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THE VILLAGE (PG-13) (2004)

Touchstone Pictures

Official Site

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Producers: Samuel M. Mercer, Scott Rudin, M. Night Shyamalan

Written by: M. Night Shyamalan

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Bryce Dallas Howard, Adrien Brody, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson


M. Night Shyamalan has officially raised the bar: The Village contains not one twist, but two. As you can clearly see, Shyamalan has improved exponentially as a storyteller and as a filmmaker since Signs, and has evolved to the point of being able to include double the suspense, double the thrills, and double the twists!

The end. Thanks for reading. Enjoy the movie.

Oh, wait, you’re still reading? What more could you possibly want to know? The Village has twists, with an “s”! Now get going, buster, no one’s actually interested in the content of Shyamalan’s films as long as there’s a shocking climax. No, don’t give me that, you’re just like everyone else. You aren’t really interested in things like story, structure, and quality—and no, I won’t divulge the super-secret ending, so don’t even ask. And again, you’re still here. What’s that you say? You fully want to know what you’re getting yourself into before blowing $10 on a movie that you already know is built around a “clever” spin? You want to know my honest opinion? You want to know what I truly thought about The Village? Okay, I’ll tell you, so stop pointing that thing at me. First, however, I must share my feelings about M. Night Shyamalan’s past work so you understand where I’m coming from.

Along with the rest of the civilized world, I was impressed by The Sixth Sense. Because of its initial popularity I resisted it, but finally broke down one November afternoon, and I’ll be damned if my little world wasn’t thrown for a loop when it was revealed that Bruce Willis had been dead all along. I ate crow on that day, and gave credit where credit was due. I was convinced that I had witnessed the emergence of a major American talent, and I waited eagerly for his next effort. Unbreakable was a polarizing and risky film, heartfelt at times (the divorce subplot), blatantly megalomaniacal at others (the nigh-on 20-minute comic book rotation shot), but unique in its approach to superheroes. Despite the forced nature of its ending and how wearing its innumerable and immense one-shot scenes are on the viewer, it is earnest in its own way, which I respect. Signs was also unique in that it shoved an alien invasion into its background and demanded that the viewer experience it through the eyes of a small, troubled family. And I respected that, as well. My problems with the film, again, lay with its ending. I deign to give it some leeway, however, because, although the ending is improbable, the entire film is built around faith, and faith does work in improbable ways. I am by no means an M. Night Shyamalan detractor.

And so, we arrive at The Village. You want the truth straight up, and this is it: The Village is abysmal. It is a complacent example of ego over sincerity from a director who is now too aware of his own success and the expectations of his audiences.

Covington, Pennsylvania is an idyllic and secluded late 19th-century village. Existing in a valley which is surrounded by woods on all sides, its simple, peaceful residents are sequestered from the baleful influences of large towns. Life in Covington would indeed be perfect were the woods surrounding the town not home to a race of malicious, arboreal entities. The village elders, however, have made peace with the creatures, and sate them with offerings of raw meat, and the promise that none from the village will trespass into their woodland habitat. And although life in Covington is vigilant and sometimes fearful, its residents endure, survive, and even find happiness. Village roll call: Lucius (Phoenix) is reserved and stoic, yet possesses a natural courage that the other denizens do not; Ivy (Howard) is blind, tomboyish, and audacious, and harbors deep-rooted feelings for Lucius; Alice (Weaver), Edward (Hurt), and August (Gleeson) are the principal village elders who delegate all responsibilities and make all decisions; Noah (Brody) is the nappy-haired town simpleton whose duties include drooling, obnoxiously striking other boys with a stick, and fawning hopelessly over Ivy. Though the plot contains little motive or propulsion, these events transpire in The Village, and are presented as “story.” As Lucius and Ivy’s relationship really begins to heat up (by 19th-century standards, which means they kiss once, mostly off-camera), the village is mysteriously beset by increasingly aggressive actions from the creatures, including the dispersal of livestock carcasses across Covington, and the appearance of red (the “bad” color) warning marks upon residents’ doors. A sudden incident finds Lucius bedridden, while Ivy pleads with the elders to allow her to venture through the woods, where the creatures dwell, and procure life-saving medicines from the accursed towns. Noah continues to drool. Later, secrets are revealed and twists occur; unfortunately, the secrets are stupid and the twists are really, really stupid.

In case the serpentine structure of The Village wasn’t enough to alert you that this is an M. Night Shyamalan picture, he altruistically provides a bevy of secondary Shyamalan-isms just so, you know, you know. Pace glacial enough to fossilize six generations of your family, including those not yet born? Check. Excessively long takes and camera moves so self-aggrandizing that would make Hitler’s preserved brain blush? Check. Jarring M. Night Shyamalan speaking cameo which will make every member of the audience lean to their buddy/partner and simultaneously bark “That’s M. Night Shyamalan!”? Check. The Village’s greatest fault—apart from the first twist, which obliterates all interest one might have in the story, and the second twist, which is so improbable that you will not be able to believe that William Hurt is delivering his lines with any degree of seriousness, and which will leave you laughing so hard that unforetold reservoirs of urine will involuntarily spout forth from your urethra (neither of which I am at liberty to divulge because I am an unbeliever of spoilers in reviews)—is how formulaic, lazy, and shamelessly manipulative it all feels. It is frighteningly easy (though not very pleasurable) to imagine Shyamalan naked, wearing a gold “$” medallion, sprawled out atop a mound of moist one-hundred-dollar bills, brainstorming about his newest project, repeating the word “twist, twist, twist” over and over, for inspiration. He has matured little as a filmmaker since The Sixth Sense (I would even argue that he had devolved over time, that he has become far less sincere), and seems content to languish in the familiar territory of giving the audience exactly what they expect, ironically, by shoveling hackneyed surprise after surprise down their gullets.

To support my claim that The Village was born from the seed of financial gain and an egg of creative indolence, it is, by far, Shyamalan’s least-human work, devoid of most character development and small moments, which are two of the director’s greatest strengths. It contains nothing nearly as deep as The Sixth Sense’s single-mother struggles, or the lack of faith eating away at Signs’s ex-preacher, or even the somewhat underdeveloped unhappy marriage subplot in Unbreakable. Here we are left to pick carrion from an unremarkable love story between the two protagonists, and unsuccessfully suck the marrow from the bone-dry village elders who internally battle with “coincidentally” tragic pasts. None of the characters within the forested confines of Covington contain any depth, and for a film as deliberately paced as this, precious little empathy is felt for even poor blind Ivy as she warily snaps through the branches and brambles of woods supposedly rife with carnivorous beasts. It could be that Shyamalan is unable to write life into a larger cast of characters as opposed to a single family gathered beneath a single roof. It could be that he didn’t supply as much effort into the crafting of his characters and his script (don’t even get me started on the awkward, Victorian-lite dialogue) as he should have. It is frustrating and sad to watch actors of such repute as Phoenix, Hurt, Weaver, Gleeson, and Brody fail to bring this underwritten material to life. They are wasted here. (And cinematographer Roger Deakins could have lent his talents to a different production.) Howard, whose first film this is, is the “standout.” Although she cannot manage to mold Ivy into a memorable character, she portrays blindness convincingly and delivers her lines with enthusiasm in a project nearly devoid of spirit.

I hope that The Village is a failure. I hope that it shakes M. Night Shyamalan from the delusions of grandeur (Could he want to be Hitchcock any more?) which have overtaken his desire to make even a competent picture. Shyamalan enjoys the unearned creative freedom of a Kubrick or a Spielberg while less-successful but more daring filmmakers such as Darren Aronofsky, Alexander Payne, and even the legendary Terry Gilliam must wage wars to get their films made. I’m not implying that Shyamalan has no talent, because he is clearly an above-average filmmaker, but he is all formula and no experimentation. He has built a prison around him which he seems to think is a palace. I hope that The Village is a failure so that he is forced to branch out, make a film that doesn’t rely on a twist, direct someone else’s script, perhaps. As it stands, Shyamalan is the most tedious auteur in modern cinema, and his latest effort is simply pitiable.

—Nathan Baran

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