For M Night Shyamalan's breakthrough, The Sixth Sense (1999), the twist ending worked well, adding another level to an already decent film. Repeated to good effect in Unbreakable (2000), the surprise ending became the director's signature. But with Signs (2002) it was losing its novelty, or more accurately, it was becoming problematic as there's no way Shyamalan could keep delivering entirely effective twists. Signs had its moments, but the end result was a pompous and ludicrously illogical film. And the twist ploy felt forced.
With The Village, Shyamalan continues to paint himself into a corner. People expect the twist, but unfortunately the filmmaker seems to have become a slave to it. The Village is a film based more on a pitch than on a fully realised idea and solid storytelling. It's the high concept backfiring.
The fact that Shyamalan seems to be trapped and / or intent upon remaining 'the guy who does twist endings' is an exasperating situation - as in many ways he's a skilled filmmaker, adept with atmosphere and visuals, and able to elicit worthwhile performances from actors. Perhaps he should relinquish some control next time round and allow someone else to write a decent script.
The premise here concerns an isolated rural community who live a simple, Amish-style life of farming and horticulture. The idyll is compromised, however, by the fact that the villagers can't venture into the surrounding woods because of "those we don't speak of". Furthermore, the village elders - Hurt's Edward Walker, Weaver's Alice Hunt and Gleeson's August Nicholson - decree that the towns beyond are "wicked places where wicked people live", and most decidedly off limits.
Understandably, some of the younger folk are restless - Noah Percy (Brody) is a mentally disabled boy who laughs at the howls of "those we do not speak of". Lucius Hunt (Phoenix) is a quiet young man intrigued by the forests and aware that "there are secrets in every corner of this village". Ivy Walker (Howard) is a blind young woman who seems to have a sixth sense. "I see the world, Lucius Hunt, just not as you see it," she says.
The peaceful state of the village is being fractured by weird events. The flayed bodies of livestock are appearing, people glimpse "those we don't speak of", and signs are left on doors. Worse still, a violent incident takes place. The victim can only be saved if someone attempts the journey to "the towns".
As with all of Shyamalan's films, The Village is realised in a way that is visually eloquent and atmospheric. Working with five-times Oscar nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins, he has created a film full of imagery that recalls old photos and even, in places, paintings that use extreme chiaroscuro (by Joseph Wright of Derby say), thanks to the oil lamp and candle lighting effects.
The exteriors also boast some striking imagery - at night, lanterns form a glowing ring at the edge of the woods. Unfortunately, despite how nifty this looks, if you're of a more pedantic bent it'll get you wondering how this community is supposed to sustain itself. Where does all their fuel come from? Traditional skills aren't enough to maintain a society, however small - it requires raw materials, not all of which are ever going to be available locally. Even the Amish indulge in trade. Then there's the slight question of in-breeding.
A lack of logic seems to go hand-in-hand with Shyamalan's tricksy storytelling, as if we're all so fixated on the creepiness and where it'll lead - what that twist will be - that it doesn't matter if the fabric of the scenario is woolly. Well, it does. What's more, despite being creepy and intriguing, the film gets dull in the second act, leaving your mind to wander and muse about that twist.
Thankfully, The Village boasts an impressive cast who give it a solidity it wouldn't otherwise merit. Hurt, Weaver and Phoenix all give strong performances, their presences anchoring the film even when it starts to get silly. This is quite an achievement given the olde worlde idiomatic dialogue Shyamalan feeds them. Hurt even manages to sound sincere when uttering "She is moved by love. The world is moved by love. It kneels before it in awe." Ron Howard's daughter - the top billed, largely unknown Bryce Dallas Howard - also gives an interesting performance as the eccentric Ivy. Oh, and those wondering about Shyamalan's egotistical insistence on a cameo, well, that's probably covered by the distributor's gagging order, which more importantly stops us from fully appraising the film's themes here, as mention of them would give away that all-important ending.