About fifteen minutes into the M. Night Shayamalans latest effort, THE VILLAGE, I glommed onto the nature of the beast in the woods that menaced said community. Perhaps we as an audience are supposed to figure it out before the twist is revealed so that Shyamalan can get to the meat of the film. That would be a consideration of the nature of innocence, that even the snake in the Garden of Eden might have been not so much evil, as another facet of what that innocence. Theres also the eternal struggle between order and chaos. If so, he should have made the film shorter, or he should have livened things up a bit more.
Covington, the village in question, is nestled in a verdant valley surrounded by the deep dark woods. In the opening scene, a funeral, we see that the year in 1897, and in the dialogue that follows, we learn that a truce has been struck between those in the valley and the things that may not be named that reside in the woods. Things that eat meat, even human, and have nasty big teeth and claws. If everyone stays out of the woods and avoids the color red, everything will stay hunky dory. This means no contact with the towns on the other side of the woods, but considering the orderly way that life is lived, the overwhelming harmony in this bucolic commune where money doesnt exist and neither does religion or grammatical contractions, its a small price to pay for safety. That and the torch lined barrier, complete with watch towers, that the men patrol every night wearing mustard-color hooded robes, mustard being the safe color.
Of course things go wrong and its that most chaotic thing of all, love, that brings it on. Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix), a dour young man, wants to go through the woods and bring medicine back from the towns much to the consternation of the village elders and eldresses, led by Edward Walker (William Hurt). He tries tempting fate by going a few feet beyond the barrier and thereby brings down the wrath of the creatures who live there. Hes also the object of the affections of the towns blind girl and tomboy, Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), who claims to see his color, dimly, in the blackness, and this is the love that triggers all the problems.
The words dull and plodding leap to mind. Shyamalan uses up his bag of tricks in the first half hour, and while they are effective, that creeping sense of dread that comes from a branch swinging in the wind, or of a hand extended into the darkness, it doesnt keep the film afloat for the following 90 minutes. He keeps the performances uniformly monotonous, even Adrien Brody achingly, poignant as the village simpleton, is barely allowed to jabber above a whisper. All the better to mark that contrast between the chaos of the woods and the order of the village. Hes not subtle here. The village folk are photographed in carefully composed tableaux right down to the orderly rows of cabbage in the communal vegetable garden, bathed in that particular sort of wholesome cinematic glow so evocative of nostalgia for a golden age that never was. As for the woods, because after all those warnings about going in there, naturally someone does, it is a tangled, secretive place, shadowy and muddy, very muddy, beneath a thudingly grey sky. The effect is like nothing so much as Little Red Riding Hood meets THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and not in a good way. Okay, tall, willowy mustard-hood, but thats not important. The hood in question is braving the wilderness on a mission of love, challenging the unknown and leading us to one of the films twists that many of you will see coming. Along the way, things will befall that pilgrim that provoked gales of laughter from the press-only screening I attended. Unintentional laughter.
Shyamalan should certainly be given credit for wanting to make films that dare to inject some philosophical ponderings there amid the popcorn trimmings. Alas, in THE VILLAGE he has formulated a concept, not a film. Its like a Twilight Zone episode without the stinging irony, much less the streamlined delivery that magnifies the effect. By the time Shyamalan makes his cameo, mostly off-camera, to deliver the exposition that wraps things up in a pretty bow, stupor has set in and a general sense of ho-hum.