Touchstone has quite properly instructed critics not to spill the beans about the new M. Night Shyamalan picture The Village, which means that apart from describing the setting and delivering a few straightforward judgments (the photography is excellent! the music is striking! the movie is a stinker!), I can’t really grapple with the writer-director’s deepest themes. The expected Shyamalan twist here is actually a cinch to intuit; but most viewers will, as I did, reject that intuition as both too obvious and too far-fetched. And so the Shyamster stuns us yet again!
The Village has been written in a semi-Puritan patois that is one part The Crucible and one part a pretentious, tin-eared foreign-exchange ninth-grader’s attempt at replicating The Crucible. It half-works when the movie is in H.P. Lovecraft territory: severe, wintry New England palette; a suggestion of inbreeding; hushed mentions of “The Old Ones,” “Those We Don’t Speak Of,” and, my personal favorite, “The Old Shed That Is Not To Be Used.” Shyamalan brings all his high-toned arthouse horror-movie tricks to bear on the film’s slender narrative. Just as in Signs (2002), he serves up a masterly opening: a stabbing James Newton Howard overture that segues into Hilary Hahn’s plaintive violin, with Brendan Gleeson wailing over the coffin of his dead child and the village—led by William Hurt—looking on in mute anguish. At a communal meal, an unearthly howl, like a banshee’s, shatters the silence—a sound that brings an answering howl of antisocial joy from Adrien Brody (shot from a low angle to bring out his snaggle teeth) as some sort of scraggly backward imp.
This village, we learn, is a piously isolated place, separated from the unruly “towns” by a forbidden wood that is populated with the aforementioned “Those We Don’t Speak Of” (TWDSO). It is an uneasy equilibrium: From time to time TWDSO stride into the village, driving everyone into underground cellars. In the fleeting glimpses we get (similar to those of the ghosts of The Sixth Sense and the space invaders of Signs, accompanied by percussive BONGs!!!), TWDSO are tall and humanoid, with bony talons. They also wear cowls of red—a forbidden color in the village, even when it springs naturally from the earth.
As The Village begins, two problems weigh on the villagers: why TWDSO are making more frequent nocturnal visits and leaving skinned animals around in putrid heaps; and what to do about the young-’uns dying off for lack of medicine available in the towns. Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix), the oft-tongue-tied but stalwart male lead, volunteers to trek through the wood in spite of the danger posed by TWDSO: “They will know I am pure of intention and will not harm me,” he maintains. Is his faith well-placed, or is he dangerously naive? Are these enigmatic animal-flaying forest dwellers truly keeping tabs on the villagers’ every toe-touch beyond the tree line, or are TWDSO as fictional as WMD?
The performers have had a look at the Shyamster’s box-office receipts and so play this absurd material exceedingly straight. Phoenix falls victim to a certain creeping cretinism, but he has a scene with his beloved Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard) while sitting on a step before the mystically illuminated fog-shrouded wood that is all the more romantic for the stiltedness of the couple’s village-speak. (“I find dancing very agreeable.”) There has been much hype about Howard, the daughter of director Ron. She is, indeed, a honey, and, from what I can tell, an excellent actress with a strong pair of lungs and a sufficient amount of movie-star magnetism to stifle the derisive yucks that her role (pure-of-heart blind girl with the ability to see peoples’ “color”) would otherwise elicit.
Shyamalan’s themes are older than literature and revolve around the perils of separating from a perilous society in the name of a safer (and more simple, and holy) way of life. But by turning The Village into a shaggy-dog mystery/horror picture, he pretty much ducks the most nagging questions. (The conversations I had leaving the theater were not of a religious/philosophical nature, but akin to the ones I had as a 10-year-old about why the Howells and Ginger brought so many clothes for a 3-hour tour.) Worse, this isn’t even an effective scare movie: The audience starts giggling less than halfway into our heroine’s climactic trek through the wood—a Little Yellow Riding Hood, red having been appropriated by the wolves. Why didn’t they—? Who could possibly have sent—? How could they have—? Hush. Mustn’t spill those beans. Dumb’s the word.