A Trip Back to ‘The Village’ 15 Years Later

July 30th marks the 15th anniversary of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. It was Shyamalan’s fourth film, coming off the critical and box office successes of 1998’s The Sixth Sense, 2000’s Unbreakable, and 2002’s Signs. At that point in his career, Shyamalan’s name was synonymous with high-quality commercial thrillers, making The Village one of the most highly-anticipated films of 2004. However, upon its release, the film was met with bewilderment from both critics, as well as the average moviegoer, with its multiple plot twists leaving audiences angry and cheated. This sparked the decline in Shyamalan’s career, which would continue to plummet until 2015’s The Visit. Revisiting the film 15 years later, The Village is a much more impressive film than it was back in 2004. Unfortunately, time has also made some of the film’s flaws even more apparent. On its anniversary, it is time to revisit the most underrated film in Shyamalan’s filmography. 

The inhabitants of Covington live a peaceful life in 19th century Pennsylvania. They eat dinners together at a communal table that accommodates every member of the town. Their days are spent working to make the best lives for themselves and their fellow neighbors. Their only major sources of concern are the tall and imposing red-cloaked creatures referred to as “Those We Don’t Speak Of,” who dwell in the woods just outside Covington. Although the town’s residents try to appease the beings by entering the woods only to deliver slaughtered animals as a form of payment for safety, the menacing humanoids seem to be getting closer and closer. The people of Covington must decide how to contend with their threatening, imposing visitors, while keeping everyone unharmed.

© Touchstone Pictures

In the first act, the true star of The Village comes out: cinematographer Roger Deakins. The dark and dreary setting of Covington is captured masterfully by Deakins. Shot from a distance, every scene takes on an almost voyeuristic quality. Characters conversations occur in the distant foreground, with no attempt to move the camera closer. This creates a wonderful tension. Often, filmmakers will push the shot in close, creating a sense of claustrophobic worry. Here, Deakins and Shyamalan choose to show how unprotected the members of Covington are. It is incredibly effective at setting an ominous tone.

Unfortunately, the first act is too rushed. Characters are painted in the most basic and obvious ways. Joaquin Phoenix plays Lucius Hunt, a timid young man who hides behind a piece of paper as he reads to the town’s council all the ways in which he intends to help his fellow neighbors. Adrien Brody plays Noah Percy, another young man in Covington with a nonspecific mental health issue. Percy alternates between playful lucidity and erratic behavior for no clear reasons. Then there is Bryce Dallas Howard as Ivy Elizabeth Walker, a young woman who doesn’t let her blindness keep her from being an outspoken individual in the community. There is no real attempt to make audiences truly connect with the inhabitants of Covington. In its quest to get to the suspense, we don’t connect all that much with anybody except Ivy. It is difficult to worry about ghouls attacking the town if we don’t have a reason to root for them.

© Touchstone Pictures

We are never given a clear reason to fear “Those We Don’t Speak Of.” While we see that the entities are tall and menacing with long claws, there is no history given of how they are dangerous. They may bang on doors and mark them with red paint, but it is not quite imposing enough. The first act would have benefited from either making the creatures either more violent or giving us a more gradual introduction in order to better understand them. Maybe having characters discuss the history of the members of Covington and the monsters might have been beneficial. 

Bryce Dallas Howard gives an absolutely delightful performance as Ivy, a young blind woman who radiates positivity and playfulness. The idea of a blind “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” sounds just awful on paper. Adding the occasionally tin-eared nature of Shyamalan’s dialogue only adds further worry. It is a complete credit to Howard that Ivy never becomes a character who is anything less than charming. While it would have been nice for Howard to get more screen time to flesh out Ivy beyond being “the blind heroine”, she does wonders with what she is given. This was Howard’s first starring role and should have catapulted her to better roles as opposed to the “bigger” roles she would receive in movies like the Twilight and Jurassic World films.

© Touchstone Pictures

Joaquin Phoenix is also good as Lucius, a soft-spoken member of Covington who wants to help protect others from “Those We Don’t Speak Of”. There is soft a delicate touch that is in Phoenix’s early 2000s performances. As the film pushes for a relationship between Ivy and Lucius, it is easy to both be slightly annoyed and yet root for them at the same time. Again, it is to the credit of both Phoenix and Howard that we hope these characters take care of each other even if we know it is just an obvious and predictable plot development.

The film’s biggest issue is Adrian Brody as Noah, a member of Covington suffering from a nondescript mental disability. Noah is a character is never fully fleshed out, and whose cues from Shyamalan could have simply been “be eccentric”. In one scene, Brody plays Noah as playful and slightly clever, and in the next, he is a blathering annoying mess. While the movie can’t necessarily be faulted for leaving his disability unnamed given the time period, alternating drastically between states of mental capacity makes Noah little more of a plot element than an actual character. It is an awkward and occasionally offensive performance. In a lot of ways, Noah strongly resembles Hedwig, a childlike alter-ego of James McAvoy’s character in Shyamalan’s films 2016’s Split and 2018’s Glass. Brody’s Noah seems like a more stripped-down version of Hedwig, spouting nonsense like a child repeating what he hears adults say, even if he doesn’t fully understand what it all means. Whereas Hedwig was a temporary character in Split and Glass, Noah in The Village is one of the most prominent of Covington. Brody is probably not fully to blame for the awfulness of Noah. The character simply shouldn’t be in the film. It was a bad idea in 2004 and it is a simply terrible idea in 2019.

© Touchstone Pictures

The two plot twists in the third act of The Village are where the film repeatedly seemed to alienate and anger viewers. Surprisingly, already knowing the twists didn’t impact the rewatch all that much, though it did become entertaining to spot the ways that they were hinted at throughout the film. While it is understandable why these plot developments would have turned off viewers back in 2004, they aren’t that bothersome. Those who turned on the film back during its original release might benefit from a re-watch. 

 

*SPOILERS FOR THE THIRD ACT OF THE FILM FOLLOW*

 

The first twist is that “Those Who We Don’t Speak Of” don’t actually exist. The townspeople of Covington don the outfits in order to scare the townsfolk into not leaving into the woods. While this does make the tension of the first two acts seem foolish, the fact that they don’t actually exist makes a lot more sense given the loosely-defined nature of the creatures. There aren’t any moments of startling destruction (such as a townsperson being murdered by “Those”) since they are just regular people meant to frighten and not murder. The design of the creatures is all the more impressive because of this plot development. The appearance, a pig’s face hidden behind a red cloak with long claw-like fingers, is a fully-believable creation. It is understandable why the people of Covington would fear them. “Those Who We Don’t Speak Of” hadn’t done anything otherworldly. They aren’t supernatural beings. All they have done is walk around menacingly and mark doors. Maybe it is a nostalgia for 2004, a time when a major production could be released without any obvious visual effects, but there is a truly unique and earnest quality to this twist. Viewers may believe they were cheated into being frightened by what turned out to be nothing, but the film didn’t quite cheat. The only element that doesn’t make any sense is the low guttural sounds of the creatures which don’t sound very human at all. Removing those would have made the twist fully believable but would have minimized the much-needed terror.

© Touchstone Pictures

Audiences have complained that the knowledge that these creatures aren’t real makes the climax, where Ivy must go into the woods to find a doctor to care for an injured Lucius, ineffective. Regardless of the fact that “Those Who We Don’t Speak Of” don’t exist, Ivy is still a blind woman who is traversing the woods alone. Unfortunately, with one line of dialogue, Shyamalan attempts to still draw suspense out of the possibility of their still being monsters in the woods. Before Ivy goes into the woods, her father Edward (William Hurt) explains that “Those” don’t exist but that he had seen textbooks which said that monsters were rumored to be in the woods. It isn’t quite clear why Edward tells Ivy this, aside from shoehorning in a little more unneeded suspense. Throughout the entirety of the film, nothing suggests the existence of mysterious creatures living in the woods, beyond “Those Who We Don’t Speak Of” It would seem that even the mere mention of  one other creature they believe is in the woods would have been sufficient, allowing us to fear for Ivy when things start rustling in the distance. 

The final twist, the fact that the story is actually in the present-day, is also not nearly as frustrating or silly as it was in 2004. We are told that the settlers of Covington had experienced traumatizing and violent events in their lives that drove them deep into the woods to create a puritanical utopia. There is no doubt that this twist needed to happen. Sure, it makes the actions of the characters’ actions questionable (such a boy dying at the beginning of the film from a disease that might have been treatable), but it isn’t completely ridiculous. The twist only becomes awful if you believe that the members of Covington are all good people who truly have the best interest for each other. Fortunately for us as viewers, they simply aren’t good people. They are delusional liars, choosing to live in fantasy because of the selfish belief that regular society was unlivable. Much like the previous twist, this moment isn’t cheating audiences. These were never warm people who seemed to do no wrong. If anything, it helps explains why these characters were kept at such an emotional distance the whole film. While it can’t be denied that the twist will inspire a little eye-rolling on first viewing, it is much easier to stomach 15 years later.

*SPOILERS END*

 

With the exception of the rushed nature of the first act and the simply awful characterization of Noah, The Village is more surprising and original than it was in 2004. The film’s slight silliness aside, it is rather stunning to think that Shyamalan chose to follow up his first three films film with a relatively low budget film shot in the dark woods without any big stars. While the film definitely has flaws, it plays much better 15 years later. No matter what your feelings for The Village might have been when it first came out, it deserves a revisit. If you’ve never seen it, its anniversary is a good reason to dive into this underrated and entertaining film.

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