Movie Musings: Thoughts on M Night Shyamalan’s The Village
During the release of Signs in 2002, there was a cover story in Newsweek, showing M Night Shyamalan, with the headline: The Next Spielberg. 2 years later, that headline would probably pop up in the minds of several, when the director’s film The Village was released…and many began to doubt the filmmaker’s techniques and ideas.
The director’s fourth major film The Village (originally titled The Woods, until it was found another film already had that as its working title), was released in late July of 2004. Like the previous films of his, The Village would rely on a very cryptic marketing campaign. We were told of a set of rules, posters that showed people wearing yellow clothing, and large red swoops of paint, splayed across wooden doors.
I still recall that upon its release, Roger Ebert gave the film 1 star, calling it “a colossal miscalculation, a movie based on a premise that cannot support it, a premise so transparent it would be laughable were the movie not so deadly solemn.” Many others weren’t kind to The Village either, with even the 4th entry in the Scary Movie film series, taking some cheap shots at its plot and setting.
Looking back at the film 10 years after its release, I had some thoughts of my own that I wanted to get out in this blog posting. I will admit it’s not as concrete, but then again, maybe its thoughts of the film itself that has caused me to ramble through this post.
*Note: This posting does get into discussing some of the inner workings of the film. If you have not seen the film, or wish to not be spoiled on certain areas of the film, it is best to turn away.*
A statement on a cowed society?
In the wake of September 11th, there were many who felt that those in higher office were using the fear of unknown terrorist threats, to take hold of the public’s mind. The idea being that if people feared something enough, they could just give over their basic freedoms without question, for the sake of protection.
Some even talked about this in regards to The Village. The community’s elders are a group who have suffered horrible human loss in the modern world. Many years ago, they had all met at a grief counseling, struggling to move on. A solution was posed by Edward Walker (William Hurt), a man whose wealthy father had been murdered. A history professor, Walker suggested the idea of building a confined community within a nature preserve owned by his Father’s company.
To keep the habitat simple, it would take on the appearance of a 19th century village, and be devoid of many modern luxuries. The hope was that the community would be able to keep its sense of innocence, something that the modern world had robbed many of its members of.
This idea captured the minds of several, and soon, small groups of families ventured into the preserve, vowing never to go back to “The Towns,” feeling their insulation within would prevent further grief and heartbreak.
They even perpetuated a lie that within the nearby woods, lurked dangerous creatures, that will not allow anyone through to “the towns.” And even if one were to get to the towns, they would find a place of greedy, horrible, wicked people that would do you just as much harm. The lie is deeply ingrained into the minds of the youth, and almost none want to leave the safety of the village.
The only major thoughts of leaving, are those brought up by a young man named Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix), who has seen disease and death come down on numerous people in the village. Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) lost her sight due to inadequate medicines, and Noah Percy (Adrian Brody) has some mental deficiencies that seem to lead to violent tendencies. Though even with his intentions being for good, Lucius’ request to leave is denied. Even when he attempts to venture a ways into the nearby woods, the village is set upon by the hooded creatures, and markings are left on the doors. Fearing further retribution, Lucius then gives up his attempts, proving how well the Elders’ fear tactics have worked.
A marketing campaign based on lies?
While the threat of possibly harmful extra-terrestrials seemed to be hinted at in the trailers for Signs, the marketing materials put out by Touchstone Pictures for The Village, almost made many assume that the director had moved into PG-13 level slasher territory with his film.
The previews showed quick cuts of creatures rushing and roaring around the village and the woods. Numerous materials told of three rules to follow, and one tagline even stated, The Truce Has Been Broken.
However, in my time working at a movie theater, I sat in on several crowds, and could definitely sense a vibe from those in the room, that they were expecting a by-the-numbers horror film. In that sense, that this broken truce would send the villagers fleeing into the woods in terror, where they would be picked off one-by-one, by these creatures.
Then again, could this have also been some sort of internal marketing “twist,” that the marketing campaign was, like many of the things in the film…a lie?
One of things the film won once award season came about, was the Fangoria Chainsaw Awards‘ “Worst Film” award, beating out nominees such as Van Helsing, Open Water, and Alien Versus Predator. I always assumed this win was some form of revenge against the film, for promising to be a horror film, and then turning out to be something else entirely…and if there’s one thing most horror film fans don’t like, it’s being promised horror, and getting a period drama.
Beautiful Vistas of a Time Gone Past.
If one looks at The Village as a period piece, then the cinematography is something that will definitely stick in people’s minds. Unlike his previous features, Shyamalan this time relied on a new cinematographer: Roger Deakins. Deakins’ style of filming environments is rather iconic, as he can really bring audiences into all sorts of environments. Deakins has been a regular of Joel and Ethan Coens’ films, and one can’t help but wonder if these may have caused Shyamalan to call upon him to work on The Village.
There also is inspiration in the works of Andrew Wyeth. Wyeth’s landscapes and compositions seem to be the inspiration for many scenes in the film, both inside and out. In fact, one of the structures in the village is actually based on the Wyeth painting, titled Open Shed (as seen in the upper left image). This would serve as the inspiration for the home where Lucius Hunt and his mother live (the structure in the lower-left image).
Almost half a year later, I think many were surprised when The Village began showing up in several awards campaigns, not just for Bryce Dallas Howard’s turn as Ivy Walker, but for James Newton Howard’s score.
Howard is not near the top of my favorite composers, but his music can often convey the mood and tone of a piece wonderfully. Much of the work he does for The Village reminded me of his work on 1999’s Snow Falling on Cedars. In that film, his music gives a tonal atmosphere that seems to permeate the environment, making it almost a character itself.
He does the same with The Village, with the forlorn sound of the piano and stringed instruments hinting almost at a touch of sadness through the small village of Covington.Front-and-center through most of the pieces is Hilary Hahn’s violin, which to me, just seems to capture a feeling of fall time. It’s often when the weather turns colder in the month of October, that the soundtrack becomes one that I listen to most often.
“Those We Don’t Speak Of”
In the Harry Potter series, many of those in the Wizarding World first spoke of Lord Voldemort, with the title “He who must not be named.” A similar theme would be somewhat employed for the creatures said to be lurking in the woods surrounding the village.
These menacing creatures were a major part of the marketing campaign, and I remember first-viewing audiences murmuring when they saw the red-cloaked figures flexing their long spindly ‘claws.’
Originally, the concept for these creatures was something more hulking and bear-like, with a skull-like head. Early conceptual miniatures made Shyamalan think this was the way to go, but once the final concept was rendered in full-size, he saw that the concept was rather absurd:
Yeah, it looks kind of scary in this still, but the locomotion of the human legs underneath, made it look like some kids putting on their mother’s fur coat and attempting to be scary. After seeing the creature on location in testing, it was decided instead, to make the ‘creatures’ clad in red cloaks, with sticks and bones coming off them. With much of the body covered by a red cloak, it left the viewer’s imagination to make up just what was underneath.
An altered ending.
M Night’s production of The Village was not without issue. A copy of the script leaked online months before the film’s release, and word quickly reached the media outlets that a portion of the set was re-built after main unit filming, to possibly film a revamped ending. In fact, the original scripted ending was much different.
Instead of Ivy encountering a patrolman for the Walker Forest Preserve, she is almost hit by a truck driver, who then offers to help her, claiming that the supplies she needs are in a kit with him.
After giving her the supplies, the scene then cuts to the truck driver at a gas station some miles away, along the fenced-in area. When the driver inquires to the old couple running the station who lives on the other side of the large wall, they tell him noone does. It’s a private preserve, 72,000 acres-worth, only for animals (with a provision that airplanes are not allowed to fly over it). As well, they tell the driver that it’s all owned by a private estate, as the owner’s only son, disappeared 25 years before.
What’s really interesting is that once the driver leaves, he looks over and sees the old couple laughing about something, and then says what would have been the lasts lines of the film:
“Crazy f—ing white people.”
With that last line, he’d go on his way, driving off into the distance as the fence along the roadway seemed to never end.
That line could almost be seen as him saying what the audience would be thinking regarding Edward Walker, and the village contained within that Forest Preserve. It’s never specified just who the truck driver is, but one can’t help but wonder if Shyamalan meant it to be his Hitchcockian cameo for the film.
Instead of the scene described above, the final scene in the film instead shows how Ivy managed to make her way back to the Village, where she told how she had encountered a creature that had been killed: in this case, Noah in one of the creature costumes. Lost on many viewers, it seems that Shyamalan intended for this encounter to reinforce Ivy’s fear of the woods. Though her father told her the creatures were not real, having “encountered” one by herself, may now make her think the elder’s costumes were moreso part of a system to protect the village from the real creatures that do exist out there.
One interesting moment comes at the end when Noah’s parents realize their son is now dead. Mr Walker then proclaims that Noah’s “sacrifice” has actually helped them, in that his encountering Ivy has helped convince her to not attempt to wander beyond the Village’s borders again. As well, the death of Noah will help reinforce the fear among the unknowing within the Village, and help prevent further transgressions.
I was surprised in recent weeks when discussing film, several friends and I began to talk about directors, and M Night’s The Village did come up, and we all agreed that it was just not as horrible as people had said.
Maybe that is where the fault with the film lies: there is too much that M Night wants to do here, and as such, he cannot figure out how to hold all these things together. As a period piece, it felt like it could have held up well, but when the film started layering a number of extra things into the folds of the story, it really began to come apart at the seams. It’s definitely chock full of different ideas, that probably could have been saved for other films down the line.
Many hoped that the director would bounce back after The Village, but each film that Shyamalan has worked on since then, has met with ridicule by numerous people. I remember when a trailer for the film Devil was in theaters. The audience seemed genuinely intrigued, but when the words, “From the mind of M Night Shyamalan” appeared, a ripple of laughter went through the theaters. And a few years later when his film After Earth came out, Sony Pictures didn’t even display his name on any of the major advertising material. I have never seen a studio do a marketing campaign like that.
I just cannot put The Village in the realm of worst films out there, but this is largely my opinion. There have been other films I have made it through that I vowed to never again watch (like Silent Hill: Revelation, and Batman and Robin). With M Night Shyamalan’s The Village, there is just something there that is contained under several layers, that still has haunted my thoughts almost 10 years later. The period setting, James Newton Howard’s score, the haunting turn Bryce Dallas Howard gives as the innocent-yet-believing Ivy Walker. There’s more good than bad here, than many are willing to give the film credit for. However, while it is passable in my eyes, I do feel that the stigma it has garnered since its release is somewhat unwarranted. But you know how most horror film fans are: when you don’t give them the shocks and scares, you’re practically dead to them.