Let us just, for a moment, forget about the twist. Ignore the fact that such a narrative device has been an integral part of M. Night Shyamalan’s cinematic offerings since audiences found out, 20 years ago, that Bruce Willis was dead all along.
Instead, let us focus on the story and how it’s told — particularly, on the tale behind The Village, one of the most underappreciated films from the director to date.
The Village was released in 2004 during a crucial point in Shyamalan’s career. After the box office hits of both Unbreakable and Signs — which also received positive reviews — expectations were high for the new work from the writer-director, who just two years prior was deemed as “the next Spielberg” by Newsweek.
Still, The Village didn’t quite hit the mark when it was released. Its conclusion left critics wondering if Shyamalan was a one-trick magician. Even until this day, the film is often ignored while looking back at the director’s best years before his downfall. It did manage, however, to secure a $256 million worldwide box office, proving that moviegoers were still interested in what the filmmaker had to say.
Upon rewatching The Village, I do think this is one of Shyamalan’s most accomplished works, and one that should be more recognized for the talent it shows behind and in front of the camera.
The Village, which follows the struggle of a small rural community in the late 19th century, was promoted as a horror movie due to one of its main plot points: the presence of mysterious creatures that live in the woods. The villagers have managed to avoid the threat by establishing a separation between nature and civilization.
But instead of constantly drawing attention to the lurking presence of the creatures, Shyamalan takes a different route. The real drama behind The Village is that of an exploration of trauma’s effects, along with misinformation and the weaponization of terror.
With its slow pace, the story does not rely on the propagation of fear. Instead, it focuses mainly on the overcoming of it, evidenced by the character arcs of Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) and Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard).
Fear is a feeling that Lucius, Ivy and the rest of the young adult villagers know all too well. The main couple confronts a lingering fear once the secrets of the village’s elders — the people who also act as the government — start to threaten the natural order of things.
In Lucius, Phoenix finds another well-suited role. His character is a man of few words, a hard working figure who prefers to mind his own business and relax alone by a rock than be part of the village’s daily distractions. This type of character, of course, is perfect for the enigmatic actor.
In the case of Howard, who portrays a blind woman and daughter of one of the village’s authorities, it’s strange how the actress’ career now seems so far away from this fully fleshed out character. Ivy is fearful and cunning, two aspects that significantly develop once the movie concentrates more on her and less on Lucius.
Beyond the protagonists, there is also an astounding secondary cast led by an insightful and sentimental performance by William Hurt. In addition, Adrien Brody provides some heartfelt moments as the mentally challenged Noah Percy. Brendan Gleeson, Sigourney Weaver, Cherry Jones and a young Jesse Eisenberg are also among the recognizable faces of the villagers.
The impossible fight of the elders by attempting to maintain innocence — a struggle that is carried in every aspect of their life, such as the eradication of modern language — is where Shyamalan emphasizes a slow burn story, one that plays more as a drama than horror. The first true jump scare, when viewers get a first glimpse of the creature, doesn’t come until around the half hour mark. And even after that, there are not many scary scenes, which also shows how The Village’s marketing misled audiences.
The Village also has memorable aesthetic. Beyond the modest but effective production design, there is Roger Deakins’ talent as a cinematographer. First fixating on the peace and ordered structure of the town with symmetrical framing and slow zooms, the movie then morphs into a more chaotic portrait that includes hand-held shooting and quick edits. One of the most unforgettable scenes, in which Lucius comes to the rescue of Ivy while the creatures creep outside, is another example of how Shyamalan knows how to compose a simple yet effective scene by relying on shots of his characters’ faces and hands. After all, this tale is about the people, not the monsters.
And yes, there are plenty of questions left unanswered. I wonder about the place of art within the village and the nature of the economy, along with the twist ending, one that seems pretentious, in retrospect, with Shyamalan trying to prove he’s the master of hiding the truth in plain sight.
It has been reported that The Village’s script was leaked during production, and that Shyamalan then made some changes. I’m not sure if there’s a point to imagining an alternate ending, because The Village is indeed a fantastic movie, and one that deserves more credit. That is the twist that actually matters.
Pablo Staricco Cadenazzi (@pstaricco) is a France-based Uruguayan journalist, film critic and member of FIPRESCI. He worked as a staff member for the newspapers El País and El Observador, and he is currently part of the the movie podcast Santas Listas (from @polentapodcast) and the comics publisher Pantano Editorial.