusion… and the conclusion isn’t really worth the buildup. It’s revealed that not only is this film set in the present day, but that Hurt, Weaver, Cherry Jones, and the other parents of the village have essentially sheltered their children from the outside world because it’s a bad place. Ta da? Sure, I remembered that from years ago, but it might’ve been obvious 20 years ago too.

Yeah it’s ultimately underwhelming and a bit of a stain. But there’s still stuff to recommend within The Village. Despite the pretty overwritten dialogue, the acting is still pretty strong, from Dallas Howard in particular. And again, I like the vibe of it all. But The Village did seem to be an indicator, or a red flag, for what Shyamalan’s career was going to look like from here on out. Because what came after this? Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth, all consecutively. Ouch. He did however win be back with The Visit and Split… just to kind of lose me again with Glass, just to kind of get me back with Old. I guess this is what we can expect from him. I guess we can approach any new Shyamalan movie with hope, while maybe proceeding with caution. I’m really pulling for A Knock at the Cabin though, so fingers crossed.


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