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"THE VILLAGE"
(2004) (Joaquin Phoenix, Bryce Dallas Howard) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Suspense/Thriller: Old-fashioned members of an isolated and simple village must contend with what appear to be incursions of monsters from an adjacent forest.
PLOT:
Somewhere in the middle of the immense and thick Covington Forest exists a small village of old-fashioned people leading a simple life. Led by a group of elders including Edward Walker (WILLIAM HURT), August Nicholson (BRENDAN GLEESON), Alice Hunt (SIGOURNEY WEAVER) and others, the villagers work hard in their self-sustaining hamlet. No one ever leaves or visits due to reports of monsters in the woods that won't enter the village's perimeter as long as its inhabitants don't enter theirs.

Yet, Alice's adult son, Lucius (JOAQUIN PHOENIX), wants to do just that, but only to obtain medicine from a nearby town that might help save some of the inhabitants in the future. Everyone is against the idea, particularly when some livestock end up being killed and skinned, seemingly as a warning to stay out of the woods.

Not everyone is disappointed that he doesn't get to go, however, especially Edward's blind adult daughter Ivy (BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD). Since Lucius turned down her sister's romantic intentions, Ivy -- who's something of a tomboy and good friends with Noah Percy (ADRIEN BRODY), the village's mentally challenged resident -- is now determined to make the reserved Lucius hers.

With increasing incursions from the creatures in the woods, however, they have something more important to focus on than love. And when a person is severely injured and needs medicine that can only be found in an outside town, one of the villagers must make their way through the woods and contend with a potentially dangerous or deadly encounter with one of the beings.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
While most film directors like to explore a variety of genres and filmmaking styles, a few retread the same material or storytelling techniques or elements for some or all of their careers. Considering that M. Night Shyamalan has only helmed five films so far in his, it's probably too early to identify let alone declare a definitive filmmaking archetype on his part.

Yet, when you consider that his last three films have been suspense thrillers with surprise and/or twist filled endings, we're starting to see a pattern. While I won't give them away in case you haven't seen any of them, both "Unbreakable" and "Signs" tried to match the knock your socks off revelation at the end of "The Sixth Sense," a spooky film that clearly put Shyamalan on the Hollywood map.

Neither was as successful, but the writer/director is undeterred and back to his old games in his latest film, "The Village." While I obviously won't give away the ending, this technique is beginning to wear thin. That's not only due to the preposterous twist that occurs here, but also because viewers now expect it from him. As a result, the "shocking" revelations or developments aren't that shocking since people know they're coming and are on the lookout for them and any clues that might reveal the secret before it's unveiled. It's really no way to watch a movie and it's certainly no way to make a film (at least not repeatedly).

All of which is too bad since the picture -- like those other efforts -- has a certain spooky aura to it that will likely goose viewers, who are in the mood to be scared, in just the right way. That is, at least for a while and only for parts of it. To be truthful, the majority of the film isn't that scary or even suspenseful. It certainly won't be that way at all upon any potential second viewing once the secret is known. That's especially true compared to "The Sixth Sense" that might not have that revelatory punch the second time around, but still has an incredibly creepy aura to it.

In essence, the ending is much like the mostly unseen figures in the woods, known here as "Those of who we don't speak" (although for such a rule, they certainly do talk a lot about them). We know both are lurking out there and Shyamalan prods and pokes at us to draw our attention to them. Unfortunately, both turn out to be a major letdown and the filmmaker even bungles his way -- and misses some golden opportunities for some much needed additional scary material -- through two revelations.

We've already touched on the latter one that's okay in concept but laughably bad in execution (including one line of hokey dialogue explaining a major "but what about" objection I had already raised). Then there's the fact that Shyamalan purposefully lets the cat out of the bag regarding another pivotal element. He could have revealed this secret -- of which I won't directly speak -- in any number of ways (the scene in which it occurs is even tailor made for it and some resultant chills). Instead, he choose the simplest and that's my having one character purposefully tell another this earlier secret.

It makes sense in the context of the script -- the recipient character needs the info -- but it ruins all of the suspense, which had been built up before it, for the rest of us. Shyamalan then has the gall to try to make us worry about this character when both she and we now know there's nothing to worry about.

Of course, she happens to be blind so she's at a bit of a disadvantage in believing what she's been told, but for the rest of us, the suspense balloon has been popped and there's no way it will be refilled no matter how much huffing and puffing Shyamalan does.

Speaking of which, for a while the film does have something of a Grimm's fairy tale aura to it and that's what initially makes it work. All of the villagers are told that something bad lurks in the woods and that they're not supposed to go in there. When a few do, the return incursions from the other side step up as does the suspense, at least temporarily. Like "Signs," Shyamalan uses old-fashioned suspense tactics, mostly of the aural variety.

Unfortunately, he retreads some of the same sort of material he did with that one (things in the woods rather than the cornfield that then come to the house where the residents hide), as well as "The Sixth Sense" regarding the color coding (it's blatantly used here rather than subtly and more effectively in that earlier film).

The performances from the name cast are generally fine. William Hurt ("Tuck Everlasting," "The Big Chill") does his normal paternal sounding thing as the school teacher and village leader, while Sigourney Weaver ('Holes," the "Alien" films) and Brendan Gleeson ("Troy," "Cold Mountain") play single parent elders but don't have much material with which to work.

That's because the focus is on the younger characters embodied by Joaquin Phoenix ("Signs," "Gladiator"), Bryce Dallas Howard and Adrien Brody ("The Pianist," "Harrison's Flowers"). The latter is mostly believable if pretty much unnecessary as the village's token mentally challenged person (who's predictably present as a plot catalyst), while the former teams up once again with Shyamalan to battle more things that go bump in the night.

The standout, however, is actor/director Ron Howard's daughter who makes a terrific feature debut playing the tomboyish blind girl who must venture out into the woods for help. The woodsy cousin to "Wait Until Dark" (where Audrey Hepburn played a blind woman who must deal with intruders in her home), the character is decently written and Howard acts the heck out of it, creating a truly believable screen creation.

It's all the more unfortunate then that the rest of the film doesn't come off the same way. From the early forced perspective visual that misleads everyone to the finale that many will see coming (and those who don't may likely hate), this is a gifted filmmaker back to his old games, only this time it's a losing effort.

With some rejiggering in terms of revelations and such, the film may have worked as a short story where we wouldn't have to wait so long to get to the big surprise at the end. And there is a decent story trying to get out, but all of the material leading up to the big conclusion prevents its complete emergence. In short, this is a story designed solely to support a gimmick.

While the film looks great thanks to cinematographer Roger Deakins ("The House of Sand and Fog," "A Beautiful Mind"), benefits from Howard's performance and initially contains some spooky moments, it can't escape the "been there, seen that, we already figured it out" feeling many will likely get while watching it. It's time for Shyamalan to move on to another genre and new storytelling techniques so that watching his next movie will seem fresh rather than another game of guess the ending. "The Village" rates as a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed July 29, 2004 / Posted July 30, 2004


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