Some critics will undoubtedly dismiss M. Night Shyamalan’s latest offering, The Village, as being too light on thrills to qualify as a thriller. And they would be right if that were all the writer/director set out to accomplish. Instead, it seems Shyamalan is striving to move from a scary-movie prodigy who flirts with significant themes to a substantial cinematic artist who only flirts with scares.
He still includes a few trademark plot twists, but realizations do not dawn on the audience with such force as they did in his previous efforts, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Instead, they are mere fortification to a tale that has ambitions beyond surprising.
The film opens in a small agrarian community in 1897. A kind of puritan paradise, the village is ruled by a group of elders who carefully protect the “understanding” they have brokered with the beasts who live in the forest surrounding the town. The terms of the truce are simple: Don’t breach the border, don’t display the color red, and don’t speak of the enemy.
Most of the villagers are content to live under these regulations. That is until the death of a friend prompts Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) to seek permission from the head elder, Edward Walker (William Hunt), to cross the forbidden woods in search of emergency medicine.
Edward denies Lucius’s request, perhaps because he fears angering the beasts, but also perhaps because he is aware of how his youngest daughter, the beautiful but blind Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), feels about the young man. Eventually though, keeping Lucius in town isn’t enough to maintain harmony between those who live within the village and those who reside without. As Passover-like signs appear on the doors and livestock turn up in the town square, dead and skinned but not eaten, it becomes clear that the creatures are no longer content to stay on their side of the forest.
At first, this story doesn’t seem to work. The elders never see fit to explain the nature of the beasts to their children and we wonder why they aren’t more curious. After years of living alongside these beings, it seems implausible that someone wouldn’t have given them a name less awkward than “those we do not speak of.” But mostly we wonder why, if the beasts are intelligent, the color red would be enough to draw them.
Without giving away any spoilers, let’s just say what starts out sounding like shoddy-story composing eventually becomes the very tones that make the movie ring true. The only sour notes the film hits is when it allows these ill-fitting elements, like the clunky King James language, to carry on too long, so that when their purpose is revealed, they feel more than a little over-dramatized.
But what The Village lacks in pacing, it makes up for in stunning Wyeth-inspired art direction and an acting debut that is for once worthy of its buildup.
When studio p.r. machines go into overdrive hailing yet another Hollywood legacy as a phenomenal breakout talent, who isn’t skeptical anymore? Sure Kate Hudson is appealing in a predictable, Meg Ryan sort of way, but she and her nepotistically favored ilk are rarely better performers than the stars who didn’t have the benefit of a pandering media to make their careers.
Bryce Dallas Howard, however, is no victim of over-hype. As the daughter of Tinsel Town royalty Ron Howard, she too could have gone the traditional route of taking on a gritty (but undemanding) supporting role, moving on to headline a fluffy charm vehicle. Instead, she comes out swinging (literally in certain scenes, considering her character is blind) and matches heavy-hitters like William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, and Adrien Brody blow for dramatic blow, at times even out striking them.
Still, as impressive as Howard and the rest of the cast are, The Village’s greatest strength is a moral core that never devolves into moralistic propaganda.
Shyamalan poses questions about the human response to evil and loss then allows the audience to come its own conclusions. His themes are incredibly relevant to the dilemmas we face today: Should we confront the things that threaten us and try to defeat them, or should we retreat, sacrificing even truth if it is necessary to enjoy a precious, if tenuous, peace? Should we ignore real menaces we can’t control in favor of imagined ones we can?
Shyamalan doesn’t paint his villagers motivations as right or wrong, and his reticence to make an allegory of his tale may leave some viewers frustrated. But it will also leave them thinking more deeply about the issues than if they were force-fed a lesson. Already, critics are reviewing The Village through their own political lenses, and it is to Shyamalan’s credit that both the left and right could make credible arguments that the film falls in their favor.
The Village isn’t perfect–some story lines are introduced only to drop off without satisfying resolutions, and Hurt’s Walker makes several decision that don’t seem compatible with his character. But it succeeds more often than it fails, and it proves once and for all that M. Night Shyamalan is nobody’s one-trick pony.
–Megan Basham is a freelance writer in Phoenix, Arizona, and a current Phillips Foundation fellow.