By Chad Bixby | July 31, 2004

“The Village” is going to be the film that tears it for M. Night Shyamalan. You want controversy? Forget The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11. This thing will have folks battling it out in the aisles, maybe even spilling onto the streets. Writer-producer-director Shyamalan, who has managed to turn himself into quite the brand name for one still so young, is of course known for his facility with the Big Twist Ending. But this “Village” bets the farm on a twist so audacious – or preposterous, depending on your tolerance for such things – that the reaction heard in multiplexes across the land will most likely be stunned groans, then laughter. But there are also those who will rush to claim that Shyamalan, Gen X’s very own Master of Suspense, has outdone even himself.

The setup is simplicity itself: a small 19th century village tries to live in bucolic harmony and peace, while the surrounding woods bristle with unseen creatures. Some sort of “truce” has been worked out – or so says a mysterious village elder, Walker (the always-shifty William Hurt) – that keeps the creatures at bay. Kindhearted Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) expresses a desire to “breach the border” and journey to the nearby town in search of medicine for those in need, and even goes so far as to step across the wall one night. Though the “wall” is really just a series of posts and lanterns between the village and the dark woods, Lucius stirs up…something. Cue the willies.

The thing is, though the creatures come calling and the villagers are hysterical with fear, Lucius’ rash move is greeted with admiration instead of anger. Then, in the process of getting cozy with Walker’s blind but spirited daughter Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), Lucius raises the hackles of village idiot Noah (Adrien Brody), and all heck really breaks loose. It now falls on Ivy now to volunteer her services, and off into the woods she goes – with her father’s blessing, inexplicably.

Shyamalan has always known his way around a creepy mood, and “The Village” is no exception. He’s abetted this time by the great DP Roger Deakins, who makes the surrounding woods loom like icy death itself. The actors, though – including Sigourney Weaver, Celia Westin and Brendan Gleeson – are set adrift by the stilted, overly formal dialogue. Everyone here sounds trapped in a high school staging of “The Crucible,” and after about an hour, this high-toned creature feature wears out its welcome and starts to seem rather boring and pretentious, the two greatest sins any movie can commit.

Which leaves us, inevitably, with the Big Twist. No, the villagers are not all dead, they’re not space aliens, and they’re not comic-book heroes. Personally speaking, the ending of “The Sixth Sense” made me go “Whoa!,” “Signs” made me go “Okay…,” and “Unbreakable” made me go “Huh?” But the socko finale in this case really cuts no ice dramatically, and it damn sure doesn’t hold up to any sort of logic. Now, I’ll reveal no spoilers here. We all know this movie is assured a gigantic opening weekend on the strength of the Shyamalan brand and the effectively understated ad campaign; then word will get out and there will be the great gnashing of teeth in chat rooms across the land. (At least until Open Water is released – now there’s a scary-a*s movie!)

It’s a pity that Shyamalan never really explores the post-9/11 resonance of his subject’s theme, especially as it relates to America: a tightknit group of good, simple folk banding even closer together, erecting walls both real and imagined to protect themselves from the unseen evils lurking in the hostile world outside. He’s content just to paint pretty pictures and give us a nice goose now and then. But, while the pictures are pretty and the whole enterprise takes itself ever so seriously, “The Village” is not nearly as frightening as it thinks it is. And it only resonates because, on reflection, one can’t quite believe that it’s as silly as…it actually is.

If anyone is curious about the meaning of all those big red splotches adorning the advertising for “The Village”…that’s the sight of M. Night Shyamalan painting himself into a corner.

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