Wednesday, August 04, 2004

The Village

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 3 August 2004 at Loews Boston Common #14 (first-run)

The Village is about fear. Generating it for the audience, certainly, is the primary objective, but a closer look reveals a story about living with it in everyday life. How it's possible to be happy with danger just out of sight, how we weigh one fear against another, how it can control our actions, and how it must be conquered on occasion.

The people in an isolated Pennsylvania village (a gravestone at the beginning places the time at 1897) have come to an accord with the monsters who live in the woods outside their borders. They know what antagonizes the monsters (humans entering the forest and the color red) and avoid that. The people of the village are formal without being joyless. The younger generation is starting to pair off.

The most restless of the young men is Lucius Hunt (Joaquim Phoenix), a quiet lad who thinks a recent death might have been avoided if the village had more contact with "the towns", to buy medicine and supplies. The elders - including his mother (Signourney Weaver) and town leader Edward Walker (William Hurt) - disagree, saying that the towns are as dangerous as the woods, and that he would never make it through the woods alive anyway. He has good reason to stay, though, as he and Walker's blind daughter Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard) are starting to connect in a more boy-girl way, and they are developmentally-challenged Noah's (Adrian Brody) closest friends.

We spend the first half-hour or so of the movie getting to know these characters before the plot starts to kick in. Something unexpected happens which causes the villagers to re-evaluate what they should fear, and an expedition must be sent into the woods. It will probably be no surprise that the blind girl will, at some point, be in great peril.

M. Night Shyamalan is a writer/director who, though not necessarily subtle, has a firm grasp of his skill set. As expected, he makes great use of color, especially reds and yellows, and knows how to keep monsters just out of sight until they would be most effective. He does back off the kids this time, and has James Newton Howard tone the music down a little from Signs. He cannily realizes that people are expecting a big twist at the end of his movies, so he shakes things up several times. He does a jump scene as good as anybody, and supplies a few here.

There's a little misidrection with the casting; a lot of people will go into The Village and make assumptions on who is most important based upon the order in which cast members are listed in the opening titles and which names are familiar. This may not be wise. I don't think it's spoiling too much to say that Sigourney Weaver and Brendan Gleeson are probably underused, and that Bryce Dallas Howard (daughter of Ron Howard) is quite good in her first lead role.

The movie does, unfortunately, falter somewhat at the end, for a couple of reasons. First, Shyamalan layers the explanations on a little thick (though, after the number of people who mistakenly thought there were aliens in A.I., I suppose this is a necessity). Less obviously - but perhaps more problematically - he loses track of the "examination of fear" theme because the plot is locked in. As the movie ends, there are two levels of darkness - one corresponding to ideals, and one to actions - and not only do they not match, but there's no sense from the movie that this should be an issue. I get the feeling that I'm going to find this a darker movie than many of my friends do.

Still, it does supply about an hour-forty of good, creepy Twilight Zone stuff before going off the tracks for the last five or ten minutes, and is well worth a ticket.

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