Director M. Night Shyamalan likes to pull the rug out from under his audience. He likes to set up situations and then drop revelations that change our view of everything. So whether his movies succeed or fail depends largely on how much you were fooled. Did you see it coming in Sixth Sense when Shyamalan provides a flashback that reveals a murder? Did you see it coming in Unbreakable when we learn that real superheroes may indeed exist? Well, in The Village, I saw it coming long before I stepped into the theater. Before I left home, I told my wife what I feared the plot twist would be. I hoped the movie would prove me wrong ... but it didn't. The plot twist here is a real groaner, guaranteed to leave many audience members gnashing their teeth and scowling in disgust.
I have to admit my hopes were up after Signs, not that I particularly liked Signs. I didn't. But it showed that Shyamalan wasn't afraid to delve right into the more outlandish and horrific aspects of his creations. He wasn't afraid to show us, yes, aliens do exist and they have in fact been responsible for crop circles. It wasn't rural pranksters with a puckish sense of humor. It was honest to goodness little green men! So this bode well that Shyamalan wouldn't back away from the more horrific implications of The Village, but he does indeed back away. In fact, he runs like a frightened rabbit.
It's hard to write about this movie without giving away its secrets. I may have already said too much. So forgive me if I'm vague. But if the movie is going to be successful weaving its fragile spell on you, you should walk into the theater with as few preconceived notions as possible. So I'll try to make a few comments on what works and what doesn't work in The Village without getting into many specifics.
The first hour of the movie is wonderfully creepy. In these scenes, Shyamalan sets up the situation and introduces us to the inhabitants of an isolated, small rural community named Covington, which is a collection of no more than 20 white clapboard houses and maybe 100 people total. We're told the year is 1897 (although it seems more like circa 18th century). The townsfolk live in fear of "the things we do not speak of," which live in the woods that surround the community. No one dares enter the woods for apparently a truce of sorts exists between the community and the creatures: "We do not go in the woods and they do not come in our valley," explains town elder Edward Walker (William Hurt). However, a young man named Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) sees the value of venturing to a nearby town for items that can't be manufactured in Covington, such as medicines. To complicate matters, a hyperactive young man with the mind of a child (Adrien Brody) has apparently been making forays into the woods. So the truce may be threatened. This situation is genuinely chilling. We see children playing "the stump" game, where in the evening a boy stands on a tree stump beside the woods with his arms raised at his sides. How long can he stand there before he runs away in terror? We hear a horrifying moan (or was it just the wind?). Twigs snap. Is something rushing through the woods? The hair on the back of your neck will stand up.
As he sets up this situation, Shyamalan does a marvelous job of creating atmosphere and instilling us with the town's fears. But eventually Shyamalan has to be Shyamalan--which means he has to unleash a plot twist to upturn everything, and it's here that the movie stumbles fatally. And to make matters even more maddening, Shyamalan tries to pull the same trick on the audience twice, so the second time it's just irritating the way he uses the camera to lie to us--even plying us with blatantly false voiceover reminders.
There is much to recommend in The Village, but with each movie beyond The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan's gimmicks and plot twists become more contrived and frustrating ... and obvious.