2½ stars (out of 4)
M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village," a romantic horror film set in a painstakingly reconstructed 1897 Pennsylvania forest village, is a big, creepy dollhouse of a movie--a sometimes engrossing shocker with a surprise ending that isn't especially shocking or surprising.
Shyamalan ("The Sixth Sense") hasn't lost his strong moviemaking gifts. "Village" is a pretty good, intelligently made movie, and the cast--Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, stage actress/newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard, William Hurt, Brendan Gleeson and Sigourney Weaver--is first rate.
But this tale of an isolated old-fashioned community, suffering horrors both internal and external, doesn't really have much raison d'etre beyond its surprise. And perhaps Shyamalan should stop trying to spring those surprises on us for a while.
The plot seems simple and Gothic. In this isolated village, surrounded by a menacing dark woods filled with unnamed and menacing creatures--"Those We Don't Speak Of," the villagers call them--a crisis suddenly develops. Villagers are being slaughtered and, after we meet a local romantic triangle--stalwart Lucius Hunt (Phoenix); blind, preternaturally sensitive Ivy Walker (Howard) and giggling, childlike Noah Percy (Brody)--one of them is nearly killed.
This leaves the village elders, headed by dolorous Edward Walker (Hurt), grim August Nicholson (Gleeson) and Lucius' sturdy mother Alice (Weaver), the painful problem of deciding whether to go for much-needed medical help in the distant city, when Those We Don't Speak Of (Except in Generalities) are still on their rampage.
Shyamalan does manage to suck you into his usual trancelike eerie mood for most of the movie. But I think he's mistaken in trying for an H.P. Lovecraft-"Twilight Zone" sort of story, with material that initially suggests Hawthorne or Poe. The cast is unusually skilled, but you get the feeling watching Phoenix, Hurt or Weaver that, good as they are, they're somehow straining to stay on their best behavior, trying hard to keep up the conceit. When Brody keeps smirking and giggling his way though scenes as nutty Noah, he almost seems to be expressing an inner giddiness for all of them--and, by the end, you know why.
Sometimes an early huge success can wind up boxing its maker into a corner--and that may have happened with Shyamalan after "The Sixth Sense." A cleverly plotted psychological horror picture with an amazingly effective climactic plot twist (and the perfect child protagonist in Haley Joel Osment), "Sixth Sense" was both a massive popular hit and a big critical one as well. But Shyamalan's subsequent surprise endings and shocks in "Unbreakable" and "Signs" struck me as more strained and self-conscious. "The Village" continues the slide.
Why does he feel he has to keep solidifying his reputation as a mod Hitchcock with a twist of O. Henry? Why can't he try to explore the confessional/autobiographical side he showed in his 1992 debut movie "Praying with Anger" or the more sentimental family drama of his 1997 "Wide Awake"? You may not guess the ending of "The Village," but I can't promise you'll care one way or the other.
Directed and written by M. Night Shyamalan; photographed by Roger Deakins; edited by Christopher Tellefsen; production designed by Tom Foden; music by James Newton Howard; produced by Shyamalan, Scott Rudin, Sam Mercer. A Touchstone Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:00. MPAA rating: PG-13 (a scene of violence and frightening situations).
Lucius Hunt - Joaquin Phoenix
Ivy Walker - Bryce Dallas Howard
Noah Percy - Adrien Brody
Edward Walker - William Hurt
Alice Hunt - Sigourney Weaver
August Nicholson - Brendan Gleeson
Mrs. Clack - Cherry Jones