Writer and director M. Night Shyamalan has made his reputation with moody thrillers that pack twist endings. He caused us to re-think dead people (The Sixth Sense), superheroes (Unbreakable) and aliens (Signs). And here, in The Village, Shyamalan invites us to speculate about monsters in the deep forest, and it's not giving anything away to say: Expect a twist or two.
The film opens with the funeral of a boy, but the event doesn't seem to disrupt the unity of this small hamlet. It is 1897, and death is common enough in rural Pennsylvania. Less typical is what binds the townsfolk together -- a fear of inhuman creatures that lurk in the surrounding woods. The village, essentially a ringed encampment, has struck a bargain: Residents will not venture into the forest, and the beasts will not harm the villagers.
And yet, evidence of the creatures turns up in town. Has the pact been broken? Are the villagers truly safer here than in "the towns," urban areas which the settlers have forsaken for their idyllic yet tenuous isolation? Such questions cause the village's elders -- William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver and Brendan Gleeson -- to fret, while young Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), a very able blind girl, is mostly preoccupied with romancing the gloomy Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) and romping with the village idiot, Noah (Adrien Brody).
Weaver and Hurt are appropriately grave, and Brody has a role he could play in his sleep. Phoenix takes his role as taciturn moralist to such a deep, dark place that his few lines unintentionally generated audience laughter. Howard (daughter of actor/director Ron Howard), with her oddly raw yet fragile features, makes a welcome debut, though a future work less rigidly calculated will be her true test.
The film begins shakily: The old-world staging feels awkward (did people really say "What is your meaning?" instead of "What do you mean?"), and despite the ominous threats of trouble, the first half plays like Shyamalan is expending spare time, more intent on tweaking our expectations than setting up a cohesive story. Ramble about in my meticulously constructed 19th-century world, and just try to guess the twist!
Shyamalan exhibits a nice hand with the camera -- the film is prettily lit with sepia tones, and many shots are elegantly framed. The trees rustle and the darkness is barely breached by torch -- and yet it all felt less in aid of creating true suspense than biding time until Mister Twister yanks the rug out. That defeats the very nature of a twist -- there's no surprise if we're anticipating it, or worse, cued to look for it behind every door and under every cloak. Don't say I didn't warn you.