I remember the night quite clearly. My friend Mark and I wanted to go see a movie, but it was late. The only feature yet to start was something called The Sixth Sense. We were in Indiana, we were bored, and we had some disposable income. So we took a chance.

About two hours later Mark and I sat alone in the theater, staring at the screen as the last of the credits rolled past. I imagine that our mouths were slightly agape. We hardly looked at each other until the lights came up and attendants in their quasi-tuxedos started trolling for trash. I don't think we even talked until we got to the parking lot, at which time I offered an illuminating critique of the film along the lines of "What just happened?"

Such was my introduction to the storytelling prowess of one M. Night Shyamalan.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Lucius Hunt

Joaquin Phoenix plays Lucius Hunt

About a billion people had a similar experience and The Sixth Sense catapulted Shyamalan into the top tier of moviemakers. He's told us about a boy who sees dead people (The Sixth Sense), a regular guy who is really a hero of comic book proportions (Unbreakable), and a pastor who struggles with his faith while aliens invade Earth (Signs). His latest cinematic offering, The Village, is set in an idyllic hamlet circa the early 20th century—think calico skirts and bowler hats—where settlers have to deal with threats from the ominous creatures that prowl their borders.

Life in the village is simple, egalitarian, vaguely religious, and genuinely joyful. But visual cues such as mustard yellow robes, torches, and the bare branches of the forest suggest that this world is as eerie as it is inviting. When skinned animals are found around the community and large red slashes appear on doors, a violent confrontation between man and beast seems right around the corner.

Definitely not a mark ofthe Passover

Definitely not a mark ofthe Passover

Because Shyamalan "got one over" on the movie-going public with the twist ending of The Sixth Sense—and because he really enjoyed doing it—the hype surrounding his subsequent releases has centered on secrecy. This has been especially true of publicity for The Village. Those associated with the production were strictly forbidden from divulging the story line of the movie and the featured actors have been coy when giving interviews about the project. This might be a successful strategy on some levels, but this marketing tactic pigeonholes Shyamalan's stories. If you present yourself as the guy who always tells a story with a twist, pretty soon you lose the power to surprise anyone.

The Village does offer a few twists, but because the audience is ready for anything in a Shyamalan movie, they're often more heartbreaking than surprising. What's truly unexpected is that, in the middle of the tingles up your spine, The Village is a strong, engaging character drama. More than that, it's a love story.

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Bryce Dallas Howard asIvy Walker

Bryce Dallas Howard asIvy Walker

With standout performances from newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron Howard's daughter), Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, William Hurt, and Sigourney Weaver, The Village is at its most engrossing when exploring and revealing the intentions and motivations of its characters. The ability of fear to control us, and the way we use it to control others, plays out across the span of the movie as does the driving and protective nature of love.

Make no mistake about it; this movie is creepy. More than once my hands hovered around my face, ready to cover my eyes should "Those We Don't Speak Of" jump out from behind the tree. But more than that, The Village is smart. Its characters are unique. Its story is thought provoking. Its depiction of love rings true.

In a time when Hollywood is more interested in remakes and sequels than in original movies, Shyamalan continues to tell new stories. And he's really good at it—there's no suspense about that.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Why do you think Lucius Hunt didn't fear going into the forest?

  2. Do you agree with the decision made by the elders at the end of the movie? Why or why not?

  3. If you were Ivy Walker, how do you think you would have responded to Noah Percy's actions?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

"Those We Don't Speak Of" might not be talked about much, but they are shown a few times. The creatures are scary looking. Several shots of skinned animals are also unsettling as is a stabbing incident. The suspense is intense even when objects of fear aren't in view. Take the PG-13 rating seriously.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 08/05/04

You don't need a sixth sense to detect that many of M. Night Shyamalan's fans are aggravated with him.

In truth, they've been disgruntled ever since the filmmaker's follow-up to The Sixth Sense failed to deliver the same kinds of thrills and surprises as the story about the boy who could "see dead people." Unbreakable was, instead, a moody movie about the origins of a superhero. And if you forgive its awkward conclusion; it's a textured, complex, and soulful story about courage, identity, and conscience.

His next film, Signs, took the conventions of old B-grade horror, mixed them with the elements of War of the Worlds-style sci-fi, and lured audiences into a challenging dialogue about the rewards of faith. Religious press reviewers were impressed and enthusiastic. Mel Gibson's role as an ex-minister arguing with God played as an interesting prologue to the actor's eventual plunge into controversy as a Passion-play director. But many fans complained that Signs' aliens were hokey and that the ending, more meditative than explosive, was a letdown.

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Now The Village is here. Over the weekend, it raked in nearly $51 million, but once again the audience is split. A few mainstream critics praise Shyamalan's use of metaphor and theme, while most complain that it lacks good scares and a satisfying twist ending.

The Village is a simple story, peppered with fairy tales, about a small settlement of Americans living like Puritans (but without the religion) and maintaining a fragile "truce" with monsters that live in the woods nearby. When tragedy befalls the town, one brave blind woman (Ron Howard's daughter Bryce Dallas Howard) must venture out for help from the "towns," risking her life for the good of others. Can she make it through the forest without being devoured by the lurking phantoms?

Lisa Ann Cockrel (Christianity Today Movies) writes that the movie "does offer a few twists, but … what's truly unexpected is that, in the middle of the tingles up your spine, The Village is a strong, engaging character drama. More than that, it's a love story. [The movie] is at its most engrossing when exploring and revealing the intentions and motivations of its characters. The ability of fear to control us, and the way we use it to control others, plays out across the span of the movie as does the driving and protective nature of love."

"The Village's greatest strength is a moral core that never devolves into moralistic propaganda," writes Megan Basham (National Review, formerly of Christian Spotlight). "Some critics will undoubtedly dismiss [it] as being too light on thrills to qualify as a thriller. And they would be right if that were all [Shyamalan] set out to accomplish. Instead, it seems Shyamalan is striving to move from a scary-movie prodigy who flirts with significant themes to a substantial cinematic artist who only flirts with scares. What The Village lacks in pacing, it makes up for in stunning Wyeth-inspired art direction and an acting debut that is for once worthy of its buildup."

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Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) observed the audience at his screening, which entered the theatre with enthusiasm, and exited with "disappointment. Instead of a supercharged adventure, what they got was a soberly paced, feature-length 'thriller' that might have worked better as a half-hour Twilight Zone episode."

But he adds that the film's subtext "is worth talking about. The Village works very well as a metaphor infused with socially significant ideas and transcendent themes. Of course, most viewers will be too busy trying to track Shyamalan's cinematic slight of hand to follow it on that level."

Carole McDonnell (The Film Forum) writes, "Most people will be disappointed with the movie. But if they choose to see the philosophical underpinnings and to ask themselves a few honest questions about politics, family life, innocence and guilt, they'll consider the film a minor masterpiece, a film which uses misdirection to show its viewers the devastation and cost of misdirection."

While I'd argue that the film falls far short of being a masterpiece, I agree that the storytelling is rich with intriguing themes. Those who concern themselves more with its scares and thrills than with its metaphors will come away disappointed. My full review is at Looking Closer.

Like his previous films, The Village has flaws. The old-fashioned, awkward dialogue is discomforting. Given the simple outlines of the characters, it is distracting to have so many big name actors in the parts—we expect complexity and subtlety from cast members like William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Adrien Brody and Brendan Gleeson, and instead they look like they've donned costumes for a thrown-together pageant play. But Shyamalan's storytelling lends itself to discussions of ethics and spirituality without limiting its relevance to one specific context. The Village could represent a church, a political party, a lifestyle, a family, America, or humanity in general. Any one of these interpretations could reward the viewer with valuable insights about the difference between law and grace, fear and freedom.

Most religious press film critics turn in the reviews that Basham and Smithouser predicted—expressions of disappointment with the film's conclusion and lack of successful scares.

Josh Hurst (Reveal) says that Shyamalan "seems to have totally forgotten some of the fundamental elements of scary movie making on … The Village. Here he throws several twists into the story, most of which are simply not that startling. When the obligatory surprise ending finally arrives, it seems rather anticlimactic. Maybe the audience has grown numb to Shyamalan's shenanigans; or maybe this surprise simply isn't as well-executed as past ones."

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Kevin Miller (Hollywood Jesus) says, "Unfortunately, while Shyamalan appeared to be a fresh new voice when he first broke onto the scene, each successive film is making him look more and more like a one-trick pony, at least from a writing point of view."

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says, "Shyamalan still wants to hide the truth in plain sight, then open our eyes and our minds in a stunning last-reel revelation. Unfortunately, each time he tries it, the trick loses something. With The Village, [he] has gone to the well once too often. Whether or not you see the anti-climactic twists coming is almost beside the point. For the first time, Shyamalan has created a puzzle movie populated by characters we can't identify with, living in a world we can't relate to."

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says the film "is beautifully crafted in all the ways we've come to expect of [Shyamalan]—painterly cinematography, assured performances, first-rate production design, heightened atmosphere of suspense or dread. But for all of that, it must be said that the ultimate payoff in The Village is a distinct letdown."

However, Forbes is pleased that the characters "value love and goodness. And given the purity with which these people live their lives, and the courtly way in which they speak, there are no language or sexual concerns whatsoever in the film."

Phil Boatwright (saWorship) begins by lauding Shyamalan's Signs and then compares it to The Village. He concludes that "many will be disappointed with the end results. Here Shyamalan's efforts seem forced and gimmicky. Disappointingly, for all the love talked about in The Village, it's as passionless as the town is colorless."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) calls it "a major disappointment. More time spent on the villagers and how they feel about their plight and less time focused upon the mystery of the creatures would have made this a compelling and interesting film."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) calls it "a cinematically beautiful film full of twists that will keep you shaking in your seat … a real treat for Shyamalan and thriller fans alike, especially those who enjoy a deeper message." But she also warns of its "distinctly humanistic worldview that has carefully extracted any Christian elements."

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Personally, I'd argue that the importance of overcoming fear is certainly not an "un-Christian" idea. If we must use "Christian" as an adjective, then surely it applies to messages that promote peace and argue against jealousy and deceit. Finally, the hero's willingness to "lay down [her] life for her friends" echoes the virtues of Christ himself. This fantasy may abstain from blatant references to Christianity, but as in most good fairy tales, folk tales, and fantasy adventures, the themes, subtext, and subtlety point to the truth.

from Film Forum, 08/12/04

Reviewing M. Night Shyamalan's much-discussed new film, The Village, Kevin Miller (Relevant) thinks it may contain a challenge for the church. "Rather than work to transform society from the inside, as we have been called, we have withdrawn from it into segregated communities dominated by fear and control. Like the elders, we have chosen a lesser existence rather than risk being polluted or rejected by the world. However, also like the elders, we must realize that sin is not 'out there.' It is right here, in us. Only when we are able to face that fact and bring our secrets into the light will we truly become the people God has called us to be."

Belinda Myers (CBN) says, "The film has a depth that should not be ignored. Shyamalan has a gift for presenting stimulating themes within the context of an entertaining story. The Village is no different. While some Christians may shun the film citing its suggested violence and eeriness, it would be a mistake to do so. The movie is full of material that could be an intriguing discussion starter for keen Christians looking for ways to bridge the gap between the truths of the Bible and a secular culture."

Dick Staub (CultureWatch) says, "The Village explores what happens when we assume the other guys are the problem and things would be better if we good guys withdrew and started over. Shyamalan's ponderous unfolding of a suspenseful tale is his trademark, but as many critics are noting, his shtick is getting a little predictable, though I think the issues raised by this one are interesting and important."

Andrew Coffin (World) says, "The Village doesn't entirely work. Its individual parts are as strong as anything Mr. Shyamalan has done—collaborating on wonderfully evocative cinematography with Roger Deakins, creating several scenes of deep-seated suspense (and even, counter-intuitively, beauty), and, as usual, working with undercurrent of provocative ideas. But the result isn't quite as entertaining or as challenging as one might have hoped, partially because Mr. Shyamalan continues to insist on focusing his audience on a big 'reveal' instead of on the characters and issues at the heart of the film."

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Jonathan Rodriguez (Christian Spotlight) writes, "The script is pale, the actors seem like cardboard cutouts, and the surprise ending … well, let's just say it was stunning, but in an almost absurd sort of way. Morally, the film's content is fairly mild for content for this genre—a couple of jump scenes, a murder, and some blood here and there."

Related Elsewhere:

A ready-to-download Movie Discussion Guide related to this movie is available at ChristianityTodayMoviesStore.com. Use this guide after the movie to help you and your small group better connect your faith to pop culture.

The Village
Our Rating
3½ Stars - Good
Average Rating
(2 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for a scene of violence and frightening situations)
Directed By
M. Night Shyamalan
Run Time
1 hour 48 minutes
Sigourney Weaver, William Hurt, Joaquin Phoenix
Theatre Release
July 30, 2004 by Touchstone Pictures
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