After lots of cryptic movie posters all over the walls in theaters, posters that showed two hands holding a letter, posters that wouldn’t tell a thing to the casual movie-goer, after cryptic television teasers, commercials that gave nothing away but still kept audiences shocked with its atmosphere induced images, and after a really cheesy really bad mock-documentary exploring the “The Buried Secrets of M. Night Shyamalan” which ended up being nothing than a promotional program , director M. Night Shyamalan has again kept audiences wondering, has kept the media guessing, and has kept critics talking.
I, being a big fan of recent Shyamalan outings, my favorite being “Signs”, I sat in anticipation awaiting Shyamalan’s next brainteaser, and I wasn’t disappointed. The new film from the director who brought us some truly groundbreaking brainteasers, this time centers around a small village of people in the 1800’s, they’re a small Utopian society with families and law givers, a committee of elders who watch over the town of Covington and decide for them, and they have their gatherings and drama like every other town, however, they cannot walk outside of the borders of their town.
At night they watch the surrounding woods with torches up at every point of the border into the woods and if they breach it they risk disturbing the mysterious force within the trees, a force that watches them. The elders include a group of older people including William Hurt (finally put to use in a film) who plays the dignified Edward Walker who watches over his people and gives speeches in nearly every scene, and then there’s the younger generation including the very funny, always likable Judy Greer who plays Kitty Walker the sister desperate to be married, Greer is very good in the film, his love interest Alice Hunt who rules alongside him, then there’s the mentally disabled Noah Percy who’s friends with Ivy Walker, the beautiful younger sister of Kitty, Ivy played by Bryce Dallas Howard in her feature film debut.
Daughter of Ron Howard, Howard is just incredible, stealing the show, but we’ll get back to her in a minute. Finally, there’s Lucius Hunt, the silent but sometimes heroic man of the village who doesn’t say much and isn’t good with words but nonetheless follows orders and serves as one of the night watchmen who nervously look on in the trees. But when the force of the forest begins to break the truce created decades ago, the villagers begin to look for a way to stop them and live in peace once again. Within the characters, there are love triangles. Kitty is in love with Lucius, who is in love with Ivy, but is afraid to admit it, and Ivy is friends with Noah who is also in love with Ivy.
And with the spirit of “Wuthering Heights” the romances take their place, courtesy of Judy Greer who plays the all too forward Kitty who has a really funny scene in the beginning setting up Ivy’s entrance. Ivy is blind but within her disability lies some sort of precognitive ability to see people, or as she says “their color”. While her disability is a bit inconsistent throughout the film, Howard is just breathtaking. Any person who is a fan of Shyamalan, or has seen much of his films will definitely be looking for points in the film that will lead to a surprise ending or major plot twist and they will be looking for objects that bear a sign to what would lead to an ending, which Shyamalan has conditioned his audience to do, but while, as usual, in every Shyamalan film there are surprises, but what I won’t reveal if there is a surprise ending or not. True, I do tend to give away a lot in my reviews, but not this time.
I want you to go into this film with a clueless attitude, and you will be clueless. Here are some hints to the story, though: No, they are not ghosts from the past, they are not aliens or any other unearthly being, and they are definitely not superheroes, but the story is quite tragic with a sense of Romeo and Juliet mixed with “Wuthering Heights”. This is indeed a romance film with dread, a romance with a sense of urgency that Shyamalan masters from beginning to end, a romance with many dimensions. The heavy feeling of dread with Shyamalans direction make the woods seem simply horrifying and just beautiful all at the same time, there are shots in the film that are stunning and Shyamalan creates a sort of dream-like land with the woods becoming its own character amidst the cast.
Every tree takes on a life of its own, every shadow, every branch, and every scene seems meticulously filmed to make the story complete. There are scenes in the film that demonstrate Shyamalans talent for color as he makes the land of Covington so colorful, so magical while he makes the woods shown in the finale seem so pale, placid, and at night utterly horrifying. Shyamalan takes childhood fears: the woods, darkness, sounds, and brings it back to us in droves with some truly scary imagery particularly the scenes with the watchtower as the woods loom below in the darkness.
Once again, there’s a heavy significance of color use in Shyamalan’s films. For The Sixth Sense there was red, for “Unbreakable” there was green, for “Signs” there was blue, and for this there’s a heavy use of the colors of red and yellow, two colors which can be seen throughout the film a lot. As with “The Sixth Sense” red is a dreadful color meant to symbolize death, and in this film it is quite a dangerous sign, but I won’t reveal for what. Many of the usual Shyamalan signs are here. The significance of water, the over the shoulder camera views where we hear a character’s voice but never see their face, and of course, Shyamalan’s teasing of sound, his best attribute when directing a film.
Shyamalan’s best attributes during his films are color and sound. He has a gift with making sound seem so threatening, the slightest sound in the film makes all the difference and for this, sound is a horrifying notion. All activity stops when there’s sound in the woods, many of the scenes are silent with only music, and many of the key scenes in the film have no soundtrack. The woods become a character and presence, because of Shyamalan’s focus of sound within the confines of the trees. Every twig snap, every creak, every moan is amplified and frightening.
Amidst “The Village” there are some excellent performances including William Hurt who is finally put to use in a film as the town elder, Hurt hasn’t been put to good use in the past years with a basically non-existent role in “Changing Lanes” and with nothing to do in “Tuck Everlasting”, Judy Greer who is entertaining and funny to watch is a great supporting character here and I await the movie that will make her a leading lady, Joaquin Phoenix, an always likable aspect in every film he’s in, is excellent as the silent and noble Lucius who has a lot of bottled emotions but little ways to show them because of his lack of skill in speaking, Adrien Brody off his Oscar winning stint in “The Pianist” is excellent as Noah the mentally handicapped innocent who has a thing for Ivy though he never really knows how to show it.
The two have a special bond and their relationship is something to watch for here. I am never expecting a great performance from the child of a famous actor or director in Hollywood because either they barely make it out of the park ala Alyson Eastwood, or they’re just never heard from again after a movie or two. There’s Sofia Coppola who gave a horrible debut in her first and only acting role in “Godfather 3”, but then there’s Michael Douglas, son of Kirk Douglas who managed to individuate from his fathers legend with his own skill for acting. Which category does Bryce Dallas Howard fall into? Douglas’ category. Howard, who replaced Kirsten Dunst (who dropped out in favor of starring in “Elizabethtown”), is incredible in the lead role as Ivy, the blind and sometimes mystical girl in the village.
Howard gives a breathtaking performance in the film and she will definitely make a name for herself setting herself apart from the tag of “Ron Howard’s daughter “. I have faith that she will become a landmark in acting for the new generation of actors. She will break from her fathers shadow with her vulnerability and grace echoing Audrey Hepburn, her powerful on-screen presence and range echoing Meryl Streep along with unique beauty that seems to radiate on-screen. Simply, she steals the show and Shyamalan makes a great casting choice here. All the while, Shyamalan has another very sophisticated story to tell, an intricate, meticulous, and very pleasant film to watch with beautiful direction and a very sad and tragic story beneath its facade of horror.
Movie critics are so quick to pick apart and dissect everything M. Night Shyamalan does maybe because he’s so brilliant, his character depth and stories so linear and meticulous, or maybe our modern culture has grown to the point where we don’t want a story anymore, we just want a quick fix along with explosions and gore. Perhaps they’re threatened by him, or maybe I’m being dramatic, but you’re going to be looking for a plot twist, but look at the acting, look at the beautiful direction, and look at the touching story of humanity and the all too relevant message Shyamalan puts across of how human nature is that: human nature, and part of our nature is violence regardless of how you try to break it down.
Shyamalan brings about a truly modern message told within a fantastic tale and I urge you to pay attention to everything else and stop trying to look for the twist, and for the critics, Shyamalan is an excellent storyteller and his themes are universal, so why simply pull his films apart? Shyamalan challenges our imaginations, and scares us all the while bringing us his message of violence, government, politics, love, and social commentary within the concept. People will be unwilling to accept that this is just a different type of Shyamalan film, a film that focuses on character development and plot and doesn’t follow the usual rules of Shyamalan’s past films that he created.
While many of the scenes seem to go nowhere, and there were times that I was sure that the dialogue, events, and character interaction were basically droning, everything in Shyamalan’s films has a meaning, but many will become impatient expecting something to happen and while some stuff does tend to happen to the characters throughout the film, there’s just a lot of character focus and you just have to wait. Meanwhile, there are some stars in the film that are just wasted including Brendan Gleeson who is somewhat set up in the beginning but hardly ever has a lot of real focus, and then there’s Sigourney Weaver who doesn’t really play much of a role in the film having an occasional dialogue scene with the main characters.
There’s some insinuation that the elder and leader Edward Walker who is married but has a thing for Weaver’s character, however it’s never really developed to its full extent, she’s basically a throw away character here, a role that could have been played by anyone else. This is a different kind of Shyamalan film, and for that, I loved it. Gripping, creepy, and very well acted with a great breakout performance from Bryce Dallas Howard, Shyamalan brings about excellent themes and social commentary that will resonate for years to come. Give it a chance, and approach it with an open mind. Shyamalan has done it once more, and again, my wait for Shyamalan’s next film begins.