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The Village

"We are grateful for the time we have."

That simple refrain works as a prayer of mourning, a prayer of blessing and a deceptively clever mantra for the elders of the village of Covington Woods. For as M. Night Shyamalan unfolds his tale in The Village, you get a sense of time running out on these people. It could be the encroaching twentieth century. It could be the strange spiked creatures ("Those We Don't Speak Of") in the deeper forest that no longer seem to respect their boundaries and their agreements. Or it could be that with this writer/director, a wrenching twist isn't just likely to happen; at this point, he can't help himself.

Actually, Shyamalan shows some restraint in his plotting to finally match the slow elegance of his direction. When the plot turns come, they do not appear as jolts that suddenly freak out the audience. Instead, they add levels to our understanding of the overall story, serving a greater meaning than to just be clever. As a result, The Village may well indeed be the best M. Night Shyamalan film.

To his detractors, that may be faint praise. But Shyamalan has come closer to balancing his questioning of God and religion with a populist (yet almost old-fashioned) filmmaking style than ever before. It may still fall a little short, but he's getting closer. And hey, at least he's trying to say something without beating you over the head with it.

Drawing from 19th Century literature (a strong streak of Nathaniel Hawthorne's sensibility runs through the film), Shymalan has carefully constructed a society removed from American civilization. Clearly meant to be a puritan social experiment against the then-modern evils, Covington Woods runs on simple rules. The village elders govern all important decisions. Though religion seems to be very important, the day to day business of living harmoniously takes precedent. All is well, until Those We Don't Speak Of begin skinning animals and leaving them as warnings to the villagers.

Warnings of what? That's part of the growing dread of the film, a sensation that Shyamalan has proven a master of building. His direction takes its time, bathing in long pauses and tense silences. For the first time, his subject matter matches that style, as these are clearly a repressed people, for whom every utterance must go through a mental filter to make it as courtly and inoffensive as possible.

That filter works almost too well for Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix), son of Elder Alice Hunt (Sigourney Weaver). The one man in town with no apparent fear, just a dogged determination to do what must be done, he burns in silence. In order to speak before The Elders, Lucius carefully scripts himself. Even in his awkward tongue, he knows something must be done, for Covington Woods may be falling apart.

The village holds secrets, as every home has a locked black box full of "…the life left behind." It has a sense of entropy, as the doctor has run out of medicines that could cure simple illnesses and perhaps help the blind Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) and the village idiot Noah Percy (Adrien Brody). With Lucius, they form a trinity of characters that will expose Covington Woods to the truth.

Though not the greatest of directors for actors, Shyamalan has a keen casting eye. He uses both Weaver and William Hurt as Head Elder and schoolteacher Edward Walker to the best of their strengths and weaknesses as actors. In particular, the compassion of Hurt, who seems so strange off-screen, goes a long way to justify many of the plot revelations. No matter how bizarre Covington Woods comes to seem, Hurt's performance gives you a way in to understanding how it could happen with all the best intentions.

In the ostensible lead, Phoenix makes uneasy silence compelling. Brody alternates between fun and creepy, as the one character that seems to welcome incursions by the creatures. The real find here is Howard (Ron's daughter), a woman of striking self-confidence and not too obvious beauty. Her role has the most complexity, and she handles it well.

The biggest weakness to the film may be in the dialogue. It has a stiltedness to it that sounds more like how Shyamalan thinks people in the 19th century spoke than how it actually was, often veering into parody. Yet he finds a way to make us accept that over time.

As well, you may not completely embrace his final twist. It does take a pretty big leap, once you think about its ramifications, and not all audiences may make the jump. However, Shyamalan does leave things on a more ambiguous note than any of his previous films. The director/writer has always liked playing "gotcha" with an audience; this time around, he really does give us something to think about.

Thinking hurts during the summer season, but a filmmaker willing to try it anyway deserves some respect. The Village will leave people talking, and that's always a good thing.


Derek McCaw

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