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Posted on Friday, July 30, 2004 - 03:41 pm:   

M. Night Shyamalan's THE VILLAGE is a turkey: a total botch, of the especially
sad sort where you can see the talent of everybody involved. I wasn't lying
in wait for Shyamalan on this one: I loved THE SIXTH SENSE and UNBREAKABLE,
and thought the characters redeemed SIGNS despite the idiocy of its central
gimmick. But THE VILLAGE, made with just about as much skill, fails on almost
every level.

Watch that almost. I will be praising one central element.

You know the basic concept: an agrarian community, situated in a clearing
completely surrounded by forest, lives with an 18th century level of technology
in an uneasy truce with the mysterious unseen creatures who dwell in the

The council of elders led by William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, and Brendon
Gleeson teach the younger generation, notably Joaquin Phoenix, Bryce Howard,
and Adrian Brody, that the outer world is beset by violence and best avoided.

Complications ensue.

Shyamalan is known for his twist endings; the buzz on this one is that the
twist is obvious from the first few seconds of plot description. (You've
probably already considered it, and given it up on the precept that it can't
be anything that obvious. Surely there has to be more.) But that's hardly
the problem. After all, I figured out the twist of THE SIXTH SENSE too.
The journey's the thing. I watched this film suspecting the twist from almost
the first frame and wanting, very much, to give it dramatic credit for getting
me there. If the story had worked, all the way through, I wouldn't have
been all that bothered that I knew where it was going.

The first real problem is that -- to accentuate the isolated, timeless nature
of their community -- all of the characters speak a stilted, formal version
of English that doesn't sound like anything human beings would say; it's
not even the poetic dialogue one finds in Miller's THE CRUCIBLE or this
year's DOGVILLE, but an attempt at strangeness that amounts to structuring
every sentence in the most awkward manner possible. It drains much of the
tension from the story and much of the life from the performances: just
about all the better-known actors are stymied by it.

The second problem is the performance of Joaquin Phoenix, an actor of middling
skill whose total lack of charisma has served him well playing villains
and crazy people of crippled affect. As a romantic lead, he's utterly without
warmth. When not one, but two separate women declare their love for him
in the course of the film, I can only wonder why.

The third problem is the stretch of logic that requires the blind woman
played by Bryce Howard (Ron's daughter), to be the one who undertakes a
perilous extended journey into the woods: and not a certain other character
who knows the way and won't be tripping over things.

These elements hobble any effect the film has.

Among the elements that work:

A sudden, shocking moment of violence, in the middle of the film. It's handled
with undeniable genius.

The performance by Adrian Brody, as the village idiot. Brody is a decent
actor, but he stands out here, both because his performance is a good one
and because the village idiot rarely speaks a complete sentence and is therefore
never hobbled by any of the lines his fellow actors have to say.

And finally, the performance by Bryce Howard, who emerges as the star of
the film. For at least the first half, she's as hobbled by the script as
the other actors: she gets the emotions across, and shows a radiant charm
that makes her character an unlikely admirer of the sullen Phoenix. (Whenever
she shows joy, or anger, or fear, the film comes briefly to life, only to
sputter the next time somebody says something.) Even that performance is
hard to spot as a good one, because at least once a minute or so she's
forced to deliver a line leaden enough to stymie her. But Following the
violent incident that sets up the last act, her character is isolated and
given a chance to hold the screen alone, and for the most part nonverbally.
And she turns out to be not just good, but terrific. It would be a star-making
performance in any other film; here's hoping it gets noticed anyway.

And here's hoping Shyamalan makes a good film again.

But this ain't it.


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