In a small, peaceful 1800s style village lives a community (including Joaquin Phoenix, Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson, William Hurt, Judy Greer, Cherry Jones, and Adrien Brody) who fear the forest that surrounds them. Believing that monsters live in these woods, the villagers keep to themselves, honoring a truce the elders of the town made with the creatures years ago. When one of the villagers falls victim to a violent crime, the town turns to a blind woman named Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard) to venture into the woods and retrieve medicine from a neighboring settlement.
Having each one of his significant studio films met with tremendous success, M. Night Shyamalan has a lot to live up to. Here is a director with a known modus operandi, a desire to challenge summer audiences with his glacial pacing, but a weakness for monkey business. “The Village” is his latest, coming on the heels of his unexpected blockbuster, the alien invasion/faith challenging/crop circles bonanza, “Signs.” Though loaded with unhealthy expectations, “The Village” turns out to be Shyamalan’s most graceful, emotionally persuasive supernatural thriller to date.
It’s that supernatural part that bothers me the most. Shyamalan is far too well known as a master (often self-appointed) of the horror/thriller genre, and “The Village” plays right into that, with the B plot of the film focusing on the eerie happenings deep with the woods that border the village. But at the core of all the monsters, darkness, and hysteria is a deeply moving love story between Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) and Ivy, which the filmmaker allocates a good deal of time to gain speed as the spookier stuff rolls out. At its heart, “Village” is a costume drama exploring the microcosm of this tiny population that is entirely reliant on each other. “Village” is most appealing stepping back and watching these characters interact, captured with Shyamalan’s meticulous, mannered camera moves and pace, never breathing too deeply or trying too hard, outside of his clunky dialog.
But restraint and tenderness can only last so long, and soon enough Shyamalan whips out his specialty: the scares. “Village” isn’t quite the chiller “Signs” was, nor does it even aspire to be. Shyamalan almost appears to be using the forest angle of the story just to appease his fans, with his heart not involved like in his previous films.
Also keeping “The Village” blooming is at least half of the cast, who give durable performances even with the screenplay’s lack of refinement. Actors Sigourney Weaver, Judy Greer, and Brendan Gleeson fall down hard trying to wrap their tongues around the thick, obtrusive dialog. William Hurt and Joaquin Phoenix understand what the film requires, and they rise above what they’ve been given. In the lead role of Ivy, newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard (daughter of Ron) is a revelation, bringing strength, innocence, and conviction to a tricky role. Shyamalan is wise enough to simply turn his camera on and focus on Howard’s radiant facial features, for that alone is more compelling and communicative than any passage of old English or brooding shot of misty woods. I expect great things from this marvelous actress.
Yes, there is a kicker twist ending, which, of course, I won’t reveal here. I will say that while the climax has “Twilight Zone” overtones, Shyamalan does a satisfactory job not pounding it to pieces. The problem with the ending is that it doesn’t pay off the tension of the previous 90 minutes in a satisfying way. It’s a muted conclusion to an edgy film, and that just isn’t a smart way to play it, as meaningful as the finale is. What M. Night Shyamalan has with “The Village” is three-quarters of a great film, which is a lot more than what he’s had before. If he would be willing to drop the “Shyamalan” bells and whistles, there could a lot more to this filmmaker than what we’ve been lead to believe.Rating: B+