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After the massive success of The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan had positioned himself to be the “next big thing” in American cinema. And although Unbreakable didn’t have the same level of commercial success, critical consensus has come down that it was Shyamalan’s best work. People loved Signs, and it too was a hit, but somewhere along the way, M. Night Shyamalan lost his way. Most people point to 2004’s The Village as the moment this happened. His hold on the box office broke, and the critics suddenly stopped fawning over his works. And while I can see why The Village began to alienate so many of Shyamalan’s fans, I’m going to make the unpopular case that The Village isn’t nearly as bad as everyone thinks it is. Take away its absurd ending (which I predicted early on during my first viewing) and you have a genuinely atmospheric thriller centered around a fantastic ensemble cast.

One of the things that makes The Village still enjoyable despite its contrived ending (I’m going to rant a lot about how dumb the ending is without actually saying what it was cause… spoilers) is the genuine sense of place and atmosphere leaking out of every frame. Shyamalan’s greatest strength as a director and writer has always been lending a feeling of authenticity and sincerity to his workThe titular village feels lived in, and early on, the film deftly sets up a steady stream of interesting tidbits and secrets hidden within the nooks and crannies of the village that flood the film with Shyamalan’s trademark anxiety. The Village certainly never rises to the level of high drama, but it doesn’t want to. However, as a spooky period thriller it delivers legitimate chills even when you want to punch somebody in the face for how god-awful the twist at the end is.

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Deep in the Pennsylvania woods, in the late 1800s, lies a village cut off from the rest of the world. Though the town is peaceful and happy, it has a dark secret. The townspeople are beset on all sides by monstrous creatures that live in the woods. Though there have been no sightings by “those that we do not speak of” for many years, fear of their wrath is enough to keep the townsfolk scared and within the borders of their peaceful hamlet. When a young child gets sick and dies, brave Lucius Hunt (The Master‘s Joaquin Phoenix) believes that the only hope for the future of the village is to leave its borders and seek the nearby towns for medical advances.

Lucius immediately runs into the disapproval of the town’s elders who insist that no one exit the town for fear of “those that we do not speak of.” And so Lucius must grow frustrated even as he finally speaks his love for the beautiful Ivy Walker (The Help‘s Bryce Dallas Howard), the blind but tomboyish daughter of the town’s head elder (Kiss of the Spider Woman‘s William Hurt). But when the blooming romance between Ivy and Lucius enrages the jealousy of the mentally disabled Noah Pearcy (Midnight in Paris‘s Adrien Brody), a terrible act of violence makes breaching the village’s borders a matter of life and death, and Lucius and Ivy must confront the village’s secrets once and for all.

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Lest any one still think that Bryce Dallas Howard only has a career because her father is director Ron Howard, let The Village and The Help (her performance being one of the few good things about that garbage film) be shining examples of why that isn’t true. The romantic chemistry between Ivy and Lucius helps hold the film together as well as the ultimate bravery that we learn rests deep within Ivy, and Bryce Dallas Howard (along with Joaquin Phoenix) made that possible when the film’s dialogue seemed overly silly. Adrien Brody also really excelled as the both innocent and violent Noah Percy.

The Village also succeeds with  a lush cinematography with an exquisite understanding of the value of a strong color palette. The movie is awash in shades of red and yellow, and when one dominant color presides, it heightens the entire mood of a scene. And, a fantastic use of fire and candle light accentuate the period appeal of The Village‘s setting. The movie’s score also works to help enhance the anxiety and fear of the unknown that defines the life of the people living in this village.

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Sadly, The Village has one of the dumbest endings this side of The Lost Symbol. And it’s not that the ending itself is so bad. Conceptually, I sort of appreciate the whole notion of the world that Shyamalan has created in this movie. It is the utter ineptitude with which Shyamalan reveals his master twist (and by that, I mean the very last “twist” of the film not an earlier, somewhat foreshadowed one). I feel it’s safe to say that Shyamalan gives absolutely no foreshadowing of the actual truth of this film in The Village. This was my third viewing of the film in my life, and I saw no hints of what was coming later on. The only way to pull of the twist Shyamalan uses is to make it possible for audiences to guess it, and the only reason I guessed it the first time I watched it was because it was the most insane twist I could possibly think up. Sadly, I was right.

The Village has garnered a lot of hate over the years, but honestly, the only area of the film that deserves the hate is the ending. At the end of the day, The Village is a fun, modern spin on the American fairy tale and of boogeymen and things that go bump in the night. It crafts a tale around a fascinating mythology and places it in a context of classic character archetypes and solid performances. By no means is the film as earth-shattering as The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable, but The Village mostly succeeds on its own terms even as Shyamalan tries to destroy his own work in the film’s final act. I recommend giving The Village another spin. It may have aged better than you think.

Final Score: B

 

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