Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan is well aware that many fans now go into his spine-tingling thrillers hoping to out-smart him, dissecting every scene for advance clues to his celebrated plot twists. In "The Village," he plays into this expectation, leaving trace insinuations everywhere, most of which provide the film with curious touches of character while leading viewers with over-active imaginations in completely the wrong direction.
One actor in this latest unnerving endeavor is most blessed by this technique (although not necessarily a source of false leads herself). The delicate, expressively supple Bryce Dallas Howard (the offspring of director Ron Howard) makes a mesmerizing debut as young woman with a secret, supernatural gift for seeing people's auras -- but little else.
She plays freckled, crimson-haired Ivy, the plucky, spirited, near-blind, daughter of the head elder (William Hurt) in a 19th-century community strangely and willfully content in the isolation forced upon its tiny populace by petrifying mythical creatures that haunt the surrounding woods.
Ivy becomes the film's emotional touchstone when chaos erupts around her in an early scene: As the creatures breach the village's meadow perimeter (forever guarded by fires and a watchtower), sending people scurrying for the modest protection of their locked cellars, Ivy stands frozen in a doorway, her stalwart but fragile hand outstretched in the faith that it will be soon find the sturdy grip of Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix), the emotionally reticent but selfless and fearless young man who has always come to her rescue.
Howard's preternatural ability to instill such moments with a flood of visceral sensations is perfectly coupled with Shyamalan's gift for chills as the story unfolds in sometimes startling ways. Ivy's demonstrable love for Lucius sets in motion a tragedy that leads to a terrible secret revealed, a daring infringement into the forest, and the chance of a discovery that could shatter the village's sheltered existence.
More than that I cannot divulge without giving away some of the picture's surprises. But while Shyamalan shows a mastery of mood and metaphor (the village's idyllic nature being maintained in part by fear has parallels to both Orwellian themes and modern politics), without the distraction of his tension-sustaining twists -- and without Howard breathing such gripping empathy into Ivy -- "The Village" would seem overly simplistic and perhaps a little silly.
Most of the characters here lack the depth Shyamalan has demonstrated in his previous work, and the great cast -- including Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson, Cherry Jones, Celia Weston and Adrien Brody (in a pivotal role as the village idiot) -- visibly struggle to stretch their parts into three dimensions. Some of them also seem to struggle with their stilted period dialogue, and over-articulate phrases like "Those We Don't Speak Of" (the creatures, which they do speak of, all the time) and "The Old Shed That Is Not To Be Used."
Shyamalan makes some unsophisticated choices in his use of symbolism (every house contains a locked box of secrets from the elders' pasts) and excessive slow-motion. One devastatingly poor decision in the editing room leads to the film's climactic revelation being undermined when the director cuts away to another scene, mapping out the larger meaning of the impending surprise as if explaining it to a child. And there are large passages of the film that feel as if Shyamalan is just killing time before The Big Twist.
But even if "The Village" is one of his lesser works that, like 2002's "Signs," doesn't stick to the ribs, it still gets the wheels spinning in one's mind, because Shyamalan is one writer-director who never does anything without a reason -- even if he sometimes makes mistakes. So could that stilted dialogue delivery be intentional? Is it possible that the effects used to create the creatures -- while quite eerie with their razor-sharp bony fingers and clusters of spinal spires tearing through the backs of their red robes -- seem slightly ersatz on purpose?
One thing is for sure: Shyamalan can still tie knots in your stomach at will, sometimes with a single line of whispered dialogue.
"Ivy," says the girl's father when the village tragedy leads him to secretly reveal to her what lies in that forbidden shed, "do your very best not to scream..."
Run time: 108 mins
In Theaters: Friday 30th July 2004
Box Office USA: $114.2M
Box Office Worldwide: $256.7M
Distributed by: Buena Vista
Production compaines: Touchstone Pictures, Blinding Edge Pictures, Scott Rudin Productions
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 43%
Fresh: 89 Rotten: 117
IMDB: 6.5 / 10
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard as Ivy Walker, Joaquin Phoenix as Lucius Hunt, Adrien Brody as Noah Percy, William Hurt as Edward Walker, Sigourney Weaver as Alice Hunt, Brendan Gleeson as August Nicholson, Cherry Jones as Mrs. Clack, Celia Weston as Vivian Percy, John Christopher Jones as Robert Percy, Frank Collison as Victor, Jayne Atkinson as Tabitha Walker, Judy Greer as Kitty Walker, Fran Kranz as Christop Crane, Jesse Eisenberg as Jamison, Michael Pitt as Finton Coin