It’s always around this time of year that I break out my Halloween movies. Nightmare Before Christmas. Trick r’ Treat. Sleepy Hollow. And, of course, The Village, which has in past years grown to be one of my fall staples. And it was in watching it just tonight that I wanted to type up a blog defending this movie, and encouraging any readers to revisit it if it’s been a while now.
Now, first off, I want to dive into this blog by talking about why so many people didn’t or don’t like this movie. What it seems to repeatedly return to is, well, it’s a Shyamalan movie, and his time was coming to a wane. Shyamalan, after breaking out with the Sixth Sense, and following with Unbreakable, Signs, and later the Village, he quickly established himself to be a really talented director with a knack for twist endings… twist endings that start to weigh on people. And it’s the Shyamalan gimmicky twist that seems to be what bothered many reviewers, especially after quickly perusing Rotten Tomatoes.
Why do people hate twists? Well, they’re gimmicky, and they’re an easy way to startle audiences. Want an emotional reaction in a thriller movie? Pull the rug out from under them at the end. The problem with this is fairly obvious. The twist often is easy (IT WAS ALL A DREAM!), but it worse, it undermines the work the movie had done leading up to it. If the whole movie was a dream, all the conflict and drama and themes are often left discarded completely.
By the fourth twist-ending movie from a director whose name actually started to mean something with his breakout first movie, the meaninglessness was quickly attached to his name. And it didn’t help that after the Village, starting with Lady In The Water, Shyamalan’s talent seemed to utterly dissolve. This only fueled the belief that if there was a twist, it was simply a gimmick: that Shyamalan had been fooling us all along.
But, here, I want to look at the twist itself, and try to get away from writing the movie off because it had a twist, and because Shyamalan has quickly become a gimmicky household name associated with no skill and cheap tricks. Because he certainly didn’t start out that way. And here, with the Village, he actually had something good going.
The twist of the Village is that the quaint, sleepy, early 19th century town that the movie focused on was not actually located in that period of time, but was actually hidden away in a nature reserve of modern time, unbeknownst to the residents. And the scary monsters stalking the woods? A farce put on by the town elders to maintain their secrets and maintain their town’s innocence and ignorance about the darker ways of the world.
A bit ridiculous? Sure. Could something like that ever happen? Sure, probably not. But we’re in thriller genre. Movies are often about the unrealistic. But that’s not a bad thing. No, a big part of the ridiculous conclusion here is because it was presented as a twist, and people rolled their eyes at the gag, at the man behind the curtain, and left disappointed, failing to consider it as much beyond a twist.
But this is where I encourage viewers to watch the movie a second time. Because the pitfall of the twist movie is that it makes the movie worthless. But with the Village, the twist added a new layer to the story, and it was a layer that had been there all along. Shymalan wasn’t fucking with us for a gimmick, he was telling a story that changed levels throughout. Indeed, the very first lines spoken on-screen were about whether the elders had made the right decision to settle there. Though you don’t know it, the dialogue that had been happening the entire movie was always about the twist. You just didn’t know. Each time the elders discussed the “Ones We Don’t Speak Of”, it’s loaded. It’s ambiguous and layered with a deeper meaning. This is a facet of the good twist movie: it adds new value and multiple layers to a story already told. And a great twist movie doesn’t stop with the two layers of meaning, but it makes you think further about the very premise.
On the first layer: Monsters are attacking the town, what do we do?
On the second layer: We’re pretending to attack the town, what do we do next?
On the third layer: How far do we take this farce and is it even moral and right to do so?
But to write the movie off as bullshit because of the twist is to miss those deeper conversations that were actually happening the whole time.
Did I once think the movie was better when I liked only half the movie: the half when it treated the monsters as real? Yes. But to leave it at that: a movie about a town dealing with a monster problem… it’s simple. It has potential. But it’s simple. How many times has the good little town/group of friends/strangers battle the evil invading force, though? How many times does that plot turn into most of the people dying, with Evil being defeated (or at least, leaving just enough left over to come back for a sequel)?
Here, Shyamalan took the story to a new level, examining the nature of innocence, of lies for a greater good, of the way those lies, which were in good faith, can turn right back to the very evil they were attempting to avoid. In a very post-9/11 movie, this was an examination of governmental lies, order, intention, backfired intention, conspiracy, innocence, and endurance. Especially reflecting on the Village as a post-9/11 movie, there’s something that really comes alive here.
The alternative though, the one without the twist… it’s probably just another random, meaningless thriller with some monsters.
The other problem the Village quickly runs into, on the heels of it being a Shyamalan film, is that it’s a thriller. It deals with scary elements. And, as I’ve discussed in many a review before, scares are hard on critics. People go to scary movies to get scared. Everyone is scared by something different. And so, movies or television shows judged on their scare merit alone are apt to have a very divided audience.
I, personally, thought these monsters were very effective. Shyamalan’s monster imagery was great. Hooded, red-cloaked beasts with strange quills coming from their backs, slowly stalking a sleepy town, lit by torch-light amongst the spindly tree branches? I’m in. And, to boot, Shyamalan shot it very effectively, showing just enough to make the monsters frightening, but not so much that we saw too much and lost our suspension of disbelief.
Now, that effect was lost toward the end, when Adrian Brody Monster did his sprint toward Bryce Dallas Howard. A little too tribal-looking. A little too much shown. But first, that thing was fucking creepy before the sprint, when it stood, hunched, while we waited to see what it would do. When too much was shown, we were only moments from learning that it wasn’t as it seemed anyway.
And certainly, while looking at the scares, I have to consider my earlier viewpoints, yes, maybe having a second twist was bothersome — how many times does Shyamalan have to twist it for us? It seems more gimmicky when it’s real — nope, not real — real — just kidding, not. And look, now it’s the modern day!
But when you’ve moved past the first screening, and you go along with the story rather than watching for twists, it actually works.
It works because Shyamalan is actually a really good writer (or used to be). Here, he wrote a movie that took its time, with each scene and shot being both gorgeous and deliberate. His use of parallelism was what tied this movie together so nicely.
Examples: The scene in which Ivy and Noah had a footrace: simple, fun, you got to know these two’s relationship. It was paralleled at the end as Noah-Monster, mentally challenged and playing a prank, tried to lure Ivy into another footrace.
The elegant, creepy, torch-lit scene in which Jesse Eisenberg stood with his back to the forest to test his bravery against his imagination? Paralleled by Ivy later standing with her back to the monster, testing her own bravery as to when to move, finally killing Noah-Monster. Indeed, Ivy and Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) even discussed how Lucius held the record, and how Ivy longed to be like a boy, to be able to test it herself. Well she got her chance.
And how powerful, the way Shyamalan framed this little town against the eerie woods. His return to very specific and intentional use of color. Was Red being the “bad color” ridiculous? Perhaps, but, like the Sixth Sense (and, I’d say, not so much like the Sixth Sense that it was discredited), there was symbolism there. The symbolism of blood. The way the community tried so hard to avoid it. The use of yellows to balance out the red, creating such a lovely autumnal feel. The way he filmed Ivy, often out of focus and close up, to put the viewer in her experience of her blindness, especially in the suspense scenes when it mattered as much for her as it did us.
These are very intentional decisions that work for movies. They’re designed to keep a movie tight, effective, meaningful, and deliberate, and they’re sadly too often left out of most Hollywood releases today.
But it’s not just the film-work, but the writing and acting combined with that. Lucius, the shy, awkward, but somehow bold and fearless faux-main character. Perfectly played by the awkward-but-noble Joaquin Phoenix, and in a way that was different enough from Signs that both roles worked, despite their similarities. But how much more moving were those two moments in which he took Ivy by the hand in times of danger? I’ll admit it, they were powerful enough to make me shed some fluid from my eye holes. Maybe it’s a taste thing, but I found it spot on. That’s good directing. When an actor can come out of nowhere, grab his costar’s hand, and at least one audience member cries? That’s successful filmmaking.
But how smart as well, ten years before the feminist dialogue has really taken off online, we see Shyamalan twist his story to strip down his shy-but-fearless male hero, substituting a blind woman to brave the woods. While she might’ve had insider info, she was still terrified (Bryce Dallas Howard’s performance was fantastic). Did the two young men keep up? Sure didn’t.
In a time when movies feel the need to spoonfeed us old cliche’s in the first ten minutes so that we can get to know characters with the least possible amount of engagement in order to get to the action, here we have Shyamalan both taking his time to illustrate these characters, this town, this place of innocence, and following the well-shared advice to show and not tell.
Look at the way Ivy tells Lucius how she knew he liked her because he wouldn’t touch her? His confirmation was silence. Shyamalan’s confirmation was when Lucius shared the same information with his mother a scene or two later, confirming to us that Ivy had shared a truth about him, in that he’s now sharing it to his mother. There are no tired tropes here to establish the relationship. This was one that took its time and hit its beats in a subtle way. Maybe too subtle for some reviewers, who found character depth to be fairly flat.
And last, but not least, the score. James Newton Howard knocks it out of the park. One of the most gorgeous film scores I’ve ever heard. It carries through the movie like a breeze in a creepy forest.
So what do we have here? Ignoring the Shyamalan legacy, and treating this movie on its own, ten years later, through my eyes, we have a gorgeously filmed movie. It’s eerie. It’s autumnal. It’s smart and takes its time. The scares are subtle and goooood (my substitute for “frightening”, since I know this movie too well to recognize if its scary anymore). The twist has a good reason. And the themes are intriguing enough to chew on.
That’s a damn good movie, in my opinion.
Maybe there are parts of this you would like to nitpick, or feel differently about, and that’s fine. Each has their own tastes. But, knowing the twist, I encourage you to watch the film as what it is: a movie about a town that’s faking a monster problem to ensure the innocence of its citizens. That’s an interesting premise. And it’s one that holds up, especially on the second, third, or fourth viewing.
Move beyond the gimmick, and watch it enough to let it all settle over you at once, and I hope you’ll find the depth and value in it. Then we can all go back to wondering just what the hell happened that every movie after The Village sucked so much.
Karl Pfeiffer is the author of the books Hallowtide and Into a Sky Below, Forever. He won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy and worked briefly with the Ghost Hunters International team. He now lectures about approaches to ghost hunting across the nation, leads the weekend ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel, and works as a portrait photographer. You can find more at http://www.KarlPfeiffer.com