December 16, 2004
M. Night Shyamalan,
Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard, Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson, Cherry Jones, Celia Weston, John Christopher Jones, Frank Collison, Jayne Atkinson, Judy Greer, Fran Kranz, Michael Pitt, Jesse Eisenberg, ,
There are those out there that consider M. Night Shyamalan to be this generation’s Hitchcock (albeit with a thirst for horror), and there are those who consider him a hack who relies on outlandish plot twists. If you didn’t like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable or Signs then The Village will only confirm to you that he’s the latter. If you’re a fan, The Village delivers the chills, suspense and beauty that you were expecting ten-fold. The inevitable trademark twists are sometimes hard to swallow, hinted at by the film’s No.1 box office opening week followed by a sharp drop-off in its second, but if you go along with the premise you will enjoy this as much as, if not more than, Shyamalan’s previous efforts.
Set in a 19th century village surrounded by mysterious creatures, the inhabitants have an unspoken understanding with their neighbours; they don’t go into the forbidden woods and the creatures don’t hurt the villagers. This equilibrium is thrown into disarray when loner Lucious (Phoenix) takes it upon himself to investigate the woods to prove the creatures won’t hurt him. Animal carcasses are left around people’s homes in reply and soon the town elders fear their days of peace are numbered. Outside of the suspense aspect of the film is a simple love story involving Lucious and Ivy, which is complicated by the village fool Noah (Brody), who shares with Lucious the need to investigate the creatures. When someone is injured, the elders decide to send for help in the next town, risking everything…
Few can deny that Shyamalan knows the secret of creating genuine fear: to keep the monster hidden and let the viewer’s mind fill in the blanks. So we’re left with fleeting glances, shadows and growls in Roger Deakins’ authentic lantern-lit night. A dare game involving kids standing with their backs to the trees is truly nerve-shredding, yet is created simply with flickering lanterns and subtle sound-effects. Like the forbidden colour red, which supposedly draws the creatures, CGI has no part here. Special mention must also go to Thomas Newton Howard as Shyamalan tends to bring out the best in him and his gorgeous score largely ignores the usual horror clichés to go for something more personal.
The cast is impressive, but due to the streamlined narrative, some of the big names such as Sigourney Weaver and Brendan Gleeson are given precious little screentime. But chances are you won’t care because just when we get a quiet character moment someone screams and all hell breaks loose again. William Hurt is great in these authoritative roles and his performance as Ivy’s father is wonderfully layered. If occasionally the dialogue raises (nervous) sniggers there are some great winks to the audience that help break the tension and show that the director is aware his story could be construed funny in places. (His cameo is also pure Hitchcock).
The twists are large enough to create the requisite gasps and are beautifully played out (even when we think we know about the creature’s motives, Shyamalan still isn’t finished scaring the crap out of us). The ending is either the bravest thing to be tried for many a year, or a cheap trick from the mind of a child that will cut the audience down the middle like a knife. Luckily we have the extraordinary Bryce Dallas Howard, who grounds everything in reality and it’s a testament to her skill that we feel for her long after Shyamalan has pulled the rug out from under us. A second viewing may potentially rob the film of its scares, and only time will tell on that one, but for now you should sit back and be scared senseless. Trust us: a stalking scene in the woods involving a blind girl makes the entirety of Signs look like a light-hearted romp.