(Welcome to The Unpopular Opinion, a series where a writer goes to the defense of a much-maligned film or TV show, or sets their sights on something seemingly beloved by all. In this edition: a defense of M. Night Shyamalan unjustly maligned The Village.)

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

M. Night Shyamalan’s career has been bumpy. He found monumental success with his 1999 ghost story The Sixth Sense, and continued to garner acclaim and stellar box office returns with its two follow-ups, Unbreakable and Signs. Yet after Signs, a rift began to form between Shyamalan’s work and how the public perceived it. Eventually, the filmmaker fell almost completely out of favor, only managing to climb back on top slowly with recent films The Visit and Split. Nothing can quite capture the meteoric rise of Shyamalan’s early career, though.

While Lady in the Water might have been the film that torpedoed the last remaining shreds of good will towards Shyamalan’s work, it was 2004’s The Village (which came out 13 years ago yesterday) that started the dissent. More often than not, when people want to hold up examples of Shyamalan’s lesser work, they tend to lump The Village in with misfires like The Happening.

This is a mistake.

The Village is one of Shyamalan’s most interesting films, and perhaps one of his best. A melancholy meditation on grief and fear, it radiates sorrow in ways his other films do not. Yes, it does have that expected Shyamalan twist – two of them, in fact. But the film is more than its twists, and deserves to be watched with fresh eyes.

village ivy hand

Those We Don’t Speak Of

Marketing is likely to blame for much of the animosity towards The Village. Like most Shyamalan films before it, it was sold as something frightening – a spooky horror movie that would terrify audiences. Before its release, co-star Sigourney Weaver was even quoted as saying the script gave her nightmares for two weeks. While there are some chilling moments in the film, it becomes abundantly clear as you watch it that The Village is not a horror movie. It’s a solemn reflection on grief, and also quite lovely in its reflections. Cinematographer Roger Deakins creates a visual style for the film inspired by the autumnal landscapes of Pennsylvania painter Andrew Wyeth, and James Newton Howard employs a mournful, haunting score enhanced by violinist Hilary Hahn. In the first few minutes of the film alone, it’s blatantly clear that The Village is not your standard horror film. Yet fear is an essential element to its DNA.

The characters in The Village are isolated, living closed off in a very secluded, very small Pennsylvania village sometime in the late 19th century. They seem mostly content in their simple lives, yet uneasiness blankets the air. They fear a group of unseens monsters, dubbed “Those We Don’t Speak Of,” who lurk in the woods that surround the village. The villagers and the monsters have a truce – you stay out of our place, we’ll stay out of yours.

The community of elders – led by William Hurt’s Edward Walker – strives to keep harmony within the village, but the younger generation is prone to wanderlust. They go to the edge of the woods and wonder what’s beyond. This younger generation is represented by the almost painfully quiet Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) and the blind, carefree Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), the daughter of Edward Walker. These characters love each other, and Shyamalan builds their awkward but sweet romance in a natural, believable manner, with the shy Lucius becoming even shyer whenever he’s around Ivy and the outgoing Ivy becoming even bolder.  Phoenix is typically strong in the part, expertly conveying his quiet character’s inner workings with body language and furtive glances, but it’s Howard, as Ivy, who steals the show. The actress is phenomenal here, bringing to life a brave, remarkable young woman who seems fully realized. And one of the sneakier things Shyamalan does is not entirely clue the audience in to the fact that this is ultimately Ivy’s story.

The early scenes of The Village seem to suggest Lucius is the main character – it’s Lucius who wants to travel into the woods; it’s Lucius who seems most inquisitive about the secrets of the village, including the mysterious boxes all the village founders – including his mother Alice (Sigourney Weaver) – have stashed away in their homes. Mysterious things start happening around the village: animals are found skinned, and Those We Don’t Speak Of suddenly seem to be breaking the truce and venturing into the town more often than not. In a spellbinding scene, the monsters come storming in one night, sending everyone into a panic. One by one, villagers hide in their basements, yet Ivy waits at her door, knowing that Lucius will come for her. And he does, right as one of the monsters – blurry and in the distance – is about to close in. Lucius is being set up to be the strong, silent hero: Ivy’s protector.

And then he gets stabbed and spends the rest of the movie in a coma. Noah (Adrien Brody), an intellectually disabled member of the community who has a crush on Ivy, brutally stabs Lucius when he learns that he and Ivy are engaged. Lucius is near death, and there’s nothing the village doctor can do for him. The only hope Lucius has relies on medicines from the towns beyond the woods – towns the villagers have shunned for their violent ways.

After conferring with the town leaders, Edward agrees to send Ivy beyond the woods, into the towns to get medicine that will save Lucius. This in effect thrusts Ivy into the heroic role: after the film has set her up to seem like a helpless damsel in distress, she turns around and becomes the bravest, most heroic character in the film. Yet here is where some audiences began to turn on Shyamalan’s film, because the fabled Shyamalan twist is about to present itself. And it’s a doozy.

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