The Village continues to reveal its secrets

This year is the 25th anniversary of the release of the first Jurassic Park. For most of us at Cinedelphia, it is a film that has defined what we look for in a summer blockbuster. So what better time than now to revisit the last 25 years of summer blockbusters and pick our favorites? View the criteria and full introduction here, and the whole series here.

8. The Village (dir. M. Night Shyamalan, 2004)

It’s weird to think there was ever a time when uttering the name “M. Night Shyamalan” didn’t induce titters, guffaws, or vexatious ridicule. However, if you came of age in the late 90s/early 00s, you’re old enough to remember that period when Shyamalan was no fucking joke. After The Sixth Sense’s record-breaking grosses, each forthcoming Shyamalan film was a certifiable event, built up by pre-release hype over what Hollywood’s then-leading purveyor of macabre solemnity and, yes, plot twists had up his sleeves. Many seem to agree that Shyamalan eventually jumped the shark, but, depending on how much of die-hard devotee you are, that designated moment tends to fluctuate. Indeed, some very intelligent, seasoned film writers stake the bold claim that he’s yet to make a bad film.

For most people, The Village is where it all fell apart, or at least instigated a gradual artistic decline. Released to an eager public in the Summer of 2004 and promoted through an ad campaign that promised a period horror film guaranteed to chill one’s bones, it left audiences either shrugging their shoulders or unleashing vehemence, with many grievances aimed at the (purported) “obvious revelations” and “plot inconsistencies”. But nearly fifteen years on, after much Happening thumb-nosing and celebratory relief over the recent Shyamalan-aissance, The Village remains, I think, M. Night’s strongest, most assured effort and the one that, even after myriad viewings, continues to stimulate the mind and stir the senses.

Everyone knows the premise: a vaguely 19th-century village, sustained by self-sufficiency and governed by a council of elders, becomes a hotbed of fear and anxiety when creatures living in the all-enshrouding woods become an ominous threat. While it deftly juggles elements of both psychological thriller and folk horror, The Village’s true through-line manifests in the form of period romance, a facet curiously absent from most of the advertising and, perhaps, the key ingredient that led to audience hostility. The love story between the blind pedagogue Ivy and the laconic Lucius is a cornball conceit–and never attempts to cover that up–yet Bryce Dallas Howard and Joaquin Phoenix give themselves over and buy in. I’m reminded of Pauline Kael’s remark in her review for Godard’s Band of Outsiders, observing how Jean-Luc applied his instincts and personality to the material he deconstructed: “it’s as if a French poet took a banal American crime novel and told it to us in terms of the romance and beauty he read between the lines.” In this case, it’s one thing to attempt to forcibly “elevate” treacle and another to meet it on its own terms and dig deeper.

Opting for the latter, Shyamalan and his actors bear their conviction, excavate the poetry within the husks, and come out with something that, by the final scene, becomes genuinely affecting. In a key scene of emotional catharsis, in which Lucius verbally discloses his feelings to Ivy, Shyamalan eschews traditional scene-building montage, electing a long-take approach by shooting the bulk of the scene in a two-shot closeup, with each actor’s faces in profile; at once, this choice accords the interplay’s emotional undercurrents the immediacy and purity they’d possess in theatre–no cuts, no lies–and provides viewers with a privileged, intimate proximity only possible in the photographic arts.

But not all is lovey dovey in the valley. Before the forest-dwelling Those We Don’t Speak Of even appear, there’s an unmistakable sense of something being weirdly off. Shyamalan boasts an effortless knack for summoning dread and unease out of mundane settings, and, indeed, there’s a vast array of unheimlichkeit to savor, perhaps none more so than the wedding centerpiece, wherein the townsfolk make merry in a manner that’s borderline cultish. Much of his ability to generate these effects comes from his previously acknowledged penchant for lingering long takes/sequence shots, thus allowing his camera to drink in the environs, sometimes specifying scene detail (vital and trivial) with a zoom, other times patiently awaiting the disruption of diegetic stasis. Lensed by cinematographer Roger Deakins, the images in The Village bear the texture of Andrew Wyeth and the iconography of a folktale. The fertile green land and the pained reds (a “forbidden” hue, but, of course, one that runs through all our veins) adorning Those We Don’t Speak Of offset a palette predominantly comprised of autumnal tones: the sickly shades of yellow-riding-hoods, the aged grays of the cottages and surrounding deadwood, and the orangish ambers of firelight filling up interiors or illuminating the blackness of night, all working to imbue The Village with a permeating sense of rural unworldliness (and decay) that’s as tactile as it is artificial. Can you get more unheimlich than that?

In truth, not a whole lot really happens in The Village. Story-wise, the first-half primarily consists of world-building, bottled-up emotions, and surreptitious signposting, a slow progression toward a pivotal moment when Lucius is injured by one of the denizens. With the threat of death bearing down, Ivy fulcrums the narrative with an eventual venture through the foreboding woods in hopes of retrieving medicine from “the Towns,” ultimately putting her bravery, devotion, and, uh, allegiance to the test. It doesn’t take one long to figure out that Shyamalan is working through folkloric syntax, myth, and, less obvious, a bit of history – the most inspired of the latter’s contributions is found in the mentally challenged Noah (an often needlessly histrionic Adrien Brody), whose characterization is lifted straight from the life of 17th-century French peasant Jean Grenier. (There’s also a bit of cinephilic homage: some have justifiably drawn comparisons with the Lewton/Tourneur collaborations I Walked with a Zombie and Cat People. I’d also argue there’s more than a little of Dreyer’s Day of Wrath in the DNA strand.)

Moreover, Shyamalan is weaving allegory here, a cautionary fable about borders and security, conditioning and repression, past tragedies and lasting trauma. Look past the cloak of irony that’s lathered over the passion, the dread, and, yes, the “twists” and maybe you’ll unveil an even darker, more covert revelation, a twist that paints the village (and those autarchic elders) in a harsher light. It’s a provocation that flirts with that hoariest of Nietzsche quotes, a stroll down the “road-to-hell-is-paved-with-good-intentions” lane, but Shyamalan gives it legs and a stealth veil of irony that makes the moment of recognition all the more powerful – this is likely the first time a Shyamalan twist is realized not as an explicit revelation but a sinister suggestion. The viewer’s epiphany might not come straightaway, but the insinuation is there, lurking in the village’s midst, for those who can see the woods for the trees.

Author: Dan Santelli

Dan Santelli is a film writer/critic and cat-loving dirtbag, born in Ohio and raised in Philly. When not hiking or talking someone’s ear off about Pauline Kael, he can be found at Viva Video in Ardmore. You can follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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