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 V.13 No.32 | August 5 - 11, 2004 

Film Review

The Village

Shyamalan's twisty new fairy tale is guaranteed to disappoint

Damn it, those hobbits are vandalizing my telephone poles again!
Damn it, those hobbits are vandalizing my telephone poles again!

The Village

Directed by M. Knight Shyamalan

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Bryce Dallas Howard, John Hurt

Director M. Knight Shyamalan is a talented filmmaker. Make no mistake: He's got intriguing ideas, he's good with a camera, he's a master of atmosphere and he's not afraid to take risks. But the guy is so married to his perceived “gimmick” that he's all but squandered his rather significant Hollywood hype.

The young Indian-American director exploded onto the scene with 1999's smash sensation The Sixth Sense. That film, built around a whopper of a twist ending, set the tone for all of Shyamalan's future projects. Audiences now show up to his films waiting for the big twist, which means they pretty much ignore everything else that's happening on the screen, good (Unbreakable) or bad (Signs). Shyamalan's films are judged entirely on their final five pages of script.

It's kind of like listening to a comedian tell a joke for an hour and a half. It had better end with the greatest punch line ever told, or the audience is gonna be mighty upset.

Relying on a clever ending only works if the filmmaker is significantly more clever than his audience. Shyamalan isn't nearly as clever as he thinks he is. The Village's script is a rinky-dink construction. It took me all of five minutes to guess the two major twists in the story. It may take some viewers longer, but I seriously doubt anyone will make it to the end of the film with an ounce of surprise left. Which means viewers will spend most of The Village's run-time sitting around impatiently waiting for Shyamalan to unveil the big (already spoiled) secret.

The concept of the film is so fragile, in fact, that I can barely give you a one-sentence description without exposing its every twist and turn. Here's what little I can say: A bunch of people living in an isolated 19th-century village are afraid of monsters in the woods around them. One more word here or there, and you'd probably be able to figure out the ending.

From the outset, The Village is guaranteed to disappoint. For starters, it is not a horror movie. It's not even slightly scary. It doesn't try to be. The trailers are completely and utterly misleading, intended to lure unsuspecting viewers into the theater under the premise of seeing a terrifying supernatural film. The Village is not that film. It is, instead, a genteel parable. An overextended “Twilight Zone” episode. A Shirley Jackson rip-off of rather meager proportions.

Even after Shyamalan tips his hand, informing viewers in no uncertain terms that there will be no scares whatsoever in this film, he continues to hint at the fact that well, maybe I might try and scare you. But it's far too late. We already know it's a crock. Manipulating audiences is one thing, but outright lying to them is another. When audiences realize that a filmmaker is lying to them, they tend to get mad. I'm guessing The Village will end up annoying the living hell out of 75 percent of the people who see it.

It's a shame really, because buried somewhere deep in The Village is a pretty good movie. It looks beautiful enough, capturing the feel of some old-time, sepia-toned photograph. The acting is above reproach. John Hurt, Sigourney Weaver and Joaquin Phoenix do solid work chewing their way around the film's archaic dialogue. Spunky newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard (daughter to actor/director Ron Howard) makes a resonant debut, virtually stealing the show as the tomboyish villager who quickly shoves Phoenix aside to become the film's main protagonist. Expect to see her in a good movie very soon.

Shyamalan does deserve credit for trying something different. The Village is secretly (and perhaps far too subtly) a fairy tale-like commentary on the current state of political affairs in America. (Still trying not to give anything away.)

Great, Mr. Shyamalan, but that's not what the folks are paying to see here. They came for monsters, not metaphors.

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