I see a dead movie. At one point fairly early on in M. Night Shyamalan’s new thriller, a woman asks her son, “What nonsense are you speaking?” She might have better addressed the writer-director a similar question: “What nonsense are you filming?” Because the fact of the matter is that “The Village” is a very silly movie. Even more surprising is the fact that it’s also poorly structured, clumsily staged, heavy with awkward dialogue and, despite a talented cast, very badly acted. Given that Shyamalan’s previous films, however farfetched their narratives, have been solidly crafted, that’s a terrible disappointment, and it turns “The Village” into a cinematic stiff.
Of course, Shyamalan has become known as the master of the twist ending, and maybe that’s become his curse. Be warned upfront that if you want to know the ending to “The Village,” you’ve come to the wrong place; there will be no spoilers here. The Disney people at Touchstone have asked all writers to refrain from revealing too much about the movie’s last reel, and supposedly they’ve even extracted non-disclosure agreements from some critics promising not to tell anyone how it turns out. So it would be churlish not to comply. (In the North Texas area, they went further to prevent comment on the picture from appearing before the first weekend: the studio actually canceled press screenings that had once been scheduled, holding the picture back for print press until two days before opening, making it difficult even for newspaper notices to be up by Friday morning, and excluding internet writers from all showings before Thursday.) These unusual actions were taken, we were told, “to prevent the film’s secrets from getting out early.” But that’s ridiculous, because though it’s designed as one of Shyamalan’s trademark puzzlers, the only real surprise in the movie is how stilted and hokey it is. Yes, there are twists toward the close–more than one, in fact–but they’re telegraphed too far in advance and prove much less organically “right” than those in the director’s previous work; the inevitability one felt looking back in retrospect at “The Sixth Sense,” for example, is utterly lacking here. (It’s an especially bad sign that Shyamalan has to toss in a couple of verbal asides toward the close to cover gaping implausibilities in his scenario.) “The Village” is easily Shyamalan’s worst picture, from “Wide Awake” on.
The film’s premise has been splattered all over magazine and TV screens for months now. In a small Pennsylvania village in 1897, the townspeople are prevented from going into the surrounding woods by monsters that dwell there. Though the elders warn the younger residents to abide by the wooded limits, which are guarded by rows of burning torches and a watch tower, one of them, the serious, soft-spoken Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) tests them despite his mother’s (Sigourney Weaver) efforts to dissuade him. His actions bring grief to the settlement: the much-feared creatures descend upon it, kill and skin the livestock, and mark the houses with slashes of red (which is what the villagers refer to as “the bad color”). While all this communal commotion is going on, trouble also arises of a romantic sort. Lucius is approached by Kitty Walker (Judy Greer), daughter of chief elder Edward Walker (William Hurt), but he rejects her, having always silently loved her blind, tomboyish sister Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), who clearly adores him, too. When, after Kitty’s marriage to another man, Lucius and Ivy finally reveal their feelings for one another, their engagement causes Noah Percy (Adrien Brody), the mentally troubled young man who has always been Ivy’s special friend, to react violently. A serious injury to one character leads another to venture into the forest to search out much-needed medical help in the nearest town. The journey leads to revelations about the monsters and the village as well.
The problems with “The Village” are legion. The scenario is full of holes which Shyamalan’s ponderous pacing fails to conceal even while the film is unspooling, and which seem gargantuan in retrospect; and the twists that eventually occur are utterly absurd and unsatisfying. The film is also derivative, as “Signs” was of “The War of the Worlds,” because although it’s never spelled out in detail, there’s a low-tech “Stepford” feel to what Shyamalan is trying to get away with, and one should remember how poorly this summer’s remake of Ira Levin’s thriller fared. “The Village” isn’t appreciably better, its gloomy seriousness coming off no more effectively than the earlier movie’s dumb farce. The cast seem understandably dispirited under the director’s heavy hand (and the distinctly unflattering wardrobe, which includes some goofy-looking yellow cloaks). Phoenix stares and pauses like one barely alive (just as Bruce Willis did in “Sense”), delivering his dialogue in a halting, deadpan fashion that he abandons only in his one big monologue to Ivy. Brody is more animated, but proves that’s not always a good thing; he makes Noah an almost goofy simpleton, when the character might have been an imposing Jud Fry. Howard, who’s making her debut here, is easily the best of the youngster leads, projecting both strength and vulnerability even though some of Ivy’s actions belie her supposed sightlessness (and Howard’s own inexperience occasionally shows). Neither Hurt nor Weaver can do much in their stock turns, with the former taking his characteristic recessiveness to extraordinary lengths. The picture has been handsomely mounted, with the village set impressively realistic, although the absence of a religious establishment, in terms of either church or minister (unless Walker is intended to be the equivalent of one), is a curious omission. Unfortunately, the cinematography by veteran Roger Deakins uses jerky hand-held camerawork too often, and some of the compositions are unaccountably clumsy, especially in the final section within the woods. The score by James Newton Howard effectively pumps up the suspense even when the story doesn’t; indeed, some of the most notable “gotcha!” moments are more sound than sight.
Perhaps the saddest thing one can say about “The Village” is that the wretched SciFi Network mockumentary about the shoot was worthy of it. And if you want to know about the twisty last act without sitting through the dry, dusty picture itself, just check out the current issue of Creative Screenwriting magazine. The script review found there is quite accurate. And since it wasn’t me who wrote it, I haven’t broken the embargo.