[Note: Reading anything -- and I mean anything -- that even wanders near plot discussion for this film runs the risk of blowing the whole enterprise. I'm going to be as vague as possible, but don't say I didn't warn you anyways if you figure something out based on my words.
To paraphrase a line from Roger Ebert, if a man has directed several great films, it's only a matter of time before someone gives him a whole bunch of money to make a really bad one. And "The Village", the latest film from M. Night Shyamalan, is bad. Really bad. Laugh-out-loud bad. Sure, it looks great, but the extraordinary command that Shymalan has over his images this time out is attached to a story that would barely pass muster on "Night Gallery". I fear the problem may be with Shyamalan himself. Looking at how this might have happened, I can see one of two scenarios: Either nobody wanted to upset Shymalan by informing him that his characters, his dialogue and in fact his whole concept sucked green weenies... or someone did bring it up and he wasn't listening.
The plot involves... well, if you've seen the commercials, that's about all that there is, really. There's a remote village bordered by woods in which nasty ugly beasties reside, and all the village denizens are warned not to go into the woods lest the beasties eat them and then wreak vengeance upon the village for disturbing them. I'll not say much further so as not to spoil the film even as I advise strongly against wasting cash on this solemn, arrogant misfire. Suffice to say, the nasty things get more aggressive and then there is a sudden turn of events that requires a hearty soul to brave the dangers in the woods. It's not so much the outline of the story as it is the specifics that irks: Because this is a Shyamalan film, we expect twists and shocking revelations, and when he dutifully delivers, it's a big letdown. To call the secrets concealed in this film cheap would be insulting to dollar stores everywhere. I'd love to grouse at length about exactly why this film is the stupidest thing on two legs I've seen in some time, but again, I'm trying to be polite to those who haven't seen this and want to. Let's move on.
But then, maybe we won't move on -- we'll just take a sidelong jump. Now, I've mentioned that the script is silly. This would be acceptable, of course, if the whole film was meant to be silly, or if it at least exhibited a healthy self-awareness about its ridiculousness. Alas, the goofiness on display is only exacerbated by Shyamalan's funereal directorial style. It's one thing to use deliberate pacing to draw out suspense and keep the audience on edge, but there comes a point where deliberateness crosses over into self-seriousness. Shyamalan can usually ride the line between the two without crossing over, but here he seems to have forgotten the offbeat sense of humor that saved his other films from turgidity. Nowhere is this more evident than in the stilted dialogue. Everything is high-flown and formal. Nobody says three words when they can say ten. The actors do what they can with their lines, but the only ones who stand out are Joaquin Phoenix and Adrian Brody (neither of whom have much in the way of actual dialogue) and especially Bryce Dallas Howard, who infuses her stodgy lines with a spunk and life that makes them semi-believable. If she can make this much of an impression with the meager pickings here, she should be amazing in "Manderlay".
This would all be positively unbearable if Shyamalan wasn't also a talented visual filmmaker. But talented he is, so the film exerts a kind of fascination for some time before it completely falls to pieces. The director makes everything look appropriately austere and moody, and he gets a major assist from the extraordinary cinematographer Roger Deakins. In particular, the major narrative complication that occurs a little over an hour in is perfectly designed and executed. The use of tight framing and close-ups give the scene a potency that would be absent from a traditionally filmed scene of the same ilk. Moreover, playing the scene with a minimum of dialogue not only feeds into the sense of unease that mushrooms into horror this one time only, but it also keeps us from giggling at any potentially dopey dialogue and undercutting the scene. (In fact, the sound design in the whole film is great, providing the tension that Shyamalan's script forgot to include.) There's another absolutely gorgeous shot near the end of the film that makes brilliant use of the color red ("the bad color", as we're told), even if it does look a little too much like a CD cover. So the technical aspects of the film are faultless -- pity the story stinks.
In fairness, I can see where Shyamalan may have been attempting some form of social commentary with this story, but he can't keep his focus on whatever message he wants to send. He's got something on his mind, but his devotion to the thriller genre and his obsession with twisty endings undermine his struggle to make himself clear. It's a hopeless muddle -- a failure as drama, a failure as horror and a failure as allegory. You couldn't make a more perfect parody of a typical Shyamalan film if you tried. Next time out, Night, maybe you should get a writing partner or something. And stop taking yourself so goddamn seriously.