Everybody always talks about M Night Shyamalan's surprise endings. But the shocker here is the opening. What on earth is this hip, contemporary director doing making a period film? Set among some fearsome woods, The Village is entirely cut off from the rest of the world - which makes it hard to say exactly what period we're supposed to be in. But there's no electricity, no plumbing except the well, and the Villagers wear felt capes and tunics. It's somewhere between The Crucible and Little Red Riding Hood.
The Village people are a rum lot. They include Joaquin Phoenix as Lucias, whose mother, Sigourney Weaver, is one of the council of elders, and who seems to have a thing for the leader, Edward, played with characteristic solemnity by William Hurt. (Anyone remember The Janitor, 20 years ago now?) Quasi-incestuously, Lucias fancies Edward's blind daughter, Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard, whose real-life dad is director Ron Howard). His main rival is Adrien Brody's Noah, and he's nutty as a fruit bat, so things are looking good for Lucias.
The first half of The Village is intriguing, to put it mildly. As The Sixth Sense showed and Signs confirmed, Shyamalan is a master at building atmosphere, and here he lays it on with the proverbial trowel. When we learn what manner of beasts is keeping the community fenced in, the movie is only a whisper away from camp. But there's a kind of delirious riskyness to the conceit which is quite invigorating - you can feel how desperately Shyamalan wants to believe in monsters, which helps to go along with it.
The love story is also well observed, and touchingly played by Howard and Phoenix. And there's a brilliantly directed twist which I wouldn't dream of giving away. But mind, this is all in the first half of the movie.
Critics were pretty sniffy about The Village when it came out in cinemas. Although I think the critics were harsh, and there are some pretty scary sequences, I would have to agree that the second half is a bit of a let down, especially the ending. For a start, it's a twist you can guess, which is disappointing. And you've probably seen it before, which is disastrous. It's also, I think, the wrong ending. Shyamalan clearly means the film to be taken as an allegory for isolationist Fortress America.
For most of the movie his sympathies are clearly with the young people who kick against that deeply conservative thinking, and who bravely risk everything to confront superstition and lies. Without giving anything away, I believe the ending betrays those characters' courage and identifies the wrong villain. It's a failure of nerve on Shyamalan's part, and that may be what really cost him at the box office.
The DVD, which includes a reasonably interesting 'making of' documentary, doesn't address any of these issues, which is a shame. The Village is a better movie than it was given credit for. But I had hoped there might have been an alternate ending hidden away somewhere in those deleted scenes.