Director M. Night Shyamalan has made a fine career out of delayed gratification. In "The Sixth Sense," "Unbreakable," "Signs" and his newest sleight of hand, "The Village," he stirs his pot of suspense with slow, steady strokes, keeping the flame low, gambling that audiences weaned on microwave-fast filmmaking can still savor a simmering narrative--and trusting in himself to deliver a full-boil payoff.
In "The Village," the deliberate, dialogue-driven Shyamalan style gets transported to a late-19th-century American community, whose natural agrarian rhythms are slow to begin with and where no one uses contractions in his speech, considerably elongating the discourse. In this seemingly innocent village, the main topic is "Those We Do Not Speak Of," the terrifying, mysterious creatures who live in the surrounding forest. For years the townsfolk have maintained a truce with their enemies: the villagers don't enter the woods; the creatures don't cross their borders. But now there have been raids, animals have been skinned alive and warning signs written in the forbidden color red have been smeared on their doors.
This being a Shyamalan movie, we know full well that what's really lurking in the darkness is a Big Twist. The twist, of course, is That of Which We Must Not Speak, but I suspect many viewers will see it coming for a country mile. And when it does, it casts everything that precedes it in a different light. But this is no "Sixth Sense": this time the illumination is deadly. The entire solemn, portentous edifice that is "The Village" collapses of its own fake weight.
Just about everything that makes Shyamalan special misfires here. His writing strains under the 19th-century locutions. The plot revelations seem badly timed. The slow buildup is more deadening than delicious--though I admit there are a couple of goose-bump moments scattered here and there. And the impressive cast--Joaquin Phoenix, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Adrien Brody and newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard (daughter of Ron Howard) as the brave, blind heroine Ivy--is largely wasted. Shyamalan, playing with themes of fear and innocence, is reaching for a metaphor meant to have political and psychological resonance, but none of the ideas are explored in an interesting way. You can't even decipher his attitude toward the village elders. Are they idealists--or fearmongers? Shyamalan has always been a filmmaker who lives or dies on the quality of his concepts. The more you think about "The Village" after its secrets have been revealed, the sillier it gets.