In The Village, director M. Night Shyamalan is as lost in the woods as the young blind woman who is sent from her Luddite cloister of plain-speaking innocents on a mission of mercy. Really, it's getting about that time for Shyamalan, who burst onto the scene with 1999's nuanced thriller, The Sixth Sense, to get over himself. Five years later, and it seems like Shyamalan has lost almost all of his senses when it comes to crafting a movie with a coherent message. It's as if, delighted with the audience's reaction to the big secret at the end of The Sixth Sense, he keeps trying to top himself, leading to the disaster that was Unbreakable. The follow-up, Signs, showed Shyamalan veering into the dangerous waters of faith and spirituality, its ending not quite as bada-BING in its grandiosity but equally limp.
With The Village, Shyamalan tries to go deeper still, and all but drowns in his own pretensions about hope, innocence and, yes, faith. And please, don't get me started about THE BIG SECRET that studio publicists begged critics not to divulge. But here's what can be said: This BIG SECRET, which actually follows the revelation of a SMALLER SECRET, is so out of left field and so implausible as to make some of us at a recent screening fighting to suppress a guffaw. Suspension of disbelief is one thing; suspension of the brain is another.
As his star has risen, Shyamalan's passion for style has drawn comparisons to Steven Spielberg and his devotion to the thriller has drawn comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock. Both are as preposterous as this silly ending. Shyamalan deserves credit for priming moods and atmospheres for small moments of anticipation -- certainly a basic tenet of suspense. His preoccupation with sound and color almost always serves him well. But he is so hell-bent on the payoff that he doesn't care how or if it all fits in smoothly with the rest of the story. Worse, still, he's working out his issues of faith as an exercise, and forcing us to watch him do the math.
In The Village, the townfolk act, look and talk like they owe a debt to Pennsylvania's Amish -- indeed, the opening scene suggests they are in another time and place, perhaps the late 1800s. They are set in their ways, ruled by a group of elders that features a who's who of character actors, some well known, some not so much: William Hurt as Edward Walker, Sigourney Weaver as Alice Hunt, Brendan Gleason as August Nicholson, Celia Weston as Vivian Percy, and so on. They go about the running of their countryside township with a grim sense of duty; they're carrying more than the weight of their children on their backs. Indeed, every home literally has a secret in the form of a locked box. And as we all know, secrets have a way of tearing at innocence.
The next generation, as most all younger generations, is a restless bunch, hoping to adhere to the elders' ways but wondering if there can't be some leeway. They know that the nearby woods are off-limits, filled with "those we do not speak of," scary creatures with whom they have forged a truce: neither side crosses the other's boundaries. And so the kids try to respect the rules, focusing on playing games and learning how to become adults through work and courting. Among them are Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard), a blind girl who (as movie conventions insist) literally and figuratively has more sense than any of her peers. Howard is the daughter of Ron Howard, and indeed, if you could marry off Mia Farrow (circa, say, Rosemary's Baby with a perm) with Richie Cunningham-era Ron Howard, you'd have the lovely Bryce. Her blue eyes sparkle underneath those red locks, perfect colors for Shyamalan's impressive palette.
In fact, much of The Village is steeped in wondrous colors, including the ominous reds that are so dangerous the citizens bury anything that color at first sight -- particularly the blood red of native berries. There is also the almost mustard yellow-gold that coats the warning flags bordering the woods and saturates their warming capes -- here, yellow is both caution and comfort.
As soon as the young ones start to develop yearnings of love, things start to get complicated. Jealousies develop (Adrien Brody's village idiot Noah being the surprising catalyst), battles arise, and sooner or later someone's gonna get hurt. But these being a simple folk, there's no medicine of any note, and the only help can be found in the towns on the other side of the forest. Ivy, hoping to save her love (Joaquin Phoenix, who in this and Signs rises above the material), sets out on a live-saving trek. And then come the secrets, spilling out of the box.
You want to know the biggest secret of all? M. Night Shyamalan is overrated. Shhhh! Don't tell anybody!
- Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) wonders what mysteries lie in the ominous woods in M. Night Shyamalan's latest thriller, The Village.