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July 2004

By Julian Roman

The Village

Distributor: Touchstone Pictures
Director: M. Night Shyalaman
Producers: Scott Rudin, M. Night Shyalaman, and Sam Mercer
Screenwriter: M. Night Shyalaman
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
Composer: James Newton Howard
Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleason, Cherry Jones, & Judy Greer



M. Night Shyamalan's latest thriller is a tepid effort when compared to his previous films. It lacks the suspense and creepiness that made The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs such audience hits. I must tread carefully reviewing the film. Touchstone Pictures will kneecap any film critic that reveals spoilers. I'm kidding, no lawsuits please, but they have placed a huge emphasis on keeping the film's secrets. The truth is that there's really nothing special to hide. The Village spends ninety-minutes building up to a painfully obvious finale. There wasn't one moment where I was startled or even mildly surprised. This is pretty disappointing after the genuine scares in Signs. Turn down your expectations, because The Village is more of a drama than anything else.

The setting is an idyllic valley bordered by thick forest in Covington, Pennsylvania. A small village lies in the center of this valley. The people that live in the village are quiet, god-faring people. They raise their crops, spin their clothes, and live in mortal fear of the creatures that inhabit the adjacent woods. There has been a long truce between the villagers and these beings. They stay out of the forest and their village will remain unharmed. The villagers build a perimeter to watch out for the creatures. They offer meat sacrifices to keep them appeased and never, under any circumstances, allow the color red to be seen.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Lucius Hunt, a quiet and courageous young man. He asks the town elders, led by Edward Walker (William Hurt), permission to leave the village and venture into the woods. The son of the preacher has died and Lucius believes the village needs medicines to prevent further deaths. The town elders refuse his plea, but Lucius boldly walks into the forest anyway. He's quickly frightened and returns, but ominous signs start to appear in the village. Red marks turn up on doors. Skinned animals litter their fields. The town elders fear that the creatures have been angered and seek vengeance on the village.

From the beginning of the story, there are clues to what's going on. Mum's the word, but if you pay attention, the ending is fairly intuitive. The real flaw in the film is that it takes forever to get going. I can buy what happens if Shyamalan had made it more exciting. It's just not that suspenseful, so the buildup is extremely boring. The characters drone on and on about the creatures. Then when the payoff comes, it's totally unspectacular. Audiences are not that patient. They might be asleep when the so-called secrets are revealed.

Shyamalan gets a bit arrogant with his approach. He fancies himself as the next Hitchcock and sets out to emulate his style. The problem is that he never maximizes the possibility of his set-up. Hitchcock was a master of using the setting to its full potential. Think of the Bates Motel in Psycho. Shyamalan criminally under uses the actual village. Here you have this little town in the middle of a terrifyingly dark forest. The possibilities are endless. There's so much that could happen and nothing really does.

Quite a few of my compatriots in the New York critic scene really disliked the film. I disagree with them on its positive merits. It's not scary and gets tedious, but is well shot and highly dramatic. There a lot of great actors in the film and they convincingly portray the people in the village. I thought the relationships between characters were well written. Every role is genuine. There really is not a bad performance in the film. I just wish they had more frights to deal with.