Friday, July 30, 2004

It Takes a “Village:” If anything, M. Night Shyamalan (sorry, but still can’t say his name with out turning it into “shama-lama-ding-dong”) knows how to direct actors. His performers are almost always convincing whether they’re in a supernatural setting (“Sixth Sense”) or in a supposed “normal” one (“Signs”). This is true of his latest film, “The Village.” The acting is top-notch and they bring a credible sense to their delivery – especially Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron Howard’s daughter, in her debut role) as Ivy Walker, a young blind woman living in a small village in 1897. She’s an astonishingly gifted actress – capable of levity, sweetness, strength and genuine emotion. She’s the film’s center. Joaquin Phoenix, as a quiet, but restless fellow villager, also gives a powerful, restrained performance. Other cast members include William Hurt (as Ivy's father, and one of the town's elders), Sigourney Weaver (Hurt’s co-star in 1981’s “Eyewitness”), Judy Greer (as Ivy's sister Kitty) and Adrien Brody (as the town's mentally disturbed resident, Noah).

Shyamalan also sets up an effectively creepy setting – the Village is surrounded by woods that are inhabited by meat-eating fearsome creatures -- therefore, no one ventures out beyond the very specifically set boundaries around the village.

Some of the village's teens "test" the boundaries, despite the scary howls emitting from the woods -- they stand on a stump, facing into the village, their backs to the forest, arms outstretched in "crucifixion" formation. They dress in drab colors, wearing hooded cloaks of mustard yellow. The "bad color" is red -- any flowers or berries found in nature that appear are buried. The nights are especially creepy. Someone is always positioned, at night, at the top of a tower, as lookout. Still, the sounds and the signs begin. He certainly knows his suspense, that Shama-lama-ding-dong (sorry, I couldn’t help myself).

But the film’s weakness lies in its very premise. Whether there’s a twist or not at the end (as other reviewers have hinted, or even just simply stated) isn’t so much the issue as is the basic storyline. Call them red herrings, call them holes, the film cannot sustain its story. Whether you “figure it out” right away (as I did – I’m not bragging, I didn’t feel it was that much of a surprise) or not, you’ll probably go away feeling cheated. There’s something sorely missing from “The Village.” Most effective in suspense, thriller, horror films – whatever genre Shymalan alludes this film actually is – is the build-up of that psychological leap of faith, for both the characters in the story as well as the audience, and “The Village” lacks this. Is Shymalan becoming too overconfident in his success to really examine something that might not be working? Oh, and just a warning: animal lovers be prepared to close your eyes.