The Village. Touchstone Pictures presents a film written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Running time: 120 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for a scene of violence and frightening situations). Starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson, Judy Greer.

The Village

Note: While I have tried my best to avoid revealing any overt spoilers, reading reviews of this film ahead of time is probably a really bad idea.

Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has come to be known as a "twist" director, one whose meticulously crafted films always - always - lead to a surprise. With mixed results (Signs, for instance, I actively disliked), all of Shyamalan's previous films have followed this pattern. So one would suspect that his latest, The Village, would be the same, right? Well, no. And Shyamalan may just be risking his career with this challenging, thoughtful allegory.

Oh, but The Village certainly seems to be adhering to tradition, with its meticulous, somber pacing, all of which seems to clearly be leading up to one shocker of a revelation. And this is where the film is going to lose audiences, because once that revelation rolls around we realize that we've been had, but only in a much different way than expected. Because Shyamalan has trumped his own reputation by failing to provide a "twist" in the traditional sense, instead letting the plot progress naturally. Certainly some may be surprised, but the final revelation is clearly telegraphed and easily guessed at least thirty minutes in advance. This is intentional; Shymalan has proven in the past that he is perfectly capable of hoodwinking audiences. With The Village he has done nothing short of examine the human condition, and he has exploited our expectations of him to do it.

But allegory can't stand up if the underlying story doesn't work, and The Village's pretty much equals any of Shyamalan's previous films. Set in 1897, the film explores the lives of the inhabitants of a village surrounded by woods. In these woods live monstrous creatures, with which the villagers have an uneasy truce. Yellow is the "safe color," red the "bad:" it attracts Them. When the monsters begin leaving signs around the village - skinned animals, ominous red markings on the doors - the village's elders, led by Edward (William Hurt) panic. The fearless and quiet Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) volunteers to leave the village for medicine, but is unable. Leaving instead is Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), Edward's blind daughter. To reveal more would be doing a disservice.

Shyamalan has proven himself to be one of the medium's best technical craftsmen, and, working with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, he makes The Village one of the most visually stunning films of the year. Dark and foreboding, the atmosphere almost becomes (cliché alert!) a whole separate character. Shyamalan chooses to shoot largely in wide shots, and when he pulls in for extreme close-ups, the effect is jarring and unsettling. James Newton Howard's score is haunting and beautiful.

In a risky move, Shyamalan has placed his film squarely on the shoulders of relative newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard (daughter of director Ron Howard), and she proves to be more than up for the task. Carefully balancing strength and innocence, Howard creates a fully three-dimensional character. She has a bright career ahead of her. Providing able support are Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody as the village idiot, William Hurt, and Sigourney Weaver as another elder.

The critical response so far to The Village is expected but disappointing. Going into The Village expecting something along the lines of Shyamalan's previous work is just asking to be let down. The director is attempting so much more, putting together a subtle, thought-provoking piece about the lengths we will go to secure our own comfort and our capacity for willful self-delusion. The film ends on a dark, chilling, and perfect note. Anything less would be a cop-out. Viewed as separate from Shyamalan's other pictures, The Village is one of the year's best films.

© 2004 Matt Noller