The Village

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Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, and Bryce Dallas Howard. Rated PG.

That M. Night Shyamalan guy sure loves secrets; heck, he won't even tell us his first name. The director's latest film, The Village, is built on a foundation of secrets, but despite a cast that includes Oscar winners Adrien Brody and William Hurt, and Oscar nominees Joaquin Phoenix and Sigourney Weaver, it is by far Shyamalan's most unsatisfying work to date. The theme of fear and its effects on people's freedom is a timely one, but he forgot to make the movie entertaining.

The film is set in an isolated, late 19th-century farming settlement, where the spartan inhabitants live in the constant shadow of "Those We Don't Speak Of", the creatures that roam just beyond the village. But as long as the townsfolk don't broach the well-marked territorial boundaries--and make sure nothing red ("the bad colour") meets their gaze for long--they're pretty much left alone in their idyllic surroundings. Lucius Hunt (Phoenix) is an introspective yet fearless young man who, after a seven-year-old boy gets sick and dies, seeks the community elders' permission to venture into the woods in hopes of reaching "the towns" beyond and bringing back much-needed medicine.

Shyamalan is known for slowly, subtly building up a story, but he goes overboard with that technique this time around. So for the first half of the film we get to see the terminally pained-looking Hunt mope around, attend solemn town meetings, and then mope around a whole lot more. Up until somebody gets knifed in the gut, The Village is about as interesting as an episode of UPN's Amish in the City--without the city. (Speaking of the lowly UPN, you know The Village is hurting for critical raves when the sole quote splashed across the top of its opening-week newspaper ad--"Brilliant! A masterpiece!"--comes from a guy named Mark S. Allen of UPN-TV. Ebert and Roeper he ain't.)

It isn't until eloquent town leader Edward Walker (Hurt) reveals to his sightless daughter what's in "The Old Shed We Should Never Use" that you realize something vaguely resembling a thriller is up there on the screen. But when he sends her into the Blair Witch-like forest on a hazardous quest to score the medicine a villager's life depends on, it becomes clear that Shyamalan the writer hasn't overcome the inanity of his previous film, the preposterous alien-attack flick Signs. "We are grateful for the time that has been given," intones Walker Sr. before a huge outdoor feast. Viewers of The Village would be far more thankful to get the 109 minutes of their moviegoing lives back.