The Village

The tombstone of a boy who has just died tells us the year is 1897, and the simple dress and formal speech of the town’s inhabitants remind us of the Amish. They are happy, peaceful folk, the people who live in the village in M. Night Shyamalan’s aptly titled “The Village.” But they live in fear: Will they be the victims of Shyamalan’s first bad movie? Not to spoil it or anything, but yeah. They are.

“The Village” reads like a bad xerox of Shyamalan’s eerie-twisty-suspense movies, as if it had been done by not by Shyamalan himself but by devoted, incompetent copycats, copycats who missed the point and thought it was all about the atmosphere.

There is atmosphere to spare in this dread-filled tale of an isolated village whose residents fear an unseen terror in the woods beyond their borders. The village elders, led by fatherly Edward Walker (William Hurt) (I thought he was a priest, at first), have made a sort of truce with the things — monsters, animals, whatever they are — that inhabit the woods: The humans won’t cross the treeline if the Things don’t enter the village.

So far, this arrangement has worked, though not entering the woods means not having any contact with the outside world, either. Some of the elders make reference to having been in “the towns” before, but their children were born here and don’t know any other life. They respect “Those We Don’t Speak Of,” as they are called, but believe as long as they don’t enter the woods, they will be safe.

But the village has an idiot, a mentally retarded man named Noah (Adrien Brody), who innocently violates the truce to pick berries and in so doing apparently brings the Things’ anger upon the village. Dead, shaved animals are discovered lying around town in an ominous fashion, and then one morning all the doors have red slashmarks painted on them, suggesting the Things are familiar with the Old Testament.

To reveal much more of the plot would constitute “spoilers,” so I’ll be careful. I will say that there is a quiet, gentle man named Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) who is in love with Walker’s vivacious blind daughter Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), and that when a villager is injured almost fatally, it is determined the only way to save the person’s life is to send someone through the woods to “the towns” to fetch medicine.

So yes, Shyamalan once again proves himself a master of manufacturing suspense, using all the elements of sound — ambient noises, sound effects and music — to create a mood, while occasionally composing striking visuals to match it. But “The Village” lacks the artfulness of “Unbreakable” or the simplicity of “The Sixth Sense” or the visual inventiveness of “Signs.” It is more ordinary than those films — not a problem if its story is compelling enough to carry it, but a major problem if it’s not.

Setting the film in 1897 leads to trouble almost immediately: The characters speak in stiff, formal language typical of the period, and few of the actors ever really warm up to it. There are likable, charismatic performers such as Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Pitt, and a host of others with less recognizable names involved, and some of their characters’ backstories are hinted at, but just barely. We don’t feel anything for these people, and that is where Shyamalan has failed the most in his screenplay and direction. He has forgotten that the reason we loved “The Sixth Sense” wasn’t its cool twist, wasn’t even its spooky ghost story — it was young, tormented Cole and his equally tormented counselor Malcolm. We liked THEM. We got to know THEM. We need PEOPLE here, M. Night! Ghost stories are a dime a dozen, and so are movies about remote villages with backward inhabitants.

So, for that matter, are movies with surprise endings, and Shyamalan cheats to make this one. He tells us something that turns out not to be true, and if we’d known it was untrue to begin with, we’d have guessed the ending much more readily. He doesn’t imply it, or let us assume it; he SAYS it. And it’s a lie. And that bothers me, because the guy knows how to do surprises correctly; he’s done it before. Why cheat? Why stoop, M. Night? Why?

As with his other films, “The Village” has deeper themes than its fun surface story would suggest, this time involving pain and loss. But they are not realistically realized, nor even examined beyond a few cursory lines of dialogue. Shyamalan has followed his own template, but neglected to fill in the most important parts. The movie is a disappointment.

C+ (1 hr., 47 min.; PG-13, a little violence.)