M. Night Shyamalan is such a good storyteller (and he has such a great name) that anything he does is worth a look. Some more so than others. In the case of "The Village," his 2004 entry in the eerie-spooky genre, it's somewhat less. The man can tell a good story, but here he hasn't a good story to tell.
Of course, if Shyamalan feels he was misunderstood in "The Village," he can't say he didn't bring the problem upon himself. It was he, after all, who wrote and directed three previous films with "surprise" endings that have conditioned us to expect such things. And he provides us with at the very least an unexpected ending in "The Village." If people don't like the ending, and I include myself among them, well, I'd say that's understandable. Maybe he shouldn't count on his endings any longer to provide the bulk of a viewer's enjoyment. The fact is, most of "The Village" is quite good, quite well told, quite well presented, with a load of mystery, suspense, and expectation. It just doesn't pay off in its last third the way it might.
Shyamalan's reputation appears at this point in his career to rest on controversy. After the success of "The Sixth Sense," a lot of people were let down by "Unbreakable." I, for one, thought "Unbreakable" was brilliant, a gutsy call in wrapping up a superhero movie where other superhero movies begin. Then we had "Signs," which built up a wonderful premise, only to be let down by a rather corny finish. Still, there was enough in "Signs" to keep an audience involved most of the way.
But with "The Village," we run into the issue of success breeding too much anticipation. If a film is going to do little more than make the viewer wonder how it's going to turn out, as happens in "The Village," then that conclusion, that final revelation, had better be a doozy. Here, it isn't. Indeed, it's mundane, prosaic. Not only are the events of the movie's last thirty minutes or so mundane, they're either shallow or nonsensical, depending on how you look at them.
Let me explain. The setting for the story is a large area of farmland, surrounded by low hills and trees. In the middle is a small village, wherein the simple folk of the town live and work in seeming harmony. The time period is indefinite, but by the look of people's clothing and their lack of modern amenities, it could be the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Only one detail impinges on these characters' uninterrupted bliss: The things that go bump in the night.
No one leaves the area. To do so would be to risk certain death at the hands of "those we do not speak of," the creatures who inhabit the surrounding woods. The village is encircled by guard towers to keep watch on intruders from the forest, unknown entities who sometimes stealthily invade the village by night to do their covert but apparently malign work. So the villagers are isolated, and they have been for as long as anyone can remember.
The village elders are headed up by Edward Walker (William Hurt) and Alice Hunt (Sigourney Weaver). They are part of a council of elders who oversee the activities of the little town. The village romantics are Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard), a young blind woman, and Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix), a young man, who fall in love and decide to marry. The village idiot, and there must always be a traditional village idiot, is Noah Percy (Adrien Brody).
Hurt and Weaver are skilled in their roles, conveying an apt sense of kindness, wisdom, and paternal guidance. Phoenix is equally adept as the quiet young fellow eager to pass through the village boundaries for a good cause but sensible enough generally to keep his distance from the perimeter. Howard is sensational as the spunky and vivacious heroine who proves her intelligence and her courage despite her handicap. For her performance, I would personally nominate Ms. Howard for an award, any award, but an Oscar would be appropriate, she's so convincing. And as mentally challenged Noah, Brody is simply bizarre, chewing up the scenery in every shot he's in, which is too many.
So, here are the problems I found:
(1) How are we supposed to enjoy all of this as it's happening when we're constantly wondering about and trying to second guess what its secret is, how it's all going to end?
And, (2) more important, how are we supposed to interpret the story, literally or symbolically or both?
In the case of number one above, I could hardly concentrate on the story line as I kept trying to figure out how Shyamalan was going to draw it to a close. As I said above, he has brought on himself the dilemma of the surprise ending, so he should know that his audience is going to be trying to work out in their own minds whatever surprise there might be. I came up with at least a half a dozen different scenarios, some with "Signs" like implications for the climax, but nothing prepared me for the letdown I experienced when the ending finally did arrive. Let's just say it is definitely unexpected, but in the wrong way, failing to answer some fundamental questions that arose in retrospect and creating some new ones as well. Suffice it to say that the ending made no logical or literal sense to me when I thought about it even a little.
In the case of number two above, as I was attempting to figure out the ending before it came, I was also trying to see if I could detect any metaphoric sense in what was happening. You all remember Shirley Jackson's short story and stage play "The Lottery," I'm sure. It was the allegory of the village that holds an annual lottery contest with horrendous results. An audience's reaction to that story is inevitably the same--shock, dismay, and confusion at first, followed by some consideration, some thought, and, one hopes, some understanding that the story communicates a much bigger picture of human prejudice and closed-mindedness than at first appears. Could "The Village" contain such simple yet essential truths, I wondered. Could the movie be reflecting some deep-seated fear that Mankind holds of the unknown? Could the story represent the fact that we can't run away from our problems? Could the story be a parable of knowledge vs. ignorance? Could Ivy's blindness represent people's inability or unwillingness to see the real world around them? Could innocence be forever protected? Could heartache truly be avoided? At one point, I even wondered if the traces of red, the "bad color" the villagers see in the forest and so dread, could represent the old "Red Scare" of the fifties and sixties, our fear of the Evil Empire of Communism, somehow transmuted into a present-day apprehension of people or nations who are different from ourselves.
Alas, none of this was to be, for once the movie's ending rolled around, it sucked all the life out of any hope I may have had that the picture meant anything profound whatsoever. Oh, there is a lesson, to be sure; but it's so simple and obvious it hardly seems worth nearly two hours of our time. Of course, this is a personal reaction, and some viewers are undoubtedly going to see things in the movie that others didn't see. So, for anyone who finds more purpose or message in the film than I did, more power to him. Make your views known in our "Reader Comments" section.
What did give me pleasure was Shyamalan's ability to create mood and atmosphere and to build suspense. As always, it is here that the director shows he is a master craftsman. The ghostly old forest, the nighttime intrusion by the creatures of the woods, the murdered and mutilated animals, the mysterious shed on the outskirts of town, the arcane old chest in the corner of the house, the dark shadows; I could go on. Shyamalan creates a tension in almost every scene, and he is ably supported in his work by the cinematography of Roger Deakins and the brooding music of James Newton Howard. The frustration is, as I say, that none of it pays off with any kind of satisfying resolution.
The unseen and the unknown are always more frightening than the observed and the understood. The imagination is a far better tool for creating fear than the eyes or the ears. When Shyamalan adheres to this principle, the picture works. When he forsakes the notion, the story falters.
Worse, when the film does end, it leaves any number of questions frustratingly unanswered. They're not left unanswered in the sense that they are left up to the viewer to decide, though; they are simply not able to be answered, except through the wildest conjecture. For instance, why do all of the villagers speak in an odd, overly formalized English syntax totally devoid of contractions? Do you know how hard it is to write without contractions, let alone speak without them? (I know some readers will write in with their own explanations to these questions, confident that they alone have ciphered the movie's riddles, and we welcome all comers.) And where do these villagers get their most-common commodities if they never leave the area and don't produce them themselves? The houses appear freshly painted. Where do they get the paint? Where do they get the marble for the headstones and monuments in their cemetery? How do they replace broken window glass, shingles for the buildings, bricks for the chimneys? And their chinaware never chips or breaks? How is it replaced? Is there some large industrial complex we never see, hidden somewhere in the tall grass? Throughout history, small rural communities relied on trade with other societies for their necessities; it's how civilizations began. This village, however, appears to be entirely self-sufficient. How can it be? For me, the movie's ending only confused these issues further.
I cannot say "The Village" is a bad film; it's too well made for that. Nor can I say "The Village" is a good film; it's too disappointing for that. Let me just observe that "The Village" is a conundrum, an enigma to which each viewer must bring something and from which each viewer will most likely take something away. In my case, I brought a lot more than I took away.
The film is THX certified and presented in an anamorphic ratio stretching approximately 1.74:1 across my standard-screen HD television; yet it still doesn't display the best picture I've ever seen. The hues are bright enough, perhaps a touch too bright on occasion, and they are often rich and deep; but they are just as often dark, even in daylight, the golds and oranges that dominate sometimes appearing too highly charged; and there is a degree of color bleed-through that leads to a faint impression of blur. Grain is not an issue, but ultimate definition is.
The music does as much to sustain the frights in this movie as anything else, so it was important that the sound reproduction convey its full weight. The Dolby Digital 5.1 EX audio does just that, with excellent dynamic impact, wide stereo separation, and an ample frequency range that covers the highest tinkling chimes to the deepest thundering bass. The surrounds are also well utilized to reproduce the ambient noises of creaking tree branches, forest murmurs, and pounding rain.
I wish that Buena Vista had put all the extras on a second disc and made more space for the movie on a separate DVD. I suspect the compression was the video's downfall. At any rate, there are close to an hour's worth of extras accompanying the film. The first and most important item is a twenty-four minute featurette called "Deconstructing The Village" that is divided into six chapters covering most of the movie's filmmaking, sets, costumes, cinematography, and music. It tells you most everything you wanted to know about the filmmaking. Next are four deleted scenes, each introduced and explained by the director. I saw little of note in any of them. After that are "Bryce's Diary," four minutes' worth of the actress's reactions to the shooting; "M. Night's Home Movie," one of those silly little things the director did when he was a kid; and a production photo gallery. The extras conclude with twenty-four scene selections; Sneak Peeks at four other Buena Vista titles; a THX Optimizer set of audiovisual calibration tests; English and French spoken languages; and French and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired.
As usual, there is no audio commentary from the director. Clearly, Shyamalan eschews them. I think that means he sneezes at them. A twelve-page informational booklet comes enclosed in a keep case fastened with two needless clips on the side, clips I immediately tore off, whether I was supposed to or not.
There is no doubt that film is an art form, a genre of expression that appeals in different ways to different people. It's hard to say whether Shyamalan was purposely trying to reach as many differing audience members as possible by leading us to examine so many separate goings on in "The Village"; whether he genuinely believed he was creating something unusual and thrilling; whether he sincerely felt he had some deep moral truths to reveal; or whether he merely came up a great story idea but could think of no satisfactory way to resolve it. In any case, the movie may work for some people. It didn't work for me.