July 4, 2005
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, ,
The Village (2004) is an evolution, of sorts, for the M. Night Shyamalan formula. Instead of focusing on one protagonist as he has done in his previous films, he has shifted the focus to an ensemble drama. It is also his first period drama in which the fantastical elements are brought into question. It was also his first commercial failure. After a strong opening weekend and a critical response that ranged from indifference to hostility, the film disappeared quickly from theatres. Now that all the dust has settled, The Village deserves another look.
Set during the end of the 19th century in rural Pennsylvania, The Village focuses on a small community that practices an Amish-like existence, which keeps in tradition of local folklore. They live by modest means but something strange exists in the surrounding woods. Creatures known as “those we don’t speak of” have formed a truce with the villagers. They don’t trespass in the valley where the humans live and in turn the villagers don’t go into the woods.
However, dead animals begin appearing in the village. They are skinned in a gruesome fashion. Is it a coyote or some other predatory animal or is it something else? The tenuous peace is broken when Lucius (Phoenix) steps foot in the forbidden forest. He is driven by curiousity of the unknown. He wants to see what exists outside the village borders. As a result of Lucius’ actions, the creatures come onto the villagers’ land and leave a slash of red paint on the front door of many houses.
M. Night certainly knows how to create a powerful mood and atmosphere in his movies. The Village begins with ominous shots of trees—a classic horror establishing shot reminiscent of Sleepy Hollow (1999) and Desecration (1999). One of the hallmarks of M. Night’s movies is a strong sense of place. When changing the atmosphere of a film, most directors will change states or even countries but he stays within Pennsylvania but uses its diverse locales to create a different look and feel to each one of this movies. There is the cityscape of South Philadelphia in The Sixth Sense (1999), the suburbs and Philly’s University City in Unbreakable (2000), the use of farmlands in Bucks County with Signs (2002) and historical southeastern Pennsylvania in The Village.
One of the things that are so refreshing about M. Night’s movies is that he adheres to the less-is-more ethic by only offering fleeting glimpses of the creatures. He effectively uses lighting (some of it by candle or lamp light) and sound to suggest horror and dread. This is a beautifully shot movie (by long-time Coen brothers’ cinematographer Roger Deakins) with gothic overtones right out of PBS’s version of The Scarlet Letter.
M. Night has assembled a top notch cast. Joaquin Phoenix delivers another thoughtful performance as Lucius, a man of few words, driven by curiousity and attracted to Ivy (Howard), a blind girl who is as chatty as he is quiet. Bryce Dallas Howard is a revelation here as she initially appears to have only a marginal role in the movie but soon becomes its central focus. She emotes very effectively as she makes a fearful journey through the dangerous woods. Finally, Adrien Brody dodges the Oscar curse by turning in a colourful performance as Noah the village idiot. It’s a juicy role that allows him to sink his teeth into it and disappear behind wild-eyes and unkempt hair.
“Deconstructing The Village” is a 25-minute featurette on the making of M. Night’s movie. The impetus was to make a period piece love story but with M. Night’s trademark fantastical elements. This extra explores various aspects of the production, from casting to editing and sound. For standard press kit material it is refreshingly substantial.
There are four deleted scenes introduced by M. Night. He puts them in context and explains why he ultimately cut them from the film. There is one really nice scene involving August (Gleeson) telling Lucius and Noah a ghost story.
“Bryce’s Diary” features the young actress reading from her diary that she kept while making the movie. It mostly involves her gushing about her co-stars and working on a big-time Hollywood movie.
“M. Night’s Home Movie” continues a tradition with his DVDs of including one of the short films he made as a kid. This one is a cute recreation of the famous opening scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) with M. Night playing Indiana Jones.
Finally, there is a gallery of 38 behind-the-scenes photos of M. Night working with his actors.
Ultimately, traditional horror film fans will feel cheated by the last third of The Village. It betrays its initial supernatural inclinations in favour of M. Night’s trademark humanistic message: that we are our own worst enemy. The problem with this film and with all of his films is that there are very little gray areas. There is either good or bad people. At first, the villagers seem to have many gray areas but by the end of the film it is back to good and bad. It’s too bad because somewhere in The Village there is a good film trying to get out and if M. Night would only loosen up thematically he might make a truly great movie.