Say Something Nice: THE VILLAGE (2004)
Movie fans know all too well that you have to wade through a lot of disappointment to find the good stuff. And it’s not always some binary pile-sorting of "good movies" and "bad movies"; sometimes there’s quality material smack in the middle of the muck. Say Something Nice is dedicated to those gems - memorable, standout, even great moments from movies that...well, aren’t.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury:
There can be no doubt that The Village was, and remains, one of the least successful thrillers of M. Night Shyamalan's career. Generally regarded as the film where things started going terribly wrong for the filmmaker (who, it must be said, would later get his groove back with the one-two punch of The Visit and Split, in 2015 and 2017, respectively), the defense is prepared to concede that The Village is a frustrating film built upon a shaky foundation. That it squanders a largely talented cast. That it pales in comparison to Shyamalan's previous AAA titles (Unbreakable, The Sixth Sense, and Signs).
What the defense is not prepared to accept is the idea that The Village is wholly without merit. Let me now draw your attention to Exhibit A:
This is The Village's first "attack" sequence. By now we have learned that Covington, the bleak backwater where most of Shyamalan's film takes place, is under constant threat by some terrifying outside force. The town elders forbid anyone from leaving the village proper; there are borders (and the occasional watchtower) set up all along its perimeter. We don't know what's out there, exactly, but we know it ain't good.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I submit to you that (regardless how you feel about the rest of The Village, and lord knows you have strong opinions about it) the sequence above is unquestionably effective. Masterful, even.
Heretofore, Shyamalan had imbued the proceedings with a palpable sense of dread, but it's in this scene that the tension finally boils over, and it plays like absolute gangbusters. It begins with Michael Pitt's Finton Coin in one of the town's watchtowers. He hears a noise, opens up the trap door at his feet, and sees something glide by. We don't know what it is - we see it only for a moment - but we understand implicitly that this is one of the things the townspeople Don't Speak Of.
By showing us the creature for only a fraction of a second, Shyamalan immediately lulls us into believing we will spend the next two hours or so playing a game of peek-a-boo: maybe we'll catch a glimpse of the creature(s) here and there, but - in classic, aping-Spielberg fashion - the audience probably assumes the full reveal (if there even is one) won't arrive until much later in the film.
Having established that: panic. The watchtowers start clanging their warning bells, the townspeople fly into a frenzy, all hell breaks loose. Something is on the way. Families flee to their homes and pack themselves into hiding spaces underneath the floorboards. Parents pick up their children and dive for cover. We still don't know what the threat is, but the fact that everyone's treating it like an oncoming nuclear blast tells us we need to take it very, very seriously.
The first time I saw The Village, I walked in believing that the threat was imaginary. I was certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the film's big reveal would be that there were no "Those We Don't Speak Of", that it was all an elaborate ruse being perpetrated by the town elders. As you know, I wasn't completely off-base in this prediction. But because I was so sure no creatures actually existed in The Village, I was also totally unprepared for this shot:
This is our first good look at The Village's creature, and it hits like an uppercut if you happened to believe there were no creatures in this movie. The creature itself is out of focus, but there's enough detail there for the audience to be freaked out: huge claws! A spindly back! Is that a beak? And what the hell is with that red robe? Say what you will about everything that happens after this moment, but do not try and tell this court that this gag isn't executed brilliantly.
Shyamalan builds on it, too: not only are we now under the impression that holy shit there really are creatures in this movie, but now we know there's at least one of them skulking around Covington. And now look! Bryce Dallas Howard's Ivy (who we have learned is blind) is now just standing out on her front porch, practically begging to be eaten by the damn thing!
We watch the creature crawl through the shadows towards her outstretched hand, and just when we think Ivy's about to get pounced on...
That's right: it's motherfucking Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) to the rescue! Ya boi appears out of nowhere, grabs Ivy by the hand, yanks her inside, and the sequence suddenly goes into slow-motion: with violins singing beautifully on the soundtrack, Lucius slams the door to the Walker residence, drags Ivy into the basement crawl space, and hunkers down with the rest of the family to ride out whatever the hell is going on outside.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, rewatch this scene. See how it builds, moment-to-moment. Consider how impactful that first full shot of the creature is (you'll need to set aside everything else you learned about this "creature" later in the film, but try and cast your mind all the way back to the first time you saw this film). Admit to yourself that this sequence is a goddamn powerhouse, full of economical storytelling, gorgeously-composed shots and at least one pants-soilingly scary reveal. Even if you hate the rest of The Village, you gotta admit this works.
The defense - which, to be clear, is only here to speak on behalf of this one sequence and no others - rests.