2004, PG-13, 120 min. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson, Cherry Jones.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Aug. 6, 2004
A stylist with a keen sense of exactly how to manipulate his audience, M. Night Shyamalan has in the past discussed – or revealed, actually – that he does indeed have a secret method to his madness, and one that thus far, with its Hitchcockian attention to detail and the interlocking mechanics of suspense and horror, has served him well. Apparently he’s managed to make something of a science of scaring the bejesus out of his audience, or, at the very least, keeping them guessing until his final, trademark twist arrives like a cerebral sucker punch at film’s end. Watching 1999’s The Sixth Sense, his third film (he tackled two nongenre stories while finding his voice) and still his best, is in hindsight a classic bait-and-switch ghost tale that wouldn’t have been out of place in one of "Ghastly" Graham Ingles’ old EC Comics tales. Few in the audience who hadn’t been already tipped off to that film’s legendary payoff were able to guess how it might resolve itself – likewise Unbreakable and Signs, which were equally complex in their love of a good head game and barely-hinted-at horrors and revelations. With The Village, however, Shyamalan has played the same hand one time too many, and anyone with a passing knowledge of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (or even that old also-ran Thriller) will likely be able to surmise the film’s "shocking" ending with a modicum of head-scratching. Set in the late 1800s, The Village is a Kafka-esque and metaphorical take on the wages of fear, manipulation, and forestry. In a small Pennsylvanian hamlet enclosed on all sides by appropriately forbidding woods, village elders Edgar Walker (Hurt) and Alice Hunt (Weaver) explain to both cast and audience that the idyllic lifestyle the villagers enjoy has been maintained for ages by a strict adherence to a few simple rules, chief among them a hoary admonition to keep clear of the woods and never wear the color red (before Labor Day? After Labor Day? Walker’s sense of couture here is maddeningly muddled). Not surprisingly, flirtatious young lovers Lucious Hunt (Phoenix) and Walker’s tomboyish blind daughter Ivy (Howard, daughter of Ron), and the village’s mentally handicapped charmer Noah (Brody, treading close to his Dummy mode), run afoul of tradition after the death of Noah’s brother opens the door to horror and, eventually, to the secret of the creatures that lie beyond those dreadful woods. Shyamalan’s stingily parceled-out shocks are the type that could upset the film’s dicey equilibrium a la The Sixth Sense if hints were to be doled out – but this peaceful little hamlet with some very deep, dark secrets of its own seems to also have developed a problem with animated scarecrows (as in Signs, the critters are barely glimpsed and shadowy). It’s exasperating watching so much top-drawer talent wasted in a film that wraps itself up with one of the most preposterous (not to mention obvious) endings the genre has ever seen. And while The Village gains infinitely from the masterful compositions of cinematographer Roger Deakins, who gives the whole affair the gorgeously eerie look and feel of a faded, sepia-tinted photograph, it also feels as if Shyamalan is coasting. Having come up with his own, almost literal, schematics for creating audience-pleasing and intellectual horror films, Shyamalan would do well next time to burn the manual (and his collection of old Twilight Zone episodes) and lope off on a completely different direction.