Director M. Night Shyamalan is fast becoming a victim of his own successes.
The Village is a neat little morality play in the guise of a thriller, the sort of thing Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone did so well. But this being a Shyamalan film - he's the guy who gave us The Sixth Sense, after all - it has to be more than that, an epic of horror and suspense with a surprise twist at the end that will leave people's mouths agape. Nothing modest about that.
But The Village simply doesn't bear up to such lofty expectations. Yes, it's atmospheric and moody, occasionally even frightening (or at least disturbing). But it's also drawn-out, sometimes cheats for maximum gotcha effect (something The Sixth Sense never did) and, for anyone familiar with either the genre or the director's previous work, it's pretty predictable. It doesn't take a genius IQ to figure out the movie's final twist far in advance, leaving the attentive viewer to wonder only about how Shyamalan will pull it off and to hope the movie doesn't turn silly. It doesn't, but meeting such minimal expectations isn't exactly a badge of honor.
The citizens of Covington, Pa., are an uneasy lot, living what appears to be a life of 19th-century bliss in a little village surrounded by woods that conceal a dark secret. Within them live the cryptically labeled "those we do not speak of," savage, bloodthirsty beasts who are kept at bay only by an age-old agreement with the townsfolk: You stay out of the woods, we stay out of the town. Thus is the uneasy truce maintained between the hunters and the potentially hunted.
But the village's younger residents, in the manner of young upstarts everywhere, have begun to question the status quo: They want to venture outside the village and visit those dangerous "towns" their elders are always talking about. Especially restless is Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix), who, despite his name, doesn't act devilish at all, even if he does introduce a note of contention into the village. Instead, he argues that good things may be available in the towns, including "medicines" that might help village simpleton Noah (Adrien Brody, in a strange follow-up to winning an Oscar) get better.
For reasons unexplained (one of the script's major failings), "those we do not speak of" have been acting up lately, killing animals and leaving their hairless bodies for all to see. Things get bad when Lucius actually ventures into the woods, and get really nasty when an attack leaves Lucius dying, desperately in need of those "medicines" he's been talking about.
To the rescue comes Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard, in a stunning film debut), the blind daughter of one of the town's elders and Lucius' fiancee. She demands the right to go for help, permission her father (William Hurt) gives, reluctantly.
The Village is brimming with foreboding, much of it courtesy of Roger Deakins' period-rich cinematography; using primary hues with just a hint of ever-present darkness to them, he makes everything look like a picture-postcard from Salem, Mass., circa the 16th century - a bit early for the time period, perhaps, but spooky and daunting nonetheless. The actors are ceaselessly earnest and, in the case of the elders, reserved, suggesting there's more here than meets the eye. (It violates no confidence to confirm that there is.)
Howard, the daughter of director Ron Howard, is a revelation as the blind Ivy, who sees colors in people and has reserves of strength that many in the village find a little intimidating. She alone takes the stilted English all the actors are asked to speak and makes it sound natural. She also displays a natural ease before the camera that makes one regret the scenes in which she doesn't appear, which fortunately aren't many.
Shyamalan presents The Village as a morality tale about civilization and love and the need for each generation to let the next find its own way and make its own mistakes. Which is all well and good, but Serling used to do much the same thing in less than 30 minutes.
Starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Joaquin Phoenix, William Hurt
Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Released by Touchstone Pictures
Rated PG-13 (a scene of violence, frightening situations)
Time 108 minutes
Sun Score **1/2