Friday, August 13, 2004

Shyamalan slips a little with 'The Village'

—Originally published 8.13.04

Bryce Dallas Howard's stunning film debut is the best part of spook-master M. Night Shyamalan's new movie, "The Village."

That's not exactly a good thing.

One of today's best filmmakers, Shyamalan doesn't quite hit his own water mark with this latest effort. "The Village" won't creep you out like 1999's "The Sixth Sense"; it won't make you jump as many times as 2002's "Signs"; the story isn't quite as engaging as 2000's "Unbreakable" and, worst of all, it probably won't lend itself to repeated viewings like all three of the aforementioned films.

It's not sharing secrets to say "The Village" has a twist -- that's a given with Shyamalan, whose had us seeing dead people, believing in superheroes and fearing an alien invasion. But this mind-bender, while good, won't send you running back to the box office for another ticket. Matter of fact, watching "The Village" again will probably seem rather boring, knowing where the story goes. Telling why would ruin the movie, though, and "The Village" is certainly worthwhile the first time around.

That leads us back to Howard, daughter of actor/director Ron Howard; she steals the entire show as Ivy Walker, a young blind woman who resides in the quite literal confines of Covington Woods, circa 1897. She lives in a secluded village of what looks to be only a few dozen people. The residents are cut off entirely from society because of "those we don't speak of" -- deadly creatures that roam the surrounding woods.

"We do not go into their woods, they do not come into our valley. It is a truce," Edward Walker (William Hurt), a village elder, tells schoolchildren early in the film. Trouble is, the creatures are getting restless -- they are entering the village unwarranted, leaving blood-red marks on doors and dead animals all around. The villagers don't know what to make of the unsolicited aggression, leading them to wonder if it's time to leave their peaceful community where money and crime are non-issues.

For all his success in scaring his audience, Shyamalan is just as good (if not better) at developing fully-realized characters and their relationships. His movies are really dramas with a few scares mixed in; it's because we care so much about the characters that the horror elements make such an impact on our psyche. Enter the blossoming love between Ivy and Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix), a villager devoted to protecting Ivy and her family.

Shyamalan has a knack for finding diamonds in the rough (think Haley Joel Osment's Oscar-nominated turn as the haunted child from "Sixth Sense"); Howard is brilliant in her first major film role, bringing to life one of the best female characters in recent memory. She has strength, vulnerability and a certain intangible charm that draws you in immediately.

Phoenix deftly exudes the qualities of a Shyamalan leading man -- reserved, peaceful, not prone to unnecessary action. The two young stars are vibrant on screen. In a moving scene early on, Ivy stands in her open doorway, even as the monsters prowl about outside; with her hand outstretched, she waits for Lucius, her counterpart, to bring security to a blind woman frightened in the dark. She knows he will be there before the danger, no matter what stands between them.

Like his other films, Shyamalan draws superior performances from not just his leads, but the entire cast. Oscar-winner Adrien Brody plays Noah Percy, a mentally-disabled young man who does not fear the woods and roams in them regularly. Sigourney Weaver mutes her powerful presence to play Lucius' mother, Alice. And Hurt (also an Oscar-winner) is excellent as the stoic but troubled town elder.

There are twists aplenty as "The Village" unspools its tale, but the revelations ultimately lead to less, not more. You'll be asking questions long after the credits roll, but unlike Shyamalan's previous triumphs, the answers probably won't come with multiple viewings -- and that takes away a big chunk of the fun.

Grade: B+

No comments: