In this era of endless infotainment shows, internet buzz and trailers that give away every beat, it’s refreshing to have a guy like M. Night Shyamalan who manages to keep his work mysterious until you’re sitting in the theater watching it. The marketing for his films is simply brilliant, showing you just enough to get you intrigued, but not actually revealing anything. Before I saw “The Village”, all I knew about it is that there are these people in this, well, village, and that they have this truce with “something” that lives in the woods. I had no clue how or why, let alone what would result out of any of it or whatever “surprise ending” Shyamalan might come up with this time.

“The Village” kept surprising me throughout, not only with plot twists but with the quality of the writing and the precision of the direction. One of the great things about Shyamalan’s genre films is that as effective as the thrills and scares can be, they’re actually secondary to the actors’ performances and the story’s underlying themes. Here we have what looks like a period monster flick, but it really is a pointed commentary on the world we live in, its everyday monstrosities and the way we relate to them.

The people of Covington believe that if they stay clear of the woods they’ll be safe from Those We Don’t Speak Of, but early into the film they realize that the truce between the two sides might be coming to an end. It seems that even if you set yourself up far from the wicked towns, even if you have the best intentions, there’s no escaping the horror. Can you really maintain innocence through fear? Should you even want to?

Shyamalan once again proves to be a master craftsman, delivering a stylish and atmospheric film with some help from the brilliant cinematography of Roger Deakins and an almost Philip Glass-like score by James Newton Howard. The village is carefully established as a peaceful place where life is agreeable, while the woods are made to feel truly ominous. Against that backdrop we have a great ensemble cast featuring such seasoned pros as William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver and Brendan Gleeson, but the central performances are those of the younger Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody and Bryce Dallas Howard.

One of the film’s biggest surprises might be that it’s more of a love story than a thriller. Phoenix’ strong silent type and Howard’s blind girl make a truly affecting couple and the film’s best scenes revolve around them. Their first big connection is unforgettable, and later they each get a great scene where they declare their feelings. As for Brody, his simple-minded character acts as comic relief most of the time but he eventually goes into dark places and… You’ll see! Shyamalan also makes another Hitchcockian cameo, but it’s really subtle – blink and you’ll miss it.

And then there’s the big twist, which is sure to divide, if not downright piss off a lot of people. Personally, I loved it. I saw some of it coming, but the full extent of it totally wowed me. In any case, the big reveal is not just an empty shock, it’s thoughtful and thought-provoking. “The Village” is a complex, challenging film, one that I will see again and discuss in more detail soon enough…


Updated (08/06/04):
BACK TO THE VILLAGE: Nothing but spoilers!

Another Friday, another viewing of Shyamalan’s latest. This second watch confirmed my initial feelings and offered further insights into the film’s secrets. In this next section, I will discuss in detail the love story, Noah’s role, the questionable way the elders try to protect innocence through fear, the final twist and the masterful filmmaking in general.

“You used to hold my arm, but then you stopped. Even when I tripped and almost fell (I was faking of course), you didn’t hold my arm…”

Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) loves Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) and he loves her in return, but for some reason he’s holding himself back. Is it because she’s blind? Is he scared of his feelings? “Sometimes we don’t do things we want to do so others won’t know we want to do them…” Then comes the night when the village is (seemingly) attacked by Those We Don’t Speak Of. Everyone lock themselves into their homes, but Ivy stays in her doorway, holding out her hand and waiting for Lucius to grab it. “He’ll come back to make sure we’re safe.” When he finally does, it’s an overwhelming moment for them and for us. We can feel how important this is for her, how she’s been waiting for years for Lucius to hold her again. ”The only time I feel fear as others do is when I think of you in harm.”

Noah (Adrien Brody) loves Ivy too, in his own simple-minded way. He may not be a smart man, but he knows what love is, sort of. What he doesn’t really know is how to deal with heartache and when he learns that Ivy loves Lucius, he’s filled with jealousy and anger. We didn’t think he could harm a fly, he always seemed so innocent and happy… But we later realize that the reason he was always laughing while everyone was scared of the creatures is because he knew it was all a farce and delighted in it. He’s laughing at the others (and at us in the audience!) for being fooled.

It’s never made clear in the movie, but I also think he’s the one who was skinning animals and leaving them around the village – his way of taking part in the farce and scaring people. We know he carried a knife, as Lucius painfully finds out in another of the film’s great scenes. I love how it’s played almost silent, with the camera close to the faces so we don’t realize what’s happened until it’s too late. I love the way Shyamalan uses sound and silence in general, and the way he carefully chooses what to show and what not to show is great as well.

We don’t see much of the creatures through the film, which makes sense as we find out that they don’t actually exist. They’re only a tool the elders use to keep the villagers scared, innocent, obedient… It’s not unlike the Bush administration with its color-chart of terror risk, which goes up and down seemingly randomly. Nothing like making people believe that “creatures” are gonna attack to make them docile.

Edward Walker (William Hurt) was a history teacher when he lived in the towns, which turn out to be not only “wicked places where wicked people live” but modern, 21st century cities. The Village is kind of an academic experiment, a way Walker and other people who lost relatives to crime found of creating a safe place for their children to grow up in. Walker’s murdered father was a millionaire who owned a large wildlife preserve, the perfect place to turn back the clock and return to a more innocent time. But when August Nicholson (Brendan Gleeson) loses a young son to sickness, he becomes aware that while “you may run from sorrow as we have, sorrow will find you.”

The elders wanted to protect their kids by keeping them away from the modern world but, being away from modern medicine as well, Nicholson’s son lost his life all the same. In view of this, Lucius decides that he must go to the towns and gather medicines so this won’t happen again. He believes that the creatures can sense fear and that if he’s not afraid, he’ll be able to safely cross the woods. He doesn’t know how right he is! Indeed, the only thing in the woods to be afraid of is fear itself. There are no creatures keeping the people from leaving the village, the idea of them does it on its own.

“Forgive us our silly lies, they were not meant to harm.” But does the end justify the means? Out of their pain, the elders have become almost like a cult, obsessed with “protecting innocence” and so determined to keep their children safe from the wicked ways of the world that they’re willing to scare them needlessly. But you can’t escape human nature, even if you rewind to the 19th century, before today’s corrupted values, raging capitalism and violence on TV. Violence is a part of life, whether we want it to be or not.

Ivy eventually learns the truth, but it’s less a privilege than a burden. She’s expected to keep her new knowledge for herself, to take part in the continued existence of the village as they know it. It’s confusing, so much that when she goes into the woods, even though she now knows that the creatures aren’t real, she’s terrified nonetheless. Of course, she doesn’t know that Noah has found one of the monster suits and is stalking her, probably not with evil intentions but as a game, like when they played hide-and-seek… Unknowingly, Noah makes the stories real, sacrificing himself for the “greater good”. So does Ivy, in a way, but she’s doing it consciously, for love. “I’m back.”