Deep in the dangerous wasteland of America, far removed from civilization, there exists a community driven by fear, sworn to isolationism. They loathe outsiders, whom they regard as terrifying monsters. They make up strange rituals to guard themselves against the vast world beyond their borders. And while they may feast grandly upon the fruits of their enterprise, theirs is a realm deluded, a twisted microcosm, a hell hermetically sealed, ruled by cowardly self-preservation.
But enough about Hollywood. Let's consider this movie The Village.
It was inevitable that M. Night Shyamalan, director of such grim gems as The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable and such pedestrian piffle as Signs, would eventually take himself extremely seriously, and here he does, for better and worse. Unbreakable remains Shyamalan's most successful outing, its darkly adolescent comic book themes ideally matching the writer-director's languid style and limited talents. Thereafter, the puzzlingly profitable Signs was merely a hand-me-down X-Files romp, stumbling drunk on its clumsy stab at Significance. With The Village, Shyamalan pushes much, much harder for that Significance; the result is his most meditative and lovingly rendered offering thus far, if also his least fun.
Since anyone with half a brain or access to online geek-chats has already sussed some aspect of this movie's primary "twist," we'll just skip that business. The eponymous village is Covington, located somewhere in late 19th-century America. Guided by a council of knowing elders including town leader Edward Walker (William Hurt) and pensive seamstress Alice Hunt (Sigourney Weaver), the townsfolk basically behave like modern-day Amish or Mennonites, practicing husbandry and handicrafts without the benefit (or curse) of post-industrial technology. Two qualities set them apart, though: Unlike most Americans (including those who don't buy the Christ rap), they're not religious fanatics, but they do live in mortal fear of mysterious creatures who lurk in the woods beyond their small community's perimeter.
The bravest and least comprehensible villager is a stalwart mumbler named Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix), who is Alice's son. Lucius cavalierly explores the woods, but plays his emotional cards close to his hand-hewn vest, to the dismay of Edward's pretty, blind daughter Ivy (splendid Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of Ron), who adores him. Complicating matters is the village moron Noah (Adrien Brody, looking eerily comfortable in a Charles Manson wig), who lusts after Ivy and cannot control his behavior. The ridiculously hyped and overrated Brody basically rehashes his misunderstood punk shtick from Summer of Sam, prompting talk of braving the woods to seek medicine "to help him be stilled, to help him learn." Uh, wait a century -- it's called Ritalin.
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Without revealing plot specifics beyond the first act, we learn that Lucius' wayfaring ways have angered the scary creatures, whom we vaguely glimpse as crimson-cloaked demons with grotesquely spiny backs. They skin the livestock, make spooky noises, and smear the villagers' doors with red -- which is, of course, "the bad color" that attracts them. While the townsfolk panic in the harrowing absence of ketchup and cinnamon schnapps, Ivy stumbles off to meet the Blair Witch, or whatever awaits her amid those big, nasty trees.
Clever foreshadowing and authentic period designs add intrigue and atmosphere, but Shyamalan's "archaic" dialogue clunks for all but Hurt, who plies his trademark line delivery, which sounds as though he's been slapped awake at 4 a.m. and handed the script in the dark. (Personal quibble: Since Hurt plays a former professor, back in times when people spoke properly, shouldn't he call the creatures not "Those We Don't Speak Of" but rather "Those of Whom We Don't Speak"?) Some other material is quite charming, as when bubbly Ivy begs of laconic Lucius, "Why can you not say what is in your head?" and he shoots back, "Why can you not stop saying what is in yours?" The rest concerns the related topics of experimental living, group paranoia, willful denial, and some associated benefits and drawbacks.
The director manages to squeeze in another silly cameo for himself, but his weird imprint is on every frame anyway. It wouldn't be a Shyamalan movie if its plot didn't hinge on improbabilities and inconsistencies, such as nobody fussing over spilled blood, which is dangerously red. Even sillier, the ol' barricading-the-vicious-alien-in-the-pantry-without-telling-the-cops routine from Signs is now matched by a vital, dangerous clue conveniently stowed under flimsy floorboards beneath a mad, locked-up criminal. If Shyamalan weren't so busy stacking his bales of money, pretending he invented the concept of a heroine, or celebrating the presumed lack of sarcasm in 1897 -- don't forget to invite Oscar Wilde to that party -- he'd have more time to tighten his sloppy loopholes.
Still, production values are high, and composer James Newton Howard borrows liberally and enjoyably from John Williams' Indiana Jones highlights. Amazingly, this is also a rare film from prolific producer Scott Rudin (Mother, Sleepy Hollow, The Hours, The Stepford Wives remake) that's not ultimately about a deranged matriarch -- perhaps some counseling pays off. These ponderings and more are provoked by The Village, which is a silly but creative place to visit for a couple of hours. Hollywood could offer far worse destinations in the summer months, and often does.