M. Night Shyamalan associated with? The twist ending. The BIG twist ending. From The Sixth Sense to Signs, Unbreakable to The Happening, Shyamalan has made a career out of that pull the rug out from under you feeling. I've seen most of them, and now I can check off 2004's The Village, another Shyamalan vehicle with a twist in the end.
In a small, isolated village in the Pennsylvania countryside in the late 1890s, life goes on pretty much as normal on a day-to-day basis. Well....pretty much. The close-knit community is isolated from the rest of the world, all the townspeople unable to leave a perimeter surrounding the village. Why? The town has a delicate truce with something living in the woods, creatures dubbed "Those We Don't Speak Of." One of the townspeople, Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix), a young man, is sure the creatures will let them pass if approached in non-aggressive fashion. He is close to Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), a young woman who lost her vision as a child, who also believes Lucius' plan. It is a pleasant if limited life, but Lucius wants to explore, to question. Can he convince the village elders to give him the chance? Will Those We Don't Speak Of stop him before he can do anything?
Here we sit. Though his films have struggled some at the box office and especially critically, Shyamalan is a talented director. He is. He has few rivals when it comes to building tension, to setting the mood, creating that unbearable sense of doom looming just over the horizon. What's coming next? What's gonna happen?!? Sometimes though, it feels like the films get so wrapped up in building up to the twist that the movie suffers. The focus becomes all about that twist. 'Village' suffers from that issue to a point. At different points, there is A TON of potential that seems to be building to something really crazy, interesting and entertaining. The gloomy setting -- it's seemingly always cloudy -- sets the mood in ideal fashion, and composer James Newton Howard picked up an Oscar nomination for his haunting, eerily beautiful score. So where does it go....
Semi-SPOILERS for this paragraph. I won't give anything specific away, but I've got to at least address it. There's actually two different reveals, one revealed about the hour-mark of the 109-minute movie, the other popping up about the 90-minute checkpoint. They're not bad. The big twist doesn't feel so forced, so out of left field that you question why the script (Shyamalan doing the honors) even went there. It's original. It's unique. It's just not necessarily....well, good. There are some hints dropped along the way, but it did catch me by surprise. If there is a goof, it's in the reveal of the first twist. It comes along too early, taking away from a later scene that would have been dripping with tension and terror if we didn't know what we do (if that makes sense). The biggest issue is that the ending feels rushed without letting things breathe a little bit. Too bad because as far as twists go, this one could have been a doozy of a gem.
Now with the mood, the tension, the mystery, the cast and characters do a good job with a story/script where the focus isn't specifically on them. They're a means to an end. Phoenix does a good job as the moody, questioning Lucius (quite a stretch, huh?) while Howard especially shines as Ivy, the blind young woman who is a favorite in the village because of her generally pleasant outlook on everything. As for the town elders, look for William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson and Cherry Jones. For some of the other townspeople, keep an eye out for Judy Greer, Michael Pitt, Jesse Eisenberg, and Adrien Brody as Noah, the mentally challenged adult who never grew up. Some very good actors committing to generally unwritten parts and doing their best to bring it to life.
There's something missing in general here. The build-up is there, that tension and fear of the unknown palpable through much of the first hour. From there on in though, the story loses momentum with a focus on the village and the people. I wanted to like it more. I wish I had liked it more, but it's not bad, just not as good as it could have been unfortunately. A disappointing semi-misfire.
The Village (2004): ** 1/2 /****