My instinct is usually to cut M Night some slack. That didn’t work out so well with The Lady in the Water, but I’m of the view that he’s an essentially solid filmmaker, one with a strong grasp of milieu, pacing and, to some degree, premise. Where he usually stumbles is in his reliance on gimmick which, when it was working for him, saw him stratospherically venerated, and then, when it wasn’t, savagely maligned. That latter assault really started here, in The Village, and it’s all his own doing.
Because I like the idea, even if came too late to feature Patrick McGoohan (at any rate, he seemed to have retired a few years earlier). The isolated community whose elders have sworn off a violent, unforgiving world and retreated into a kind of Amish – but Mennonite, not so much – funk. The truth unbeknown to the new generation. I’m unsure if I was spoiled of the twist or I guessed it early on, but it isn’t a make or break on the overall quality. Indeed, thematically The Village is quite robust (a similarly readable environment was the basis for Shyamalan’s most recent picture, Old).
Yes, there are logical leaps one has to take here and there for the conceit to work – the late-stage attempt at hole plugging regarding flight lanes might actually be the least of them – but one can see the essential appeal, which does a lot of the heavy lifting in our willingness to go with it. What happens when they break a window? Do they have a glassblowers? Did perceptive Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) ever ask “Where do all the window panes come from, mommy?” Do they have loo roll? Oil to light their lamps? And if these are supplied from without – see below – what do the kids believe? That the stork brings them? The questions are likely to pile up, not least the central one of why they didn’t fortify themselves with a doctor/ apothecary in their ranks to forestall the very situation encountered during the course of the movie.
Nevertheless, it’s only really after Lucius is stabbed that things start to go very wrong with The Village. The project’s originator Edward Walker (William Hurt, with a variable rug), one of the community elders, allows blind daughter Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard) to travel the stretch of the nature reserve in which they live to fetch vital medicines for Lucius, to whom she is betrothed. We saw – a mere five years earlier – how easy it can be for the sighted to get lost in the woods, even with a whacking great water course to suggest a sensible path out (The Blair Witch Project). Ivy has never left the village yet, with her unerring sense of direction, traverses the expanse like a duck to water. Or a bear to woods. Even if you buy that she’s preternatural in that way – she sometimes sees colours in people! – the chances of her flopping over the reserve wall and being immediately spotted by an all-round decent guard, that one life-affirming person in the vicinity, who also has ready access to the necessary meds, is… Well. Yes.
It’s Noah who really had me throwing my hands up in disbelief, though. The stabbing incident is an effective moment of the kind Shyamalan does so well. In particular, when you realise Noah – Adrien Brody going the full Simple Jack, but fortunately for him, he already had his Oscar – doesn’t plan to leave his victim nursing just the one pretty devastating stab wound. But then. Come on, Night. We’ve seen that Noah isn’t at all capable, yet he’s responsible for skinning the animals, dressing up as the creature and roaming the village at night (in the latest incidents), and menacing Ivy? Wiki seems to suggest in its synopsis that he only discovered the suit under the floorboards when he was locked up, but I don’t think that’s most people’s take away (“The animals” suggests the realisation that it was Noah, if not all along, then during the recent spate of creature featuring).
Desk Guard: You start talkin’, you start getting’ into how some estate is payin’ all of us, and no one’s allowed to go in there and disturb the animal sanctuary. People’s interest gets piqued… Maintain and protect the border. That’s it. A few years ago, it got out in the papers that some government guys had been paid off to keep plane routes from flying over this place. That was a very stressful time for me.
Shyamalan provides his de-rigueur cameo, although it’s positively restrained in comparison with his next film; we don’t see his face, but he’s responsible for all the necessary exposition that doesn’t quite add up. I guess one might construe, if there are regular payments set up by Edward (via his inheritance), then they might have provided for supplies too, but given the circumstances of Ivy’s mission, that appears not to be the case. The picture ends with Ivy having successfully returned, and a question over how the future will map out. “You son has made our stories real” offers continuation, and further deceit, should the elders so wish.
It’s in this respect that The Village evinces thematic sway. Shyamalan is presenting here, in his own wry way, a West Wing take on the delusionary world foisted upon us by the Elite. Which is to say, in this version, those pulling the strings are doing so from the most laudable of motives, and it is only human foibles that prevent them from being foolproof. These elders/Elite have the interests of the populace foremost in their minds, and the lies they promulgate are for the greater good. In contrast to the actual Elite, whose creature equivalent might be identified as, say, the nuke threat, a fiction designed to keep the children (us) in line, fearful and obedient (and, like the movie, ultimately, the serial-killer conceit also works to this end).
The Village was a considerable success, despite its critical mauling and rapid box-office drop off. It was only with his subsequent feature, licking his wounds and fuming at his treatment, that Shyamalan really soiled his copybook, launching an all-out tirade against those who would besmirch him. From there, stumble led to stumble, although he has more recently regained some of his lustre by adopting a lower-budget model to facilitate his contrivances (Glass was bludgeoned, but it was cheap).
The Village is half a good movie. The creature design is effective (although, I wonder if Shyamalan hadn’t seen 1965 Doctor Who story The Rescue, also featuring a predatory monster-that-wasn’t with a not-wholly dissimilar costume). It has a superb score from James Newton Howard – Oscar nominated but missing out to Finding Neverland – and typically impressive, evocative cinematography from Richard Deakins. Alas, though, Shyamalan cannot complain about the brickbats when he laughs so brazenly in the face of credulity.