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Rated 2.98 stars
by 2914 people

ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Time To Pull the Reins
by Jeffrey Chen

It's a shame about The Village. Director M. Night Shyamalan is a skilled filmmaker -- he knows what he wants and how he wants it to look on the screen. He cares about shot composition, and has great atmosphere control. He's good at getting just the right performances from his big name actors, who often play roles markedly different from the stuff they're usually typecast in. And Shyamalan is noted for unfolding his stories with care. Until now.

The Village represents Shyamalan's first major misstep in storytelling. As one might suspect, this mistake involves his trademark, the twist. Before The Village, Shyamalan was able to weave his twist within the context of the human story being told. The focus on the main character is what allowed his successful previous attempts to have lasting power beyond the novelty of a gotcha ending. But these twists have shown hints of starting to get old. Consider the lineup of coincidences leading to the ending of his last movie, Signs, which already felt as if it was beginning to stretch the concept. Still, Signs held up because those events led back to its main character finding a resolution for himself. Aliens didn't mattter as much as personal growth.

However, with The Village, Shyamalan finally lets his penchant for gimmickry get the better of him. This time, in an isolated late 19th century community setting, he has three major characters: Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix), Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), and Noah (Adrien Brody). Each of them are allowed to develop in Shyamalan's usual leisurely pace, but by the time the third act arrives they are each given a shaft uncharacteristic of the director's usual style.

And what a third act it is. Without giving away anything, Shyamalan pulls the plug on what makes his initial premise scary. He then reinstitutes it for what amounts to a rather cheap scare (and one that results in a most insensitive fate for one of his characters), only to pull the plug again. When the final twist occurs, it feels like a cheat. And none of his smoke and mirrors does anything for the interesting human stories he took occasion to build up. They are victims of the outer structure -- the plot, and its requisite rug-pulling, becomes the focus, overshadowing the characters the audience had invested in.

It's all quite unfortunate, because roughly the first half of the movie is a skillful display of Shyamalan's usual good work. And this doesn't even refer to what he's famous for -- his suspense scenarios -- frankly, he relies a little too often now on meaningless jump scares. Again, it's the human stories that work well, because he takes his time in displaying them, nurturing them, and showing a care for an individual's quirks and concerns. In one lovely scene, Lucius speaks to Ivy on a porch in the early morning; it's in one long take, with their profiles, almost silhouettes, at the edges of the frame. Their dialogue is affecting because it comes at a point late enough for us to have become comfortable with this community's odd, stilted manner of conversing. It's probably the last really good scene in the movie.

Also too bad is Shyamalan's missed opportunity of giving reliable dramatic weight to a theme emerging from the story. There's a tale in here about how fear can be used to control a civilization, how paranoia can be used to enforce conformity. But because the ending is so awkward in calling attention to itself, lumbering over the little events as the big granddaddy culmination of events, this subtext doesn't have the chance to hit home. It feels like a side dish because the ending is the main course and dessert.

Given a better approach and the story's inherent theme, such an ending could have been construed as brilliant, but here no such glory can be attained because of how obvious the devices are used as devices (example: after the movie ends, ask yourself why Ivy had her unique handicap, and you may be quite annoyed with your answer and its direct relation to the climax). In almost a symbolic gesture, Shyamalan inserts his trademark cameo very late in the film, practically acting as a reminder that what we're seeing is a self-consciously made movie. The appearance feels more like a joke than usual; unfortunately, this time the joke may be on us.

(Released by Touchstone Pictures and rated "PG-13" for scenes of violence and frightening situations.)

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