Expectations are a bitch aren't they? Rewind the clocks ten years ago this very summer, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan is the hottest young director in Hollywood. He's only 33 years old and his last three films The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs have been massive hits that were well received critically. Shyamalan is on top of the world, and his next project titled The Village is eagerly awaited by fans and critics.
What exactly about The Village were we all excited about? Guessing the surprise twist Shyamalan unfairly became known for with his last three films containing an element of surprise to them. Shyamalan built up a reputation of delivering the scares and the surprises that audiences craved became enamored with. After all, who among us hasn't had the twist at the end of The Sixth Sense ruined for us?
However, Shyamalan is partly to blame for this as he participated in a "documentary" for Sci-Fi Channel that was revealed to be a hoax. Sci-Fi claimed in its "documentary" special—The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan, shot on the set of The Village—that Shyamalan was dead for nearly a half-hour while drowned in a frozen pond in a childhood accident, and that upon being rescued he had experiences of communicating with spirits, fueling an obsession with the supernatural.
In truth, Shyamalan developed the hoax with Sci-Fi, going so far as having Sci-Fi staffers sign non-disclosure agreements with a $5-million fine attached and requiring Shyamalan's office to formally approve each step. Neither the childhood accident nor the supposed rift with the filmmakers ever occurred. The hoax included a non-existent Sci-Fi publicist, "David Westover", whose name appeared on press releases regarding the special. Sci-Fi also fed false news stories to the Associated Press and Zap2It, among others. A New York Post news item, based on a Sci Fi press release, referred to Shyamalan's attorneys threatening to sue the filmmakers; the attorneys named were non-existent.
The documentary, while well made and genuinely creepy at some points, was a guerrilla marketing tactic to promote The Village. Perhaps Shyamalan had developed a bit of an ego. Nevertheless, The Village was one of the most anticipated films of Summer 2004.
Let me just say that right from the get go, The Village was mis-marketed and released at the wrong time of the year. As you'll see in this trailer, the studio made the film out to be a creature feature with minute to minute scares and lots of action and mystery.
Another main selling point of the film is that we never know what the creatures really look like. Normally, this strategy works really well, via the Jaws effect. However, this ended up being an achilles heal to the film, as audiences were underwhelmed. The Village made back it's budget, but after a strong opening weekend, bad word of mouth spread quickly and it fizzled in the United States.
I remember going to see The Village opening weekend and being one of the few who had positive things to say about the film. Indeed, now that Shyamalan is almost universally despised now (to be honest, kind of deserved), The Village is seen as the film that started his fall from grace. Critics were not kind to the film, although James Newton Howard's brilliant score was universally praised and nominated for an Oscar.
My Thoughts and Analysis
Looking back on this film almost ten years after it was released, it's important to understand that expectations can alternately help and KILL a movie. However, separate yourself from that, and you'll find (or at least I did) that The Village is a very good film with many positives. Bryce Dallas Howard's film debut is nothing short of astonishing. As the blind Ivy Elizabeth Walker, we really come to sympathize with her and become afraid for her because of her blindness. Shyamalan does a great job of putting us in her world perspective.
The cast is universally excellent, filled with multiple great actors and performances worthy of a second look. Joaquin Phoenix's quiet and reserved performance works very well, and I completely bought the love story between Lucius and Ivy. Indeed, The Village, first and foremost, is a love story. The best scene in the entire film is when the village is supposedly under attack by the creatures and everyone flees to their shelters below the floor boards. Ivy, however, does not because she wants to wait for Lucius to come to her, she realizes if he does he truly loves her. The scene builds up suspense, then when Lucius indeed comes to take Ivy's hand, turns into a slow motion sequence with James Newton Howard's score elegantly evoking the mood. It's a fantastic piece of filmmaking.
William Hurt is fantastic as Edward Walker, one of the "elders" and looked upon leader of this "settlement." He displays an incredible array of emotions when explaining to Ivy about what the world she's known really is, and when he explains to the other elders why he sent his blind daughter to gather medicine.
Adrien Brody was the target of large critical derision for his performance as Noah Percy, a young man with an apparent developmental and learning disability. I remember Brody's performance was laughed at a few times during the screening I attended. I believe this is unfair, as we come to learn Noah is indeed in love with Ivy as well and becomes jealous and stabs Lucius. Many saw this as Shyamalan turning the learning disabled into horror movie villains, but I think it's more than that. We understand and empathize with Noah, and there's a clear reason (to him) why he does the things he does in the film. In the end it is Noah's actions that in a bizarre way, have allowed the elders to continue running this Utopia.
Now onto the "twist" itself, I felt it worked and was genuinely surprised. First of all, let me clarify, there are multiple twists and turns, with two main twists: Edward goes against the wishes of the other Elders, agreeing to let Ivy pass through the forest and seek out medicine for Lucius. Before she leaves, Edward explains the secret of the creatures: they are a "farce", bogeymen costumes created by the Elders to keep the children from entering the woods in an attempt to keep them from leaving the village. Edward does mention, however, that "Those We Don't Speak Of" were based upon legends he had heard at one time, of "real creatures" living in the woods. Ivy seems only partly convinced by this explanation, inquiring whether the skinned animals were "also farce".
Also, later it is revealed that the village was actually founded in the late 1970s, when Edward Walker, professor of American History at the University of Pennsylvania, approached other people he met at a grief counseling clinic after his father had been murdered. He asked them if they wished to join him in "an idea" he had. From this apparently grew "the village", a secluded town in the middle of a wildlife preserve purchased with Edward's family fortune, a place where they would sustain themselves, and be protected from any aspect of the outside world.
Walker's Wildlife Reserve is protected the the Park Ranger Service, the details of which are revealed by a Park Ranger (M. Night Shyamalan himself in a semi-cameo role). The real villain of the film is modern day society, and the film ponders whether it was right for Walker and the elders to have found this utopian society.
The twist is very much in the vein of The Twilight Zone, in which we find out that the world we are watching is in fact nothing as it appears. Very much like our main character Ivy, we find out in stages and this makes her adventure and further discoveries at the end worth our time.
Had The Village been properly marketed and released during a different time of the year, maybe we'd be talking about a film that wasn't unsung. Instead, Shyamalan's career has taken a huge turn for the less, which is a shame because he is from the Philadelphia area like me. Shyamalan often sets his films in or around Philadelphia, and it's always interesting to see your home through someone else's eyes that has a familiarity with the setting. Perhaps one day Shyamalan will make a film that is as beloved by critics and audiences as his first three big films were, but until then, The Village remains his last hurrah of filmmaking talent.