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Ever since his breakthrough film The Sixth Sense, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has struggled with an unfortunate stigma—that of the twist ending. It's really his own fault. The Sixth Sense boasts one of the most powerful and effective shock endings in the history of film, and it helped elevate the film to the box-office stratosphere. Reluctant to veer from a spectacularly successful formula, Shyamalan followed up that film with another one tricked out with a twist at the end: Unbreakable. Instantly, Shyamalan became typecast behind the camera as a master of the surprise ending, and his audience would now expect some kind of marvelous revelation at the end of every film he brought to the screen thereafter. It's an unfortunate widespread assumption, and it has become a terrible burden on poor Shyamalan, who—in his most recent two films, Signs and The Village—has found himself flailing madly to live up to those expectations while delivering powerful films. If only the man felt the freedom to rid himself of the twist-ending curse, he might start delivering effective scary stories again.
The Village has a lot going for it. Set in an idyllic, curiously isolated nineteenth-century American village called Covington, it tells its quiet tale confidently, introducing its key players and relationships in a way that grabs our attention and brings us into the town. We gradually understand that there's fear at work in the village, fear of a mysterious force beyond the village's borders, which are clearly defined with torches and outposts. In those woods, we learn, dwell Those We Do Not Speak Of, an evil presence represented by the color red, which has been banished from the town. Amid this seemingly supernatural tension, we meet shy, insecure Lucias (Joaquim Phoenix) and blind Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), whose awkwardly blossoming love becomes the focus of the story. But complicating their love is the loose cannon of Noah (Adrien Brody), a mentally imbalanced young man who also pines for Ivy in his own way. When a tragedy occurs, it falls to Ivy to explore the limits of her love and face Those We Do Not Speak Of. In supporting roles are William Hurt as Ivy's father and town leader, and Sigourney Weaver as Lucias' mother.
Admittedly, at times, The Village is a fine creep-out, a modest Twilight Zone thriller tinged with surprisingly effective romance. Playing a bit against type, at least in the film's first act, Shyamalan has fashioned a pleasing period tale, peopled with striking personalities and structured expertly. You know the scares are coming as you observe these quiet scenes, and Shyamalan has you firmly in his cinematic grasp. After all, he is unquestionably a master of dread. He understands innately how to wield the tools at his disposal to elicit certain reactions—eyes hidden behind fingers, held breath, adrenaline flush—in his audience. I will never begrudge him that. But there's a moment while watching The Village when you'll begin to very slightly disconnect. It's the moment when you realize consciously that you're being manipulated. And as the movie plays on, the feeling becomes more and more pronounced, until you've pulled away from the film completely and can only sit there feeling used.
The twist ending comes, yes, and many have said that the twist isn't really the point of The Village, that actually the twist is merely the film's method of revealing its true meaning and symbology. And even though I understand that point of view, it doesn't give the film's unwieldy twist any more power. This twist is the entire point of The Village, regardless of its purpose. This is a twist that informs the whole story, much as in The Sixth Sense, but the difference here is that Shyamalan's story sits awkwardly atop the twist, creaking and swaying, not comfortable at all with its own fragility. When the ending comes, your first reaction is to find it effective if overwrought, but then you start piecing together the clues, and flashing back on certain scenes, and you feel like a puppet with strings tied to all your cerebral joints. This film's sprinkled-about clues, mandated by its surprise finale, don't come across as central to the story's foundation but rather central only to the workability of the twist and—more pernicious—engineered by Shyamalan only to distract you from guessing his trick.
When the twist comes, it comes from the mouth of the town elder played by William Hurt. He breathlessly explains himself to his daughter, Ivy, in a series of wordy flashbacks while Ivy braves the forest and confronts Those We Do Not Speak Of (creatures that, thanks to the film's structure and revelation, suddenly lose their effectiveness at a certain point in the narrative). And suddenly major plot points that frightened us before—say, oh, small skinned animals flung hither and thither—are explained away too quickly and conveniently and insufficiently. Other details, such as the village's suspiciously vast population (you'll understand what I mean after you see the film), are never explained. And by that point, as blind Ivy stumbles her way expertly and improbably through the woods toward "the towns," you've come to a firm understanding of Shyamalan's devious ways. Like it or not, he's tricked you into buying his trick ending. You might be able to forgive his sleight of hand—heck, I did in The Sixth Sense—but in The Village, he's gotten a little sloppy with his sleeves. This film would fall to the ground like a house of cards were it not for Shyamalan's insistence to bludgeon his way to the climax and let his audience sort it all out later. Thanks to the twist, the entire third act requires a Herculean feat of disbelief suspension, and its structure renders some potentially frightening sequences absurd.
If you can find it within yourself to forgive the film's many cheats and contrivances—not an easy task—you'll find that it's a better thriller than Signs, if not up to the quality of The Sixth Sense or the cult-classic strangeness of Unbreakable. Regardless of my overall impressions of The Village, I can still appreciate its first hour. And I get a kick out of one fanciful interpretation of the film as a Bush-era allegory of the "culture of fear." I can see a lot of truth there. But that's just me.
Perhaps the most striking revelation of The Village, and the element you're most likely to take away from it, is Bryce Dallas Howard, who delivers a soulful and memorable performance as Ivy Walker. She brings a remarkable glow and vitality to Ivy—even though her blindness is not always believable—and she makes you fully invest in the romance that develops between her character and Phoenix's.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
I confess to being somewhat disappointed in the image quality of this DVD. Buena Vista's anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the 1.85:1 theatrical presentation is lacking in strong detail, appearing filtered. Close-ups look fine, as usual, but once subjects move toward the middle background, their features are lost in a haze of digital softness. The result is a frustration with the look of the entire film, which should leap from the screen with a dark beauty. This is a particular problem on large monitors. Making the lack of fine detail doubly frustrating is the fact that colors fare very well. The Village is a film that pays extreme attention to color variances, and this transfer gets them just right. If only the detail lent the palette the proper respect and depth. Black levels are fine. But I noticed distracting edge halos, particularly in the brighter scenes.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby Digital EX track is a heck of a lot of creepy fun. As Shyamalan notes in the behind-the-scenes feauturette (noted below), he uses sound effects extensively in his films to convey all kinds of emotions, but mostly fear and shock. I remember being impressed by the power of the soundtrack in the theater, but this effort—concentrated within the smaller confines of the home theater, and with that active back channel—sounds even better. From the subtle to the overpowering, sound attacks you from all speakers, with sublime panning around the entire room. Bass is omnipresent at times, punchy and effective at others. Dialog is accurate, and the score comes across beautifully.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The first thing you'll notice is that you get forced non-anamorphic Trailers for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Ladder 49, and Mr. 3000. Elsewhere on the disc, you'll find another one for National Treasure.
Now we get to the meatier stuff, although there's not a whole lot here. These supplements are a bit frothy, and you might come away disappointed. My impression is that the extras just glide over the surface of some really interesting behind-the-scenes stories.
The 25-minute, full-frame Deconstructing The Village is broken up into subsections that you can view individually. The longest, Shooting the Village (10 minutes), contains interview snippets from many of the key cast and crew, as well as excellent footage of the construction of the town set on a parcel of land in Pennsylvania. Attention is paid to cinematographer Roger Deakins, Shyamalan's tendency to shoot long shots that rely on the strength of the actors, the film's costume design, the effects of inclement weather on the outdoor shoot, and the quality of Shyamalan's writing. Casting (2 minutes) compliments the film's "world-class" ensemble. Boot Camp (4 minutes) talks about the preparation that the actors went through to understand 19th century life. Editing and Sound (3 minutes) talks about exactly what you'd think it does, and same with Scoring The Village (3 minutes). Those We Don't Speak Of (3 minutes) focuses on the various designs of the film's creatures. All this coverage is quite fleeting, and I found myself wishing that more attention had been paid to the different segments. This thing should have been an hour long.
You get 11 minutes worth of Deleted Scenes, with forewords and afterwords by Shyamalan for each one. There are four scenes—the 2-minute The Drill, the 4-minute August's Story, the 3-minute Pre-Wedding, and the 2-minute Pipes.
The 5-minute Bryce's Diary is apparently actual snippets of Howard's diary about her experience on the film. She reads the short portions, and we get slow-motion behind-the-scenes footage. Twice, she gushes, "I can't believe this is my life!" A little precious, but I love her.
As per usual on Shyamalan's DVDs, we get another M. Night's Home Movie, this one a 3-minute effort preceded by a Shyamalan introduction. It's a mostly out-of-focus Raiders of the Lost Ark parody. It's embarrassing in a fun way, but I'm glad Shyamalan has the audacity to includes these things on the DVDs. They're good for a laugh.
The DVD wraps up with a Production Photo Gallery of 38 behind-the-scenes shots and moody shots of the set.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
The Village is at times creepy and effective, but you can too readily see Shyamalan's ego-blasted smirk peeking through the proceedings. I felt overly manipulated watching this film—which is too bad, because it's got so much going for it. Watch Howard's star rise from here. The DVD offers adequate image and intense, effective sound. Supplements are merely okay. If you're a Shyamalan collector, you're bound to pick this up, but Buena Vista could have done better with the DVD presentation.