The Village is where M. Night Shyamalan took a turn for the worse, beginning the downward spiral that culminated in last year’s disastrous The Last Airbender. While his previous effort, Signs, was inconsistent, it was at least suspenseful and made good use of familiar horror movie tropes. In contrast, The Village is a dull slog, a film without direction or purpose that ultimately cheats the audience with its three final twists (apparently one twist per film was no longer enough for Shyamalan). Get it at 123 Movies for free.
The Village starts out strong, but fails to deliver on its premise
There’s little indication at the start that The Village will end up so badly. The opening scenes, as is so often the case in Shyamalan’s work, set up an interesting premise and make it all the more disappointing that the film fails to deliver. It begins with a funeral, and the dates on the graves indicate that the time is the late 19th century.
The village is a small isolated community, governed by a body of elders, evidently self-sufficient and cut off from the rest of the world (or “the towns”, as the characters put it). The community maintains an uneasy truce with creatures in the surrounding woods, and the fear of “those who must not be named” keeps them from venturing beyond the village’s borders out of concern that the creatures will attack the village in retaliation.
So far, so good, and Shyamalan sets up the story nicely with atmospheric cinematography and fluid direction. The rhythm of these first scenes is a far cry from the choppy, muddled style of what comes later. But even in the early going, there are problems. The village itself feels less like a living, breathing place and more like a stage set full of obvious false fronts, and the clothing styles of the villagers span the centuries rather than remaining consistent to one period.
If you’re already familiar with the movie’s biggest twist, this is an overt, heavy-handed telegraphing of that development. If not, let’s just say you won’t fail to see it coming when it arrives thanks to these entirely unsubtle hints.
The performances are inconsistent, especially Joaquin Phoenix and Adrien Brody
Joaquin Phoenix makes his second appearance in a Shyamalan film as Lucius, a young man who wants to travel through the woods to the towns to get medicine to help the villagers. To say it’s one of his least consistent performances is an understatement. He vacillates between virtually silent under emoting and wildly emotional overemoting, with absolutely no middle ground.
As his love interest, Bryce Dallas Howard is easily the strongest performer in the film, giving the blind Ivy a strength and determination that makes her a far more compelling character than Phoenix’s sullen, brooding protagonist. She’s also the only character who seems capable of doing anything, so when she ultimately travels across the woods herself it feels like the most natural choice in the world. No one else has the guts to take charge.
The less said about the other performances, the better. Many of the film’s worst moments come from actors who are excellent in other contexts, most notably Adrien Brody as the mentally challenged Noah. Shyamalan apparently couldn’t decide exactly what disability Noah had, and so Brody is forced to be a manic whirling dervish is some scenes and a virtually mute nonentity in others.
We’re apparently supposed to find Noah innocent and childlike, but the muddled characterization makes him more childlike and annoying. The other veteran actor in the cast, Sigourney Weaver, is wasted as Lucius’ mother, and William Hurt is competent but ineffectual as a village elder.
The actors are let down by the stilted dialogue and archaic diction of the script
All of them are challenged by Shyamalan’s script, which is full of stilted lines spoken in archaic diction. This is clearly his idea of how people in the 19th century must have talked, but as with the setting itself, it feels too artificial. It’s difficult to feel any emotional investment in the characters when the language keeps you at such a remove from their world. As the film progresses, the editing becomes less coherent and transitions between scenes more abrupt, and the story feels as though it’s simply chasing its own tail rather than making genuine progress. Even the twists feel tired and uninspired, and one of them is outright comical.
That said, The Village is superior to the Shyamalan films that followed, simply by virtue of its strong start and the beautiful visual style- there are many shots in this movie that are genuinely poetic (though strangely, the most haunting moments are scenes of empty chairs, entirely devoid of people and excruciatingly bad dialogue).
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The music, featuring violinist Hilary Hahn, is also strong and works well with the cinematography to give much of the film an effective atmosphere. But on the whole, its weaknesses overpower its strengths. If you want to watch a Shyamalan film, it’s preferable to The Happening, but still not worth choosing over his previous pictures.