July 30, 2004
One should always tread lightly when revealing plot details in an M. Night Shyamalan movie — audiences have become so acclimated to the filmmaker’s twist endings ("The Sixth Sense," "Signs") that they’re liable to tug on any innocuous thread of information and prematurely unravel the mystery.
In other words, the less said, the better.
I will say this: The village in "The Village" actually turns out to be a space station. Hey now.
All joking aside, the most important thing to know about "The Village" — Shyamalan’s fourth feature film since reinventing himself as a high craftsman of fantasy drama — is that it stylishly and capably delivers your recommended weekly allowance of supernatural tension and dark, spine-tingling mystery.
It’s also the year’s most touching and satisfying love story. Shyamalan’s defining talent isn’t his knack for twist endings; it’s his ability to conjure surreal, undefined states of physical reality, where abstractions such as love, pain and faith are free to acquire a wrenching sharpness and depth all their own.
Shyamalan seems to have cobbled together the basic story line from marathon viewings of "Little House on the Prairie" and "The Twilight Zone," with perhaps a dash of "Beowulf."
Late in the late 1800s, an isolated, peace-loving community in rural Pennsylvania finds itself besieged by terrible, rarely seen woodland creatures — spiny beasts with porcine snouts and long, vampiric fingernails.
Led by a council of elders — including mild-mannered schoolteacher Edward Walker (William Hurt) and statuesque housemarm Alice Hunt (Sigourney Weaver) — the town of Covington is cut off from the world at least partly by choice: Adults describe the surrounding towns as "wicked places where wicked people live."
Living in perfect agrarian harmony, the townsfolk observe a detailed mythology. The monsters are called Those We Don’t Speak Of. The color red is The Bad Color, because it attracts the monsters. Seemingly every adult owns a lockbox made of dark wood, the contents of which help them "remember." What, we don’t know.
When Alice’s willful leathersmith son Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) ventures into the surrounding woods, thereby breaking an unspoken "truce" with the creatures, frightful omens appear all around town: Skinned animals and angry scarlet slashes painted across the doorways. Chastened, Lucius suppresses his adventurous spirit, especially when his long-simmering love for Edward’s blind daughter Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard) finally hits full boil.
Howard, the daughter of "Happy Days" actor and "Apollo 13" filmmaker Ron Howard, is nothing short of a redheaded revelation. Perceptive and plainspoken ("Will you dance with me on our wedding night?" she asks a scandalized Lucius), Ivy is the most beatific, noble-minded movie heroine in recent memory, and one for whom Howard could easily score an Oscar statuette.
When tragedy strikes Covington — something to do with the village idiot, played by Oscar winner Adrien Brody ("The Pianist") — Ivy is obliged to take an Old Testament-style sojourn into the woods, where danger (and Shyamalan’s blind-side plotting) awaits.
About that twist ending: It actually inspires more questions than it answers. For that reason, "The Village" lacks the pressurized punch of "The Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable" (his two best movies to date) but is easily his most romantic work, and also the first that begins to flirt with social criticism.
Shyamalan, the Philly physician’s son who turned his back on the family business, seems utterly uninterested in exploring other idioms and film styles, and why should he? Like Alfred Hitchcock, the filmmaker to whom he’s most often compared, Shyamalan has such a strong command of his own dialect that further reinvention seems pointless. One can easily envision him churning out handcrafted, audiencepleasing supernatural thrillers well into his dotage — like the people of Covington, content never to leave the comfortable confines of his own creative utopia.