"The Village," the new film by the acclaimed M. Night Shyamalan of "The Sixth Sense" and "Signs" fame, proves two things: He is a master of the old-school film craft that emphasizes atmosphere and character over action; and he is riding a one-trick pony and that poor pony is nearly dead.
I love to watch his films. They're smooth, creepy, intelligent, full of revelatory dialogue, and they don't have that "Bourne Supremacy" need to roar along at 4,000 feet per second. The camerawork is traditional, the editing mature, the music judicious. Why, it's like he's over 50! The production design is always brilliant, never too showy, never sleazy. And there are ideas just behind the screen that animate the action and -- the film's surest triumph -- even figure into the big reversals he seems to think are so necessary.
But, baby, it's getting thin. "The Village" yields a trick ending quite lame, quite tame and quite old; Rod Serling thought of it 40 years ago and he did it better. I figured it out plenty early, and the 75 percent of you who are smarter than I will get it even earlier.
The film is set in 1897 in a forest-bound village that occupies some forlorn acreage in Pennsylvania, but little detail other than the immediate physical reality (cracklingly exact) is conveyed. The villagers seem a hardy, intelligent lot, ruled benevolently by a schoolteacher (William Hurt, at his most compassionately rational) as head of a board of elders. One senses the presence of the Puritan work ethic, faith and grammar everywhere, particularly in the wordy, contraction- and slang-free constructions of the dialogue. Why use three words when 17 will do, thank you very much. But generally, everybody is happy and healthy, and the village itself seems to be a complete ecosystem, self-sustained, self-regulating, self-defending.
Still, that creepy wailing in the trees at night is only the first of many clues that something awful lurks just outside the village. The dead, skinned foxes that start showing up on doorsteps is another suggestion that bad boys are afoot. I'll spare you the details, but it turns out that the villagers live in a fragile truce with some kind of marauding pillagers, presumably of either supernatural or monstrous origin. Each night, the homies leave their lights burning; the young men pull sentry duty in watchtowers, manning a torchlit boundary; if it is pierced by the night things, the boys must ring the alarm bell. Do the villagers fight? No, it's not that kind of village. This isn't "The Magnificent Seven." They don't deal in lead, friend. They deal in pacifism.
They lock themselves in the basement, shivering in fear, hoping to be spared the predations. In other words, they live in a constant state of appeasement, pretty much at the whim of their oppressors who at any moment may decide it's the pilgrims who are on the Thanksgiving menu.
This distinction between the hunters and the hunted is so patent that Shyamalan color-codes it. The beast is scarlet, the color of blood, the color of anger, the color of battle. In the village it is banned, because it is believed to attract the beasts. It is bad, very bad. The good color, of course, is yellow: the color of cowardice, which is woven into all the village celebrations and even the cloaks of the sentries.
The story proper takes off when it becomes clear that one of the boys has warrior inclinations. The brave Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix), despite his acculturation to the system, sees that the truce can't go on forever. Only in the outside world -- the dangers of the forest make passage seemingly impossible -- can the answers, and perhaps the tools, for survival be acquired. He yearns to try to make that journey and return a savior, confident that his "goodness" will protect him from the beasts, and equally confident that if he doesn't go soon, the beasts will attack one night for a pilgrim-fry.
The whole thing is solemn, beautiful and dangerously near kitsch. Only splendid acting and first-rate production design and Shyamalan's deft touch with night and fog keep the laughter in check, even as the ominous portents in capital letters reach epidemic stage. The critters are known as They Whom We Do Not Discuss (and of course they discuss them all the dang time!) and red is The Bad Color, and at the edge of the village is The Shed We Do Not Use. The gigglers in the back row would be Those Who Are Impolite.
But one surprise is that Phoenix isn't the hero of the film. I give little away by reporting that he is taken out of the movie early on by a deus ex machina character, the inevitable madman necessary for advancing plots that have reached dead ends. This sets up the film's truest drama, which is the adventure of plucky, blind Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard, whose Opie nose and coloring give away her paternal lineage), who alone is trusted to walk through the Woods to The Town to get medicines for Phoenix's character.
This is as close to action as Shyamalan gets: the cute, freckly girl in the little yellow riding hood, wandering through the briars and the mud, almost falling into unexpected sinkholes while, unseen by her, one of Those Whom We Don't Discuss, all spiny, tusky malevolence in a red cape, sets his sights on her, one crackly, cackly step at a time. Okay, it's not the landing on Omaha Beach from "Saving Private Ryan," but it's pretty exciting.
Still, Shyamalan really has to do some reconsidering. His surprises simply don't work anymore, because we expect them. It was his obscurity, his lack of reputation, that made the ending of "The Sixth Sense" so unforgettably jolting. He had no track record. Now we go into the theater all set to parse, to look for clues, to try to think outside the box and solve a story that's sustained by a riddle. It's no way to see a movie, because you're never unself-conscious enough to let the drama work on you; you're concentrated on the game. And at a certain point the whole exercise is rendered anticlimactic: The only suspense left is whether you got it right or not.
For his next movie, he should forget the big twist thing. He has only one surprise left, and it would be the best surprise: no surprise at all, only drama.
The Village (107 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for intense psychological pressure, many dead animals and some violence.