Revisiting 'The Village' (2004)/Written, Produced & Directed by M. Night Shyamalan/Grade: B
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
Few mainstream blockbusters have spurred as much polarized debate as M. Night Shyamalan's The Village (2004). Fewer have been as catastrophically mis-marketed, as well. But almost twenty years after its release, this underrated 2004 hit deserves a reevaluation.
The premise follows an isolated village of people, who live peacefully and rigidly in their structured routine, roles and rules. They also live in fear of Those We Do Not Speak Of (the most oxymoronic nickname since Voldemort received the alias He Who Must Not Be Named), a band of hooded creatures who lurk in the woods, where no one is allowed to go. One day, when blind girl Ivy's (then-newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard) love Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) is suddenly stabbed by Noah (Adrien Brody), a mentally-disabled friend of Ivy who has the hots for her, it leaves the townspeople with no other choice but to venture beyond the woods for some medicine.
Where this movie's marketing really screwed the pooch, and therefore caused such a crazy divide amongst critics and audiences, was in advertising it as a horror film. Shyamalan's two highest-grossing films, The Sixth Sense (1999) and Signs (2002) were much-acclaimed scary thrillers, and so therefore, it seemed to make sense for The Village to be sold to viewers in the same vein. However, this picture is far more of a romantic drama about grief and trauma. While there are some mildly frightening moments, i.e. when Those We Do Not Speak Of pay a visit, they are not the overwhelming drive or focus of the narrative. More emphasis is placed on the relationship between Ivy and Lucius, as well as the other villagers' attempts to cope with tremendous loss in their lives. As such, the film is poignantly acted, particularly by Bryce Dallas Howard, along with William Hurt as the village matriarch. Both actors carry themselves with such a delicate cover of stoicism, as if to mask the underlying fear and pain. Ivy is also someone at once dealing with falling in love for the first time, and the possibility of losing that person. She also makes some shocking discoveries throughout that shatter her world, and Howard portrays the roiling mix of emotions that come along with that beautifully, never seeming to reach for an effect.
Hurt, in addition, gives the most heart-wrenching performance of the movie. Not a frame of him passes by where he doesn't seem filled with immense sorrow, though for what we can't quite put our finger on. More on that later, but it's a soulful performance that reminds me why this late actor was such a legend.
The aesthetics of this picture also deserve high praise, particularly the cinematography by Roger Deakins. He always knows just how to use his angles, the light, the shadows, and move his camera in a way that is constantly evocative, whether it suggests the joy of a blossoming romance, the tragedy of loss, or the apprehension of whatever lies within the outside world.
Ann Roth's costume design, along with Tom Hoden's production design, contribute a great deal to The Village's visually immersive look. Harkening back to the nineteenth century, this community looks like a fleshed-out, lived-in, long-established place. Hoden clearly did a lot of research, because it's like we've stepped through a time portal. In addition, everyone's wardrobe feels remarkably individualistic to their personalities. Ivy's frilly, brightly-colored blues and yellows do well in establishing her emotional naivety and innocence at the start of the film, which then gives way to colors like red and white as she goes through the motions of anger and fear throughout her journey. It's a brilliant case of utilizing color and dressing to display a character's personality, which is what the best costume design does.
Where this movie divides people the most, unsurprisingly, is its twist. It is eventually revealed that Those We Do Not Speak Of are not real. They are merely village members dressed in elaborate costumes, to keep everyone from traveling outside of the community. On top of that, it's actually modern day, as we see once Ivy makes it through the woods to fetch Lucius some medicine. This small town was started because its top elders experienced some deadly personal losses, which urged them to shelter themselves and their future brethren from harm. I personally am not against this idea; however, its execution in the edit leaves something to be desired. Structurally, Christopher Tellefsen gives us this revelation towards the end of the second act, with Ivy being taken to the building where the elders' horrific costumes reside. She is then told about why they were created, and where the strange sounds they emit come from. This, before she ventures into the woods, and eventually faces off with one such being.
Here's how this could've been improved: Instead of revealing all of this information so soon, Tellefsen would have been wiser to hold off on showing this moment until Ivy's big climactic confrontation. Once we see her with no fear in this situation, he could then inter-splice her prepping to fight with snippets of this huge revelation, so the audience would gain a great gratification, all because it would have come as more of a genuine surprise.
All that being said, The Village stands as a messy, incorrectly advertised, yet still endlessly mesmerizing title amongst Shyamalan's filmography. It is aesthetically well-constructed, beautifully acted, and a poignant tale of grief and love. If you were ever hesitant about whether or not to watch this movie, consider this a fervent recommendation.
You can rent or buy The Village here: https://youtu.be/j5xS0Xlu3zs