In 1999 it looked as though American filmmaking might be on the cusp of an exciting period not unlike the Coppola-Scorsese-Allen 1970s, with several original young directors coming into their own at once. That year, fortyish David O. Russell--the eldest of the group by a decade--followed up his delightfully neurotic Flirting With Disaster with the bravura Three Kings; Paul Thomas Anderson built on his Boogie Nights reputation with flawed masterpiece Magnolia; Wes Anderson offered the sly subversion Rushmore (technically a 1998 film but not released nationally until February 1999); and 29-year-old M. Night Shyamalan hit box-office gold with the surprisingly mature thriller The Sixth Sense. It felt as though any one of these filmmakers (or more than one) might be on the verge of making the Great American Movie.
Half a decade later, we're still waiting. Though Shyamalan, Russell, and the (unrelated) Andersons still have plenty of time to live up to their millennial promise, all have, in their various ways, taken steps backward. Of the group, one could argue that Shyamalan has disappointed the least. He's certainly been the most workmanlike, turning out three feature films post-Sixth Sense, and by far the most commercially successful. But, like Wes Anderson with his succession of ironic takes on overgrown boys, Shyamalan may have settled into a groove that is a little too comfortable.
The hallmarks of Shyamalan's work--the somber, stately mood, the suggestion of menace lurking just offscreen, the twist ending--are all in evidence in his most recent film, The Village, released on video today. But each of these elements already feels tired: the stateliness descends into staginess, the menace is not nearly menacing enough, and the final twist is both forced and unsurprising. The result is a movie that is dull while it is playing and deeply irritating once it's over.
The title of the film refers to a bucolic hamlet surrounded by thick woods. It's not clear where it is located--there are a few references to "towns" beyond the forest --or in what time period, though it's apparently preindustrial. The few dozen kindly souls who live there raise livestock, cavort happily in the fields, and speak an American dialect that will be familiar to anyone who has watched fourth-graders put on a Thanksgiving play. When town patriarch Edward Walker (William Hurt) wonders what a small gathering of children are looking at, for example, he asks, "What manner of spectacle has captured your attention so splendidly I ought to carry it in my pocket to help me teach?" The spectacle in question turns out to be a mutilated lamb; Hurt sensibly opts not to put it in his pocket. The mutilation is assumed to be the work of tall, lupine creatures in scarlet cloaks (yes, in this film it's the Big Bad Wolves who wear red) who live in the forest.
The villagers refer to these monsters as Those We Do Not Speak Of, though of course they speak of little else. For many years an uneasy truce prevailed: The townsfolk stayed out of the woods, and the creatures stayed out of the village. But after a ten-year-old boy dies for want of modern medicines, quiet, earnest Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) asks the village elders for permission to remedy the deficiency by journeying through the woods to the surrounding towns. On a brief, exploratory foray into the forest he is spotted by one of Those We Do Not, etc. In apparent consequence, the creatures begin invading the village at night as its inhabitants cower in their root cellars.
In addition to Walker and Lucius, said inhabitants include Walker's strong-willed daughter Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), who has been blind from an early age (a condition, it's suggested, that could also have been prevented with better medicines); Lucius's widowed mother (Sigourney Weaver); and Ivy's frequent playmate, the childlike, mentally ill Noah (Adrien Brody). This last character is that most annoying of devices, the psycho ex machina. At multiple points throughout the film, Noah's freedom from rationality is used as an excuse for twists that have no underlying logic of their own. It's not too much to say that Shyamalan could not have made The Village without supplying it with an idiot.
Brody does what he can with the role of Noah, which is to say very little: Between performing crucial plot functions, he basically giggles and cries and pantomimes his disability. Phoenix's role, too, is underdeveloped: The script repeatedly informs us that Lucius is brave and taciturn, but Phoenix never manages to add much to this characterization. Hurt and Weaver aren't exactly good in the film, but as two of the more mannered performers working today they are oddly suited to the stilted rhythms of Shyamalan's dialogue. One can almost imagine them talking this way off the set. Howard (daughter of Ron) has gotten a great deal of attention for her performance as Ivy (after all, Hollywood hasn't had a good nepotism beneficiary since Kate Hudson), but while she has a compelling enough screen presence it's difficult to tell whether she can actually act. Like everyone else in the film, Ivy is painted in broad brush strokes (blind! resourceful! loyal!), a character from a fable rather than lived life.
Ivy is in love with Lucius, who is also in love with her (though reluctant, of course, to say so). Unfortunately Noah, in his feeble-minded way, has mistaken Ivy's friendship for something more. This unbalanced love triangle produces unfortunate consequences; one upshot is that when it comes time to make the dangerous journey through the beast-infested woods, it is not Lucius but Ivy who does the journeying. At the outset of her trip we are treated to one of Shyamalan's trademark revelations (he enjoys it so much that he appears to undo it later only so he can redo it again), and at its completion we get another. As I'm about to spoil both of them, I strongly recommend that those who haven't yet seen the movie and would like to be disappointed for themselves stop reading now. Those already in the know or morbidly curious can continue on to the next paragraph.