Fear not: "The Village" skillfully follows Shyamalan formula
Seattle Times movie critic
Is that the eerie whistle of a chill wind that we hear in M. Night Shyamalan's affecting but uneven new thriller, "The Village," or is it the sound of fear? Or is it that hollow ringing sound that occurs when you put your hands over your ears, trying desperately not to hear something that's becoming increasingly difficult to avoid?
Let's state the ground rules here before we go any further: No, I'm not going to reveal any twists in the plot. (To this day, I get annoyed when I see articles that spell out the twist in Shyamalan's splendid 1999 thriller "The Sixth Sense"; surely there are a few of you out there who haven't seen it yet.) But "The Village," which treads a very delicate line between surprise and saw-it-coming, surely benefits — even more than most thrillers — from being viewed with as little advance information as possible. Read on if you wish; you have been warned.
And so let's talk, in very general terms, about the problem with "The Village." Those who know Shyamalan's films, which are rapidly becoming a spooky mini-genre (also including "Unbreakable" and "Signs") know that the plot's the thing: The still-young writer/director likes to toy with our fears, surprising us with both the monster under the bed and the specter that walks in broad daylight. And because we know what he likes to do — and because this is his fourth thriller in a row — we know what to look for. We're expecting the unexpected, looking for it around corners, thinking about what the trademark Shyamalan Twist might be, and thus busily spoiling the movie for ourselves, whether we want to or not.
This is only partly Shyamalan's fault — but then again, he's the one who made the formula so clear in the first place. "The Village" is a film of great elegance and skill that's often delicious to watch, but its surprises don't surprise; in fact, they fall a little flat (as does the film's one sad little attempt at humor).
The story is, essentially, an exploration of fear, set in a late-19th-century New England town whose inhabitants live in terror of the mysterious creatures (called Those We Don't Speak Of) in the surrounding woods. The cast, all of whom do fine work (especially William Hurt as the town's leader and shining-eyed newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard as his blind, brave daughter), speak in quaintly formal cadences with utter sincerity; this is an irony-free world.
And it's a gloriously beautiful one, thanks to director of photography Roger Deakins (best known for his work on the Coen brothers' films) — each scene seems as perfectly composed as a painting. Shyamalan, with Deakins, knows how to convey suspense with a camera's movement; one late shot, as a long-shut box is finally opened, takes forever as the camera's eye ever-so-slowly pushes between the two people standing in front of it. The colors, with vivid reds blooming in a sea of autumn brown, are as sharp as any dialogue, particularly a splash of crimson blood on a snow-white blouse.
"The Village" is made with such skill, you'll almost forgive its too-pat conclusion. Maybe it's best to watch it with those hands over your ears, without questioning whether it makes any sense, letting it weave its spell. Then again, maybe the talented Shyamalan might want to tinker with the formula next time around.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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