Shyamalan’s Imperfect ‘Village’ Doesn’t Deserve Your Hate

Shyamalan’s Imperfect ‘Village’ Doesn’t Deserve Your Hate
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Shyamalan’s Imperfect ‘Village’ Doesn’t Deserve Your Hate

M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” is now 20 years old and reflects on a family adage that is probably uttered a lot in the Shyamalan family: “The Sixth Sense” (1999) is a hard act to follow.

Set in the Covington Woods at the turn of the century, we meet a town of kind, tightknit folk who have big families, festivals and observe the blossoming romances between the teenagers who live there.

An idyllic setting eclipses a strange secret: the town is surrounded by a forest that acts as a prison, since no one dares venture in the woods. That’s where scary creatures called Those We Do Not Speak Of live.

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Shayamalan doesn’t entirely succeed in creating a hermetically sealed society as well as Peter Weir’s “Witness” (1985) but that’s also kind of the point. What’s on the surface is really an invitation for us to consider the foundation of this society…and what’s with the black box that nobody opens?

The monsters are strange and intriguing from a distance, which is how I feel about the premise overall – the more dreamlike and vaguer, the better. The film’s strength is in the characterizations and leadership structure of the town, not in the punchline.

More on that later.

Everyone in the ensemble cast has moments that stand out. Judy Greer is terrific, and Joaquin Phoenix is touching in his stillness. In this town of repressed feelings and maintained secrets, William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver give especially strong performances- watch them closely, especially if you’ve already seen this once, as their unspoken reactions speak volumes to the grand design of the story.


Adrien Brody’s performance hangs over me with a heaviness. His work seemed too broad the first time I saw this. Now, I wonder if I haven’t considered enough that his character carries the truth and how it weighs him down.

Long before the third act, Brody’s character is especially tragic. The true standout is Bryce Dallas Howard as Ivy, a blind and compassionate young woman who, despite her lack of sight, is more observant and braver than those around her. Howard, in a stunning film debut, gave one of the best performances of 2004.

The goofiness of the premise is countered by the sincerity of the performances and the skill in the presentation. Roger Deakins’ cinematography and the pacing are master classes in building anticipation.

I won’t discuss the big reveal in hopes of not spoiling this for anyone who hasn’t seen it. I’ll say carefully that the big surprise is introduced too soon. What Hurt/Shyamalan tell us, about there being rumors of the threat, is an unclear, half-there attempt to keep the tension intact, in spite of the truth finally being out in the open.

Attempting to make us continue to be invested in the threat at hand, while also telling us there is no threat, is similar to how backpedaling magician (Christian Bale) tells his wife (Rebecca Hall) about the “bullet catch” in “The Prestige.”

Once the secret’s out, you can’t keep someone invested in the lie.

There’s another late monologue, with a barrage of exposition and fill-in-the-gaps info, but Shyamalan needn’t have bothered. The more the twist is explained, the less sense it makes.

The big twist, as fascinating as it is, undermines the stark simplicity of the horror concept. Had Shyamalan fully committed to Those We Do Not Speak Of (as he did the aliens of “Signs”), instead of using them as a set up for a giant reveal, the film could work better as a genre thriller.

RELATED: “The Village” earned $114 million at the U.S. box office, roughly half what the director’s 2002 smash “Signs” brought in stateside – $227 million.

As is, I still admire the audacity of the third-act unveiling and appreciate the commentary this provides as an exploration of living in willful ignorance. Still, undermining the notion of a town under the grips of Those We Do Not Speak only half works.

When the sense of discovery stops and we have a concrete explanation for everything, we’re stuck with a take-it-or-leave-it-feeling, as opposed to the ending of “The Sixth Sense,” where we’re discovering things just by replaying scenes in our heads days later.

The ending isn’t a washout, just undeveloped.

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The unveiling of the big secret should have come all at once, with very little running time left. Shyamalan should have waited until the last scene to jolt his audience with the truth, rather than the big reveal, then back-tracking, then with assurance that the truth is out in the open, then another fake-out, etc.

The use of slow motion runs hot and cold: it’s powerful when Ivy’s hand reaches out in the darkness and is met by the one true protector in her life. It’s clunky, on the other hand, when Shyamalan slows down the chase between Ivy and Those We Do Not Speak Of, who are best seen in tiny glimpses…like the shark in “Jaws.”

C’mon, Shyamalan, I know you’ve seen “Jaws!”

Far better is a long, hypnotic nighttime confession of affection between Howard and Phoenix’s characters. The lingering mist even has a “Wuthering Heights” quality.

Shyamalan wisely doesn’t romanticize the lives of those in the village but, instead, celebrates the restlessness of the young and how the adult hold on the coming generation cannot contain youthful curiosity.

“The Village” has a point to make about hermetically sealing oneself off from the truth. Is it a political allegory? Not necessarily, as the notion of living in an environment where alleged safety, conformity and redundant patterns acting as a protective blanket can apply to many scenarios.

After a big opening, word of mouth hit the film hard, providing the first dent in Shyamalan’s red-hot career. Shyamalan has had many hits and misses since, but this is one I’m always glad I return to and give another shot.

Despite the monster success of the Mel Gibson/crop circle combo that proceeded it, “The Village” has stayed with me a lot more than the blockbuster “Signs” (2002). While it carries a longstanding reputation as a disappointing work from Shyamalan, it’s still a moving, unsettling work.

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