Is the “secret” of M. Night Shyamalan’s mythic O. Henry saga The Village out yet? You’ll hear a large, rattling groan of film-geek frustration when it does leak into the water table, because it’s got the hype-payback thrill of softcore cable porn. Which, when the smoke-machine fog clears, makes this movie the screwiest yarn yet from Shyamalan’s metaphysical-Limburger career project, a non-horror horror film abstracted into a straight-faced parable about fearful conservatism and, gulp, the essential goodness of religious lies.
I think. What era is this semi-Mennonite/colonial re-enactment village, peopled by “elders” (William Hurt, Cherry Jones, Brendan Gleeson, et al.) and their 18th-century-lingo children, supposed to be set in? Why are virtually all of the actors speaking like Pilgrims in a fourth-grade play? (“What is your meaning?” is an incidental sample of the dialogue this sporting cast had to handle.) What are the snarling creatures in the woods that threaten the valley, and why do they like the color red? Where’d they get their red cloaks and red paint from?
The answers, if they come, are far from satisfying from any pulp-world perspective; Shyamalan’s ideas are strictly circular, and blithely mow down any narrative sense or pleasure in their path, like a driverless tractor. Elsewhere on the Shyamalan résumé there was also a sharp-eared feel for emotional bearings, but The Village is so meaningless and distanced in its details that it hardly stands a chance of wooing even the most willing fellow traveler. Predicated at first on a Blair Witch–esque anxiety about primeval American woods, the film methodically evolves into a kind of Bierce-ified Twilight Zone episode—the sort that pivoted on moral homilies rather than universalized dread. It’s odd, to say the least, to see Shyamalan’s rote blockbuster reflexes—power dollies, shock soundtracks blams, etc.—in the service of this arch, insubstantial nonsense.
The budding romance between reticent, restless village youth Joaquin Phoenix and vivacious blind teen Bryce Dallas Howard benefits from Shyamalan’s knack for writing shapely, talky scenes, and a single shot of a knifing has more inventive power than the rest of the film all piled up together. But, finally, The Village is creepily rad-con—what Rod Serling might’ve excoriated with glib pronouncements while holding a smoldering cig, Shyamalan embraces with a reactionary group hug, resigned forever to dozing prayerfully in a Ludditic past. Suffice it to say, without spoiling anything for anyone, that it’s a film a White House full of evangelicals could’ve written, given a little prodding, a little pot, and a day-long Zone marathon.