The Village

on July 30, 2004 by Ray Greene
There will be worse movies this summer than "The Village," but few ultimately as silly. We are again in M. Night Shyamalan territory, a creepy and vaguely allegorical terrain that, uniquely for a currently successful Hollywood filmmaker, owes more to Rod Serling and Stephen King than it does to Steven Spielberg. This is the country of spooks and shadows, of endless tracking shots that creep around corners where danger lurks, and then, finding nothing, creep some more. It's a place where arty cinematography and marble-mouthed metaphor mix and mingle with the lowest kind of horror movie tricks, where austere autumnal imagery is consistently underscored by sudden music hits designed to goose the audience by signifying a threat that is in no way communicated visually. It's a schizophrenic landscape, equal parts highlands of artistic aspiration and lowlands of B-movie cant.

After the crypto-spiritualism of "Signs" and "The Sixth Sense," it was perhaps inevitable that Shyamalan would try his hand at a genuine allegorical story form. With its limited cast of characters, arrested and nameless geography, and costumes that alternate between Victoriana and billowing red and yellow robes worthy of Torquemada's Spanish Inquisition, "The Village" resembles nothing so much as a Medieval Morality Play. The premise is as primal as a fairytale: A rural village whose clothes and technology place it in time around the end of the 19th century is cut off from the rest of humanity by a dense wood, which the villagers believe to be inhabited by monstrous and semi-intelligent creatures. A truce exists between the village and the forest; as long as the villagers keep to themselves, no harm will come to them. But the forest is becoming restless, and the village elders are trying to figure out why before it's too late.

It's actually a rather promising suspense movie idea, and there is some evidence to suggest that Shyamalan means to make a comment on the ways in which terror can be used to manipulate people, which would make "The Village" a sort of Michael Moore version of a Grimm's Fairytale. The kindly village elders have an agenda, you see, and their warnings to keep out of the woods can be read as a kind of pre-industrial amber alert system, designed to keep the population frightened, preoccupied and ultimately quite docile.

The problems with "The Village" are of execution rather than concept. First and foremost, Shyamalan has unwisely chosen to write his entire script in a kind of stilted English that is apparently his idea of how people in the past might have talked. "The Village" features a fine and able cast, headed by William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody and the luminous Bryce Dallas Howard, whose only obstacle to a long career is that she looks so much like her famous father Ron that there are moments when it feels like Joaquin Phoenix is about to kiss Opie from "The Andy Griffith Show." But despite strong players, the cartoon Amish quality of Shyamalan's speechifying script is a persistent irritant in this rather slow-moving film, and one the excellent actors are only intermittently successful at struggling against.

Most problematic of all is what has emerged as Shyamalan's addiction to twist endings, a technique he may have gleaned from his spiritual mentor, "Twilight Zone" creator Serling. Twist endings are tricky things. In the right hands (Serling's in most cases, Shyamalan's when he made "The Sixth Sense") they can be cheesy good fun--a satisfying third act reversal of the audience's expectations that leaves the viewer pleased at having fallen into the storyteller's trap. But if the groundwork that precedes the final reversal is poorly laid, or the reversal itself is too ridiculous to swallow, the audience just ends up feeling cheated. In "The Village" (which wears the mark of some last-minute rewriting and reshooting in its choppy final 20 minutes), the latter situation is unfortunately the case; what is meant to be the "A-ha!" moment when the audience realizes its been had is instead the "Oh c'mon!" instant, when the audience groans, and mentally begins to move for the exits. While not a complete waste of time or skill, "The Village" finds Shyamalan going a twist too far, and it is highly unlikely that this time the sizable audience from "The Sixth Sense" and "Signs" will be willing to follow. Starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody and William Hurt. Directed and written by M. Night Shyamalan. Produced by Sam Mercer and Scott Rudin. A Buena Vista release. Horror/Suspense. Rated PG-13 for a scene of violence and frightening situations. Running time: 108 min

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