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The Village

(2004) ** 1/2 Pg-13
120 min. Touchstone Pictures. Director: M. Night Shyamalan. Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver.

After he made 1999's twist-hinging runaway hit The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan seemingly had the power to write his own ticket, and he chose to make Unbreakable, which turned out to be a twist-hinging, modest success. Shyamalan boxed himself in as "the twist guy," a genre-loving disciple of Spielberg and Hitchcock, a blockbuster Rod Serling, if you will. With The Village, Shyamalan has crafted a well-meaning, half-hour Twilight Zone episode stretched to the outer limits of a two-hour feature.

Framed as a period piece, The Village essays an isolationist, Luddite culture with a predictable assortment of sketchy characters: a council of elders including William Hurt's Edward, Sigourney Weaver's Alice, and Brendan Gleeson's August; the town simpleton (Adrien Brody); Edward's blind daughter Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard); and Alice's earnest, slowly self-emboldening son Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix of Shyamalan's Signs). Since Shyamalan has never explored any creative breadth, audiences will be on guard for The Village's Big Twist, which should be obvious to anyone who's ever read Shirley Jackson.

For the village is a place of Deep, Dark Secrets, which Shyamalan spends hours teasing fruitlessly. The town lives in fear of a species of terrible creatures referred to only as "Those We Do Not Speak Of." Edward reminds the townspeople, "We do not go into their woods; they do not come into our valley." But when sorrow comes looking for the people of the village, Lucius begins toying with a transgression through the woods to seek out the salves of civilization. Discouragement comes not only from the elders, but from Those We Do Not Speak Of, clawed, porcupine-backed creatures cloaked in blood red, a.k.a. The Bad Color which proverbially attracts the beasts.

Needless to say, Shyamalan has bigger fish to fry than his kettle of red herrings. The Village is a transparent allegory for Bush's retrogressive America, which trades freedom for assurances of safety and the purported protection of innocence (the safe color, of course, is yellow; no green for "go" in The Village's repressive, passion-drained climes). Edward, the voice of Puritanical reactionism, preaches, "We may question ourselves at times like these," but hastens to add the refrain "We are grateful for the time we have been given." Edward thaws when faced with a personal crisis involving his daughter, but old habits die hard for the elders of the village. Shyamalan means their secret—hardly sensible in realistic terms—to bring into focus for slow-witted audience members the moral of his latest fable of fear.

Though The Village is dully obvious as drama and inept as a half-hearted scary movie, Shyamalan's bag of tricks isn't entirely empty. The storyteller orchestrates one or two good jolts which beg the question, "Uh oh, what's next?" He has the help of a fine ensemble: Hurt's measured pace and fervent simmer ride Shyamalan's stylistic wavelength, and Howard (yes, Ron's daughter) excels in a breakthrough role. Master cinematographer Roger Deakins provides austere photography, and the soundtrack—from crisp sound effects to James Newton Howard's score (featuring Hilary Hahn on violin)—is practically all Shyamalan has going for him in terms of frightening misdirection. On the other hand, the director's taste for whispery dialogue and fondness for dollops of red in fields of dread have already begun bordering on self-parody.

The Village plays like something written by a precocious sixteen-year-old intent on Symbolism with a capital "S"; the story will be most palatable if approached as a Grimm's fairy tale. At a key juncture, Ivy sallies forth on her own, with only her blind faith to guide her or, as her father puts it, "She's led by love." That fearful adventure of love, that leap of faith, is surely better than the alternative, no man is an island, etcetera, etcetera. Fine, but why couldn't Shyamalan plan a fascinating itinerary instead of nudging us down his well-trodden blind path?

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