The Village (review)

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The Only Thing We Have to Fear…

[no spoilers]

…is a hotshot director whose schtick has gone to his head.

I don’t mean M. Night Shyamalan’s “fear” schtick, the motif that recurs through all his films, the one emotion that he seems most comfortable exploring in all its many manifestations on the intimate, personal level: fear of living, fear of dying, fear of communicating with those we love, fear of following our dreams. Not that metaphoric and literal depictions of fear aren’t all over The Village — fear of emotional hurt, fear of losing our friends and family, fear of the big bad world outside our front doors. It’s a fine emotion to examine, and The Village positively drips with it. But that’s not the problem.
Exquisitely cinematic fear may well drip from The Village, but it does so effectively only at first, for Shyamalan has gone crazy with his other schtick: the twist. He’d just about reached this point with his last film, Signs, where the twist is the only thing the film is really about in the end, but it seems that since he just about got away with that, he figured Let’s go all the way and make a film that’s nothing but secret sauce. It makes for a film that is frustrating and tedious and then — bam! — slams the audience with the knowledge that they’ve been had, and maliciously so.

The Village starts off intriguingly enough, in late-nineteenth-century Covington Woods, a small settlement in the countryside of — we later learn — Pennsylvania. The villagers are isolated from “the towns” by the surrounding woods, in which some sort of deadly creatures live — we hear their howls and the crunch of their footsteps on the dry autumnal underbrush. Adventurous teenage boys play chicken with their fears, standing near the well-marked village perimeter with their backs to the woods to see how long they can endure the terror of wondering if they’re going to be eaten, but a longtime truce between the villagers and the creatures seems to holding, though they speak an awful lot about “Those We Don’t Speak Of.”

But you can’t avoid knowing that something “startling” is coming, because it’s what Shyamalan has made his name on — the only way he could really surprise us now would be by not employing some 180-degree turn in the last minutes of a film. And even if this were not the case, the marketing of the film has been all “oo, the secrets, the secrets of…” And of course, knowing that there’s a twist coming is almost as much a spoiler as knowing what the twist actually is. So after your interest has been piqued and Shyamalan’s got your attention and you’ve begun to be a bit puzzled and perplexed and charmed by the characters — the village elders (William Hurt: Tuck Everlasting, A.I. Artificial Intelligence; Sigourney Weaver: Holes, The Guys; Brendan Gleeson: Troy, Cold Mountain; and others) who are clearly up to no good; the tender would-be lovers (Joaquin Phoenix: Brother Bear, Quills; and Bryce Dallas Howard); the village idiot (Adrien Brody: The Pianist, The Affair of the Necklace) — and then a whole lot of nothing continues to drag itself out, you start killing time by listing all the outrageous scenarios Shyamalan may be building to. (I won’t mention them now, so as not to offer any possibilities that you can safely eliminate on your own first viewing; maybe I’ll revisit the film later once the details can be safely spoken of aloud.)

And when the twist finally arrives, it feels so… small. Puny. Unambitious. Unimaginative, even. Like all this ominousness and atmospheric solemnity has been in aid of something so… mundane. All the mythological portents — the danger that has always been signified by “the woods” or by the color red, here “the bad color” that supposedly draws the creatures; the blind girl, Howard’s Ivy, who sees more than anyone else — have been a sham. Worse, everything that’s come before has been deliberately crafted to mislead the audience. If you’d already guessed the twist, it’s not because clues have been planted for those clever enough to figure them out, as is the case with The Sixth Sense. No: false clues have instead been planted, things that make no sense within the context of the story or of the reality the characters know but serve only to prevent you from figuring out what this is all about.

The Village could have worked without the twist, could have worked on that metaphoric level it visits briefly. But Shyamalan was more interested in fooling you than in entertaining you. Lop the last few minutes off The Sixth Sense or certainly Unbreakable and neither film suffers greatly — they work on their own terms without the added fillip of a shocking surprise, however pleasant those fillips may be. But lop the last few minutes off The Village and it’s revealed for what it is: an exercise in nothing more than pulling the wool over the audience’s eyes.

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