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The Village

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M. Night Shyamalan is one of the few working writer/directors with as much name recognition and drawing power as today’s top actors. His first major film, The Sixth Sense, was a runaway critical and commercial success, earning six Oscar nominations and grossing nearly $700 million world-wide. The deliberate pacing, understated performances, and “twist” ending made the film markedly different from what most audiences were used to seeing in a movie, and Shyamalan would carry these elements, as well as the film’s Philadelphia setting, over into his subsequent efforts. His next film, Unbreakable did for superheroes what Sense did for ghost stories, taking the fantastic and grounding it deeply into reality. And 2002’s Signs used many of the same tactics, making it markedly different from any other alien invasion film. Though neither film matched Sense at the box office, both cemented Shyamalan’s status as one of the hottest writer/directors in Hollywood. It is entirely due to this status that he was able to make a film like The Village.

With a solid cast, but no major stars, and a script and story that have been closely guarded, The Village enters theaters this week largely under the weight of its creator’s name alone. Without Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson to draw the crowd, this movie is Shyamalan’s first real test as a singular box office force.

For those concerned with such matters, this review contains significant information about elements of the film’s plot and characters, but no major “spoilers.”

The nineteenth-century village of the title is a small, isolated settlement in a valley surrounded by dense woods. Its inhabitants, we learn, have abandoned civilization and its ills to live a idyllic existence as a peaceful, self-sustaining community. They refer to the outside world as “the towns,” and speak of their lives before in sad, hushed tones. By cutting themselves off from the greed and malice of society, the villagers have built a small utopia, free of the sorrow that drove them to abandon the rest of the world.

But in the woods surrounding the village live mysterious creatures who seem to only just barely tolerate the presence of the humans in their midst. Torches line the perimeter of the valley, and a guard tower with a permanent watch sits at the border. No one is allowed into the woods, and no one dares venture there for fear of enraging the creatures, who are referred to only as “those we do not speak of.”

Bryce Dallas Howard, in her film debut, stars as Ivy Walker, a young blind woman and the daughter of one of the village elders. Howard is an amazing actress, and her performance carries the film. Her deliberate and punctuated delivery clearly originate from her stage training, yet seem perfectly natural in the not-quite-real setting. Among a cast of complex characters, Ivy is by far the most nuanced and interesting.

Involved in a sort of love triangle with Ivy are Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) and Noah Percy (Adrian Brody).

Lucius is a quiet, brave man with a deep, though unvoiced, devotion to Ivy. During a crisis early in the film, we follow him through the village as he assists all those he comes across, young and old, yet at the end of it he makes sure to return to Ivy.

Convinced the creatures will not harm him if his intent is pure, Lucius repeatedly petitions the elders for permission to travel to the towns to obtain supplies and medicine that the villagers lack. Phoenix does an excellent job with the part; he has almost no dialogue for large parts of the film, letting his eyes and body speak for him instead.

Noah is a mildly retarded man who fawns over Ivy endlessly. Though she is clearly younger than him, he treats her as an older sister and she indulges him gladly. Incapable of understanding the dangers posed by the creatures in the woods, Noah is fearless when it comes to the rules and safety of the village. The role is a departure for Brody, and he plays it well.

Rounding out the cast are William Hurt as Edward Walker, Ivy’s father, and the severely underused Sigourney Weaver as Alice Hunt, Lucius’ mother. The few scenes between Hurt and Weaver are amazing. The two actors convey their characters’ obvious attraction without ever once touching.

The pacing of the film is as methodical as Shyamalan’s previous work, and the camerawork by Roger Deakins perfectly underscores the deliberateness of the story. By virtue of the setting, the majority of the film has a natural, organic look to it, though this is punctuated by several visually arresting moments.

The twists, when they come, do not seem contrived, but neither do they attain the shock value of the surprises in The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable. While there is more than one revelatory moment through the course of the film’s two hours, the rest of the story sits well enough on its own. Thus, while the writer has given his fans what they expect, it is more than just a token effort.

In theory, The Village is everything one should expect from M. Night Shyamalan’s fourth film. There are more than a few nail-bitingly tense scenes, solid performances from all the actors, and a well-earned “surprise” ending.

Though the movie does not have the logical fallacies that plagued Signs, it does suffer from some of the same problems with the third act. Shyamalan does a superb job of detailing the central mysteries of the film, dropping numerous clues left and right over the first two-thirds of the movie. However, the set-up is so well-crafted and executed that when it comes time for the big pay off, Shyamalan can’t quite deliver.

Moviegoers who see The Village only for the surprise ending will most likely be disappointed. Those who go for a solid thriller will leave happy.

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About Nick Danger

  • DOc

    Ebert gave it 1-star. Really panned it today on the Sun Time’s website.

    The only thing he liked less this week was “Thunderbirds”. :)

  • Scott Pepper

    Ebert is a hack.

  • Chris Kent

    This is a great review Scott and thanks for not revealing any secrets as I have not seen the film yet. Most people think Shyamalan’s career began with The Sixth Sense, though he began his career with the 1998 comedy Wide Awake, which was not particularly good. Prior to that was the barely released Praying With Anger, which was really only a student film from 1992.

    Shyamalan is carving out a nice niche for himself, a sort of modern-day Hitchcock (Signs was an interesting re-working of The Birds). With the exception of The Sixth Sense, the buildup is more interesting than the conclusion of his films, leaving the viewers disappointed. If it is the same in The Village, then perhaps we should discuss why Shyamalan continues to paint himself into a corner, and if such a style will eventually cause viewers to lose interest in his films?

  • Scott Pepper

    Thanks for the kind words, Chris. I was aware of but had not seen Night’s earlier films. Everything I’d heard about them was fairly negative, so I haven’t bothered to track them down.

    I think the problem of build-up vs. pay-off is an interesting one. I doubt Night will ever be able to create a film with a payoff anywhere near that achieved in Sixth Sense, but it has become less important in his past two films. The “secret” in Signs wasn’t revelatory in the way it was in the prior two films, and though there is definately at least one surprise twist in The Village, the whole film doesn’t rely on it. I would be interested to see Night do a movie without a twist ending to see if he can pull it off.

  • Tom

    Did you know that M. Night also wrote the screenplay for the first Stuart Little movie a few years ago?

    I have loved everyone of his movies. I go to see them not for any surprise ending, i just think they are great stories, very hitchcock in the way he does his film making.

    Too many movies rely to heavily on special effects to make them great. You see them, and then you forget them.

    Yeah, Ebert is a hack. He probably saw an alagory in this film about terroirsm and thought it was anti-leftiest or something.

  • Tom

    About the Thunderbirds, I remember watching some show, probably on PBS when I was a kid with puppets and space ships, and they always said “10-10″

    Was that “The Thunderbirds”?

  • HW Saxton Jr.

    ‘Twas the show you are thinking of Tom.
    Their catchphrase was “Thunderbirds are
    Go!” Gawd I hated that show as a kid.
    Then again,I LUVVED to watch “Ultraman”,
    so what do I know???

  • Scott Pepper

    The lack of special effects in Night’s films is quite amazing. No other director could have made films about ghosts, superheroes, and aliens with not more than a dozen or so effects shots. Instead, he gets the best cinematographers and composers to let the camera and the music do all of the work. Because his films rely much more on what you don’t see than what you do, he gets far more mileage out of each individual shot, particuarly in tenser scenes.

    Part of the reason I thought Signs failed on some levels is that when you finally do see the aliens, they are not nearly as scary as the mere glimpses of them you catch earlier; in fact, I seem to remember hearing a lot of criticism about the way they looked when the film first came out. Night seems to have taken these critiques to heart, as The Village does not have this problem.

  • Tom

    I thought the best parts of Signs were when the aliens were trying to get into the house and you can hear them walking outside on the porch and trying to get in. Very effective.

    So is this movie fairly scary in that way? I like goosebumps.

  • Tom


    Do you have your table tag closed? I see two Village posters. The second is overlapping the right menu bar.

  • Scott Pepper

    Tom- You will like this film.

    And there is no table in the html, just an embedded image, so I am not sure why you’re seeing two posters. It looks fine from where I’m sitting.

  • Tom

    Right after I posted that comment, the problem vanished.

  • Chris Kent

    This is actually the first Shyamalan film Roger Ebert has ever given a negative review to. He’s never raved about Shyamalan’s work, though he was very high on Signs, but he has not panned it either until now.

    One star is very severe for him, but I will still go view this film as the setup sounds fascinating.

    I had forgotten Shyamalan’s screenplay work on Stuart Little…….

    I think much of Shyamalan’s work is technique and mood, though he should be applauded for avoiding loud and ugly FX……But sometimes, that is all there is to a Shyamalan film, technique and mood. He’s a talent, but he needs better stories to be working with.

  • Scott Pepper

    While I agree Night’s films are defined by a very distinct mood, I don’t think they are as devoid of story as many critics have suggested. The plots are driven by his characters rather than the other way around. Consequentially, there are few other American films made in the past 10 years or so where the journey of the protagonist is so pivotal to the plot.

    To put it another way, Night takes a novelist’s approach to writing a script, which is why many moviegoers used to balls-to-the-wall action find his films boring.

  • Chris Kent

    It’s a good point. Just got back from The Village. A couple of twists and turns, though one I had guessed. I thought Ebert’s review was WAY too harsh. It’s an excellent mood piece, and always fascinating. I actually liked The Village more than I did Signs…..go figure.

    I might do a post of my own, but I very much enjoyed this film. Very European in feel and reminiscent of an old 1980s film called The Navigator…….I thought it was terrific!

  • TheUglyAmerican

    WHy is Ebert a hack? because he rightly gave this thing one star??
    Night needs to take a break and either write something better or direct somebody else’s script. Sixth Sense was great for two reasons – the tense mood it created and the twist, but not for its shallow story arc. Most people forget that until the twist arises in Sixth Sense, the movie feels remarkably incomplete and unresolved. You forgive the feeling because the twist is a great one (and becasue Osment is scarily talented). The same is true for Unbreakable. Night writes his scripts with the goal of twisting them, he does not write them to tell a good story. And with each successive film, he proves only that he gets better and better at creating tension and mood, but worse at telling a story. He is also seems growingly incapable of understanding the audience’s curiousity – in Signs, we wanted to know the truth about the aliens, not about why his daughter was leaving water everywhere. In the Village, we want to know the truth about the monsters, not about (SPOILER ALERT, STOP READING NOW) what time frame in history this really takes place in. We don’t see both of these twists coming because we don’t care about them, he doesn’t lay the foundation for them, he doesn’t even make them important. They come out of left field and are pathetic. At least in Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, ghosts and comic book heroes and villains were part of the story from the get go.

    And I am supposed to care about these poeple who are lying to their kids and running from their problems? This movie could have ended with a redemptive return to society by the villagers, acknowledging that there is no escape from heartache, but instead the “elders” decide to screw with the kids even longer.

    And don’t get me started with the Scooby Doo giant porcupine monsters.

    Horribly terrible movie. Ebert’s one star was a gift.