The Village is the new film from writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, who has gained a reputation for knowing how to creep audiences out with incessant eeriness.
His new story takes place in a tiny village in Pennsylvania during what appears to be the 1800’s or so. It is surrounded by forest, and allegedly there are dangerous creatures out there somewhere. The citizens refer to them as “those we do not speak of.” They believe that the color red attracts the beings, so nothing red is allowed. If, by chance, someone discovers a red flower growing naturally, it is quickly buried. Occasionally these beings show up in the village to skin a few animals or paint red slashes on everybody’s door as a warning. Whenever one is sighted, the town bell is rung so that everyone can run and hide.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Lucius Hunt, a quiet young man who is dismayed by the recent death of a young boy. The village is so isolated that there’s no way to access whatever modern medical advances exist. The boy is not the only one to die because of inadequate treatment. Lucius begs the town elders to let him walk through the woods in search of a town where perhaps some more current supplies can be found. Everyone thinks this is tantamount to suicide, but Lucius points to Noah (Adrian Brody), a mentally handicapped man who has gone into the woods and survived, ostensibly because he’s too “innocent” for the beings to kill.
The other key character is a young blind woman named Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is the daughter of the town leader, Edward (William Hurt). She too believes it is necessary to trek through the woods. I’ll tread lightly here and say that one character actually does go into the forbidden area, but I won’t tell you who or why.
Although it’s a chiller, The Village is never scary and never tense. Shyamalan frequently just resorts to pulling out the old tricks, such as locked doors being rattled from the other side by unknown creatures. We also get the requisite quick-cut shots of “creatures” – too short to really know what we’re looking at. And, of course, all kinds of weird noises come out of the forest. Maybe it’s the Blair Witch. Halfway through the movie, something happens that robs the picture of any future suspense it might have generated. It’s really easy to mentally check out of the film at that point, and that’s exactly what happened for me. The scare quotient just isn’t here this time.
I have had a theory recently about scary movies, and The Village proves it. Far too often, we are fooled into thinking films are scary because they make us jump. In fact, I believe that we are frequently only scared by that trademark horror movie sound: a combination of a high-pitched screech and a metallic clang that suddenly booms in digital surround sound. The Village made me jump two or three times, despite the fact that I never felt any tension or dread from the story. It was all the sound effects.
At best, Shyamalan knows how to create hooks. The early scenes, in which we’re not totally certain about the menace in the woods, are intriguing. I liked the way the rules of the town are set up to protect the citizens. There’s also a really good scene in which Edward takes Ivy to an old shed that is locked up. When he tells her “try your hardest not to scream,” we desperately want to know what’s inside. The images of townspeople running to bury red things work too. This, more than anything, is Shyamalan’s gift; he knows how to reel you in with little story devices.
The performances are actually really good here. Phoenix and Brody have already established themselves as solid young actors, and they do some nice work. The same goes for veterans Hurt and Sigourney Weaver (who plays Lucius’s widowed mother.) Newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard (daughter of Ron) is a discovery. She took over the role of Ivy when Kirsten Dunst dropped out. From the basis of this performance, she has a bright future ahead of her. When other things in the movie failed, her work kept me paying attention.
Although it’s not scary the most significant problem in The Village is that I figured out the “surprise” plot twist in less then ten minutes. You probably will too. I’m obviously not going to give it away, but let’s just say that word “absurd” comes to mind. When the revelation is finally made, the screenplay has to work overtime in order to justify how such a thing could occur. And the story falls completely apart because so much emphasis in put on making explanations. You have to take a massive leap of faith to believe this twist is even remotely plausible. As such, the movie stains itself trying to fill in every conceivable plot hole. Remember the old fairy tale about the little boy who stuck his finger in the dike to stop the leak? Well imagine how hard it would be to stop about ten or fifteen leaks simultaneously. That’s how the final 20 minutes of The Village feel.
I enjoyed Shyamalan’s last three films (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs), but quite frankly, I’m starting to wonder if he’s a one-trick pony. Those films, plus The Village, are all kind of the same. They’re all moody, atmospheric chillers with methodic pacing and surprise plot twists. In his desire to repeat a previously winning formula, Shyamalan this time delivers a dud. The filmmaking style is too self-conscious now; we can feel the director once again trying to spin gold, trying to recapture lightning in a bottle. I’d like to see Shyamalan more closely follow his idol Steven Spielberg, who works in thrillers and historical epics, sci-fi and comedy. It is time for Shyamalan to prove he can do something else.
I recognize the fact that the filmmaker is trying to say something with this story. The twist at the end is meant to be a catalyst for the heavily symbolic theme. Shyamalan gets it wrong, though. He tries to make a philosophical point, but chooses the wrong outcome for the village. In the last scene, the townsfolk make a decision that might be good for them, but is wrong for the film. If we are to believe their choice, then the director is sending us a pretty strange message. It’s just one more example of how The Village falls way short of expectations.
( out of four)
The Village is rated PG-13 for a scene of violence and frightening situations. The running time is 2 hours.
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