In the late 1800's, a group of people live harmoniously but fear the woods which surround them. Creatures live in the woods and only Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix, "Signs") desires to brave 'Those We Don't Speak Of' to venture beyond the boundaries of "The Village."
"The Village" represents a turning point for director M. Night Shyamalan. The old Shyamalan of "The Sixth Sense" and "Signs" is still strongly present with his plot twists and symbolic use of colors, but this feels like the work of a more mature filmmaker, one who's less hung up with proving his own cleverness. Shyamalan has peopled his village with a terrific cast as well, yet it is the unknown Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron's daughter) who grounds the film with a terrific debut performance.
The film opens with a familiar Shyamalan ingredient, death, as the child of the grief-stricken August Nicholson (Brendan Gleeson, "Troy") is buried. A meeting of the elders, led by town leader Edward Walker (William Hurt, "Tuck Everlasting"), is interrupted by Lucius petitioning to leave the safety of the valley and walk through Covington Woods towards the town to procure medicines that may have helped save young Daniel Nicholson.
Challenged later that evening by his mother Alice (Sigourney Weaver, "Tadpole"), one of the elders, Lucius declares 'There are secrets in every corner of this village. Can't you feel it?' He then proceeds to tell her that the married Walker has feelings for her, because he pointedly never touches her.
Two other love triangles involve Lucius directly. Kitty Walker (Judy Greer, "13 Going on 30") giddily declares her love for Lucius and is next seen sobbing, being comforted by her blind sister Ivy (Bryce Howard). Ivy has extended her good heart to care for Noah Percy (Adrien Brody, "The Pianist"), the town's mentally challenged innocent, but she reads volumes in Lucius's silence. Ivy tests that love one night when one of the Woods creatures makes an unprecedented attack upon the village, by standing bravely proffering her hand into the darkness until Lucius grabs hold. When Kitty rebounds by wedding Christop Crane (Fran Kranz, "Matchstick Men"), the village celebration is disturbed by another, more vicious attack. That night, Ivy who can 'see' Lucius by his aura, finds him on her front porch, protecting what he loves above all else. Their bonds are made public the next day, but a tragedy follows that will reveal the secrets of "The Village."
This time around, instead of making his audience deduce color significance, Shyamalan lays it right out there - red is 'bad,' yellow is 'safe.' Many of the visuals and situations here will be familiar from "Signs" - cowering in the basement as a creature stomps overhead, circular patterns, animals being skinned with flesh intact like some scary aftermath of a UFO sighting, a departing alien creature being just barely glimpsed. Shyamalan is still obsessed with loss and grief, but here those emotions are more the backstory rather than a constant motivator in these characters' actions. "The Village" encompasses many ideas, but most of all it explores the impact one generation has on another. Beware the choices we make.
Bryce Dallas Howard is a complex young woman, a confident blind woman with sharp insights. 'Sometimes we don't do things we want to do so others do not know we want to do them,' she tells Lucius, prodding him into admitting his feelings. Howard puts across her character's blindness well, although the script sometimes makes Ivy's abilities a little too incredible. She displays a period-perfect mix of earnest flirtatiousness that's very appealing. She's got wonderful chemistry with Phoenix, a brooding Heathcliff type, and Brody, who she treats more like a mischievous child. Brody is gawky and childlike in his inability to comprehend behavioral limits, yet in one climatic moment lets us see adult emotion well up in his eyes. Judy Greer's exuberant love overture to Lucius is a bit over the top for the time period, but she certainly makes you feel embarrassed for her. Two other noteworthy young actors are over-cast. Michael Pitt ("The Dreamers") appears briefly in two scenes and "Roger Doger's" Jesse Eisenberg barely registers even if you attempt to seek him out.
William Hurt, little seen lately, works beautifully in the role as an Amish-like town leader. He inspires confidence and exhibits compassion and has one very strong scene admitting his feelings for Alice without explicitly doing so. Support is comprised of a who's who of top notch character actors like Gleeson, Cherry Jones ("Signs") and Celia Weston ("Far From Heaven").
Cinematographer Roger Deakins ("The Ladykillers") stays close to his subjects, keeping us intimate with the characters. Imagery is often startling. The first sight of one of the red cloaked wood creatures recalls the dwarf of Nicolas Roeg's "Don't Look Now" and one characters death tableau evokes St. George's slain dragon as imagined by Maurice Sendak. The rich color scheme (production design by Tom Foden, "One Hour Photo") is worked into the natural landscape resulting in an organic sense continued by Ann Roth's ("Signs") costume design.
"The Village" is a big rebound after the disappointing "Signs," although those looking for straight-out horror may be disappointed. This is a more thoughtful, reflective piece of work for all its twists.
There is something lurking in the Covington Woods and the folks living in the adjacent valley have maintained a truce with the creatures – the folks in the little hamlet will stay out of the woods and “those we don’t speak of” will leave them alone. The truce holds for many years until one headstrong young man plans to cross the forbidden border and seek out the distant towns for medicines to help “The Village.”
I, as most who saw it, was blown away by the surprise ending of “The Sixth Sense” and by the complex puzzle of “Unbreakable.” I was less than thrilled by M. Night Shymalan’s last outing, “Signs,” mainly because of Mel Gibson’s wooden performance and by the fact that I was growing tired of the writer-director’s self-possessing cleverness. I wanted, from the man, more maturity in his storytelling and his filmmaking in this, his latest outing.
I was a little skeptical about “The Village,” especially after being subjected to a three hour mock documentary by Nathaniel Kahn (“My Architect: A Son’s Journey”) that, a la “The Blair Witch Project,” attempts to present an intimate, behind the scenes look into Shymalan and the secrecy shrouding his work. I didn’t fall for it and rather resented the attempt to dupe movie-goers with a manufactured myth and legend of the colorful M. Night. It was with this bitter taste in my mouth that I awaited a viewing of “The Village.”
Things start of in an idyllic fashion as we wander through Covington, a small village that exists in a time before the advent of computers, telephones, airplanes and cars. All of the inhabitants of the town, following the funeral of the son of one of their elders, August Nicholson (Brendan Gleeson), join in a communal meal to commiserate with the grieving father and to give thanks for the bounty they have. But, when Lucius Hunt declares his intention to leave the village and cross the forbidden zone where no man can go things start to happen and fear of the mysterious creatures in the woods grips all.
“The Village” is what I hoped for. M. Night has crafted a tale that leads you blithely down one path as he presents us with the villagers and their chosen isolation in their charming hamlet. He builds suspense as Lucius breaks the rules and brings the wrath of the creatures of the wood upon the town. Animals are found skinned and mauled. The creatures, hideous beasts with long, sharp claws and porcupine-like giant quills protruding from the body, come into the village at night, striking terror in the hearts of all of the villagers.
While the story represents a good suspense thriller and keeps you interested (and, maybe, guessing) until the anticipated surprise, there is something else that needs to be noted, too. In a film blessed with so many veteran actors – William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Joachim Phoenix, Adrien Brody, Brendan Gleeson, Cherry Jones, Celia Ward and others – one performance stands out. Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of director Ron Howard, makes her starring debut and it is a doozy. She plays Ivy, the blind daughter of elder Edward Walker (William Hurt). Though blind her whole life, Ivy’s other senses, and her tomboy personality, help her overcome her handicap and make the feisty, strong-willed young lady the perfect life companion for Lucius. Howard gives such a mature, seasoned performance one would think she has been doing this stuff for decades.
The rest of the cast is equal to the task and, even with the stilted and ponderous dialogue, they pull off the desired effect. This is the biggest production to date for Shymalan and there is a degree of artifice to the look and feel of the film. The helmer is helped greatly by his technical staff. Roger Deakins brings his master’s eye to the lensing and creates a look that is beautiful on many levels. The idyllic warmth of the village during the day is replaced with the fire-illuminate town at night as the village folk dutifully watch the forest for signs of the creatures. Costume, by Ann Roth, brings out a late 19th century rustic flavor, as does production designer Tom Foden.
Shymalan’s script has the clever crafting that we expect from the auteur but forgoes the “look how genius I am” of his previous work. I think that the writer-director finally realizes that we, the movie going public, understand his intelligence and he hunkers down to some interesting story-telling. As in his other films there is a surprise twist that too much story synopsis might give it away. Suffice it to say that he surprised me.
“Unbreakable” is Shymalan’s best work to date (in my mind) and I’m still impressed by the audacity of “The Sixth Sense.” But, “The Village” shows that he has matured both as a storyteller and a filmmaker. I give it a B+.
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