Writer/director Night Shyamalan is a master of suspense. Time and again, he has tied his audiences in psychological knots through his extremely skilled use of camera angles, sound, his actors’ natural talents, and the precision timing of every revelation. The apex of this art was Shyamalan’s work in Signs, in which our fear was ratcheted up scene after scene because of what we didn’t see.
That same skill for suspense is at work in The Village, Shyamalan’s follow-up to Signs. He takes it even further in The Village, building a complex story of a utopian community in which everyone has secrets. At one point, he even brings his audience to the point of gut-clenching fear at a time in the story where there is absolutely nothing to fear. By contrast, the real threat comes in such an ordinary guise that it is almost past before we realize it has come.
The theme of things not being what they seem is not new to Shyamalan, of course. His invisible baits-and-switches make the resolution of the mystery satisfying when it comes, even if one had already suspected how it would turn out. These cinematic trademarks make Shyamalan’s movies consistently entertaining.
What stands out about this film, however, is not the mystery and suspense. The most significant piece of this story revolves around the romance between Ivy Walker, the blind daughter of the community’s founder, and Lucius Hunt, quiet but wise son of a village elder. Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard) is smart and outgoing, a risk-taker who takes care of everyone rather than allow herself to be taken care of. She is active, forthright, and tomboyish, asserting her independence before anyone can even consider that her handicap might make her dependent. Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix, in a role written for him by Shyamalan) is strong and silent, listens and watches far more than he talks, and yearns to leave the enclosed village and go to “the towns.” He cares for others, too, in his quiet way; his desire to leave is not out of restlessness, but from his conviction that medicines can be brought from the towns that will help his isolated community.
These two find their way to each other, despite her pushing, despite his reticence. The love they forge is deeper than the personality differences that cause them conflict from time to time. This relationship is established in some telling conversations, but most chiefly in three scenes where each shows unquestioned and remarkable trust in the other. The romance comes to a resolution in a scene of quiet passion in which there is only muted dialogue and a close up shot of both lovers’ faces. It is a compelling and intense relationship, and the place where most of the audience’s emotional investment is deeply committed. Their coming together is intense and profound.
Unfortunately, it happens two-thirds through the movie. In a move which feels uncharacteristically clumsy, Shyamalan then takes the story in a new direction. Rather than continue with a story about “them,” Ivy and Lucius, Shyamalan turns it into a story about “her,” Ivy alone. Lucius is effectively removed from the story line, which is a pity, because this was one of Phoenix’s deepest performances. Ivy must do what she must do from that point on. Howard carries Ivy well, and though she’s new to films, she can handle the emotional demands of the film’s last third.
Still, she is alone in the final quest, and that fact is not satisfying. Ivy and Lucius could have undertaken this last task together so that we could watch them learn to work together, to depend on each other, to share leadership. Shyamalan chose the easy way to the heart of the mystery, but the mystery wasn’t at the heart of the movie.