What an irony — and a shame — it would be if ”The Sixth Sense” turns out to be the movie that first made and then ruined the career of M. Night Shyamalan. A filmmaker of superb technical facility and emotional control, Shyamalan floored audiences with the ending of his 1999 thriller, the rare film twist that was genuinely unexpected without being in the least dishonest. It’s not his fault that the public has approached each of his subsequent movies as narrative piñatas that will spill forth their secrets if only they can be cracked.
But audience expectations alone can’t be blamed for the fact that Shyamalan’s movies seem increasingly to be mapped from their endings backward. Watching The Village, which follows ”Unbreakable” and ”Signs” in what may come to be known as the ”Gotcha!” quartet, you may find yourself poking and prodding the narrative for its first half hour, mentally combing each scene in search of what’s not being expressed. That’s not a great way to approach a film, but in fairness, the surface of ”The Village” does not, initially, offer many rewards. Set in a 19th-century Northeastern rural community, it’s written in a style somewhere between faux Crucible and an elementary-school tour of Amish country. Benign town elders led by Edward Walker (William Hurt) preside over the village’s business while the young ones frolic and go a-courtin’, and a romantic quadrangle begins to emerge: Walker’s impetuous daughter Kitty (Judy Greer) is in love with stoic, awkward Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix), who in turn is smitten with Kitty’s blind sister Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), who’s adored by mentally handicapped Noah (Adrien Brody, in his first role of any heft since winning the Oscar for ”The Pianist”). The tone is so chokingly wholesome, and the world Shyamalan creates is so quaintly ”simple” in a way that urbanites often ascribe to the rural, that one longs for the other shoe to drop, if one exists. Since this is an M. Night Shyamalan film, prayers are answered in the form of an unseen presence — terrifying creatures who are said to live in the surrounding woods, in an uneasy truce with the villagers that depends on neither species breaching the other’s borders.
If by now you’re thinking that surely something else must be going on here, well, who could blame you, since the writer-director himself has conditioned you to tweeze every line and frame forensically? What really lurks within those woods is (fear not: no spoilers here) a very mixed bag. It gives nothing of the plot away to say that there’s a fine line between an ”Aha!” and an ”Oh, brother!” Whether you feel ”The Village” crosses that line may hinge on whether you think Shyamalan’s screenwriting ability is beginning to lag behind his skill as a director. ”The Village” offers genuine surprises and a few haunting images, thanks primarily to his exquisitely precise sense of pace, mood, and framing (the brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins proves invaluable here) and his evident fondness for actors. As a director, Shyamalan gets fine work from Phoenix, whose ability to convey emotion with limited language serves the film effectively, from newcomer Howard, who brings steely resolve and dynamism to what turns out to be a pivotal role, and from stage veterans like Cherry Jones and Jayne Atkinson in small parts. Less successfully used is Hurt, whose abiding taste for inserting…random…pauses…into his lines feeds Shyamalan’s biggest weakness as a director, namely, a tendency to treat his own dialogue as holy writ. With each moment directed and played to maximize a sense of portent, ”The Village” feels airless (and sometimes eye-rollingly solemn) in ways that can’t be pinned entirely on its isolated-and-surrounded plot; it has the hermetic quality of a talented filmmaker bouncing ideas off the inside of his own skull. When those ideas are great, the result is ”The Sixth Sense.” When those ideas are ”Hey, maybe the alien invader could be allergic to water!” the result is ”Signs.” In the case of ”The Village,” it’s not fair to talk about the plot yet, but it is reasonable to suggest that, with the road into these woods threatening to turn into a creative dead end, Shyamalan may want to think about making his next movie with a twist beginning — a new writer.
Note ”The Village” was reviewed by editor-at-large Mark Harris from a print without final color correction after Buena Vista declined to schedule a screening for critics that would permit EW to run a timely review.