After breaking into the mainstream consciousness with The Sixth Sense and his twist that rocked the world, M. Night Shyamalan has had a rocky career. His post-Unbreakable trajectory a lot of his early 2000’s work was written off as failed attempts at returning to The Sixth Sense, and as time went on he became known for the critically lambasted adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and the commercial flop After Earth, the directors name generally carried with it a general sigh of displeasure. The tides seemingly changed after 2016’s smash hit Glass, which prompted a general re-visit of not only it’s predecessor Unbreakable, but all of Shamalyan’s early work including Signs, which I still remain fairly indifferent too, and The Village, a film I remember enjoying a lot on first watch many years ago. Regardless of the mixed reception to his films, it’s hard not to praise Shyamalan for years of unwavering confidence in his attempts to shock, surprise and subvert the expectations of his viewers, and so to celebrate his 50th Birthday I thought it would only be right to revisit The Village to see if it still held up for me so many years later.
Coming back after so many years I really didn’t know what to expect, having seen plenty of reviews praising and tearing down this film, but while I don’t think the film is Shamalyan’s masterpiece, that accolade belongs to The Sixth Sense in my opinion, I also believe that it doesn’t deserve the criticism it received initially on its release. Both as a surface level psychological thriller, where the audience tries to figure out the mystery surrounding the uncanny setting of the closed-off village, and as a deeper rumination on grief and collective trauma made in a post-911 & Iraq War America, the underlying themes that Shyamalan incorporates into the period drama are really fascinating. From the very opening of the film, there’s a sense of mystery surrounding the setting, even by the periods-standard, the town feels uncomfortably small, with the inhabitants all fitting around 2 tables during a feast. The image of community is underscored by the claustrophobia of the surrounding trees, the funeral that opens the film informs us as the audience not of a sense of harmony, but a community plagued by pain, an important motif later on in the film. This sense of unease is constant, the facade of tranquility is constantly undermined so even the council meetings discussing the town festivities, complete with knitting mothers sharing their opinion, feel menacing.
The film purposefully lets us bring our guard down only to startle and surprise, an obvious example is the wedding reception where we see Bryce Dallas Howard’s Ivy Walker, a young woman in the village who suffers blindness, dancing and celebrating her sister’s wedding only for the party to be interrupted with a piercing scream. But for me an even better example of this comes right after the emotionally charged scene between Howard’s Ivy and Joaquin Phoenix’s Lucius Hunt, after this intense encounter, which has previously interrupted Ivy’s game of Hide-and-seek with Adrien Brody’s Noah, we see, shot through the window, Ivy hanging her coat in the closet while Brody hides in the corner of it. It’s the perfect scene to completely derail the audience’s sense of tranquility, the film reveals, through it’s blind protagonist, that forces are operating in places we, much like Ivy, cannot see them. The scene itself becomes almost a taunt, we see Ivy as completely helpless in the scene, if Noah wanted to scare her it would be all too easy, and Shamalyan, known for his impressive twists, is effectively equating the audience’s lack of knowledge with Ivy’s blindness to her surroundings.
The film’s cast is stacked through and through, with Bryce Dallas Howard, in her breakout role, as one of the film’s protagonist bringing a really solid performance to the table, effectively representing the vast array of emotions that her character experiences over the course of the film, meanwhile Joaquin Phoenix does a great job of the troubled and torn Lucius. Adrien Brody also does a good job, although as an able-bodied person I don’t want to make any claims about the handling of his performance of a developmentally disabled person. It did feel somewhat cliche and full of the usual disabled person tropes, but I still think limited by those tropes, Brody gives a solid performance. The supporting cast all do a solid job, with the likes of; William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson, among others, all working well off of each other to create a sense of harmony among the townsfolk, but against retaining that sense of mystery that permeates the film. This sense of paranoia is also captured brilliantly through Roger Deakins’s cinematography, with the shot compositions really adding to these themes. I already pointed out the scene where we see Ivy through the window, which I think is one of the film’s best shots, but throughout the camera really adds to this idea with another favourite shot of mine being when Howard is running through the woods near the end of the film and we see this shot from a low angle close-up of her face and she runs blindly through the branches. It seems like almost a moot point to praise Deakins’s camera work as it’s almost a given that he’s going to pull off the cinematography but it really does play nicely into the themes that Shamlayan is trying to convey.
Overall I maintain that The Village is not Shyamalan’s best film like some retrospective criticism have claimed it is, although I understand where they’re coming from, but what I firmly stand against is that this is one of his worst. It’s an innovative and interesting period piece that uses it’s wonderful characters to draw the audience into the emotions and fear that are present within the titular village. With a strong script, a good cast and a really combination of directing and cinematography, The Village remains a fantastic offering from the controversial director.