The Village (Touchstone Pictures, 2004)

First things first. There is a certain segment of the population that thinks that every movie M. Night Shyamalan does has a twist to it. That segment of the population would be right. With every successive movie there seems to be a rush to figure out just what that certain something is this time. For those of you who think you've figured it out, take a step back. There is more than one shocker this time. Many more. Ones you won't see coming. Ones I didn't see coming. So relax. Breathe. Step into the theater and enjoy the show. Don't worry about the guy by the water cooler and what he's heard, or the gal down the street and her ideas. There's plenty to see in this film, and the twists aren't the only reason to head to the theater. Stop trying to figure it out, and just go see it, already. Trust me on this one.

Why am I so adamant? Because about three weeks ago a friend of mine thought he'd be helpful and let me in on "the big secret". The urge to pummel him senseless was strong, but I resisted, even though I was sure that a jury of my peers would understand. But worry started to creep into my mind nonetheless. What if his theory was right? Would the movie be ruined for me if I knew what was coming? As a die-hard horror buff, I sat down in the theater opening night and waited, just knowing that my viewing pleasure had been compromised.

It wasn't, as it turned out. And he was wrong anyway. Dead wrong. M. Night Shyamalan managed, once again, to keep me from figuring out where his story was ultimately headed until he wanted me to know. In The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, Night pulled audiences into the story while still letting them connect with his characters. Even his heavy-handed-in-comparison-to-the-others film Signs manages to scare and entertain even after you start to figure out just where the chips are going to fall.

There is no such easy ride in The Village, this time Night is back to keeping his cards hidden. This tale of simple farm folk living by rules that protect them from creatures that live in the woods sounds like the beginning of any number of B-grade horror movies. You know the ones; they're so predictable you could sleep through the first half and still figure out where the story is heading. Best not to try that here. Even before the "big finish" presents itself, there are developments in the story that can take your breath away. The fact that this movie plays on several different levels kept my interest even when things seemed to slow down. Yes, there's the overall story that requires a second viewing in order to fully appreciate, but it's the personal stories that oftentimes eclipse and ultimately merge with the main tale that keep this movie from turning into another "what's in the woods?" boogey-fest.

Character development doesn't seem to be Night's strong suit -- not yet. But leaving characters pretty much the way they started could be intentional. These characters come to understand important truths, but what they do with that information and how it ultimately changes them happens later, after the small part of their lives that we have been allowed to witness has passed. But that doesn't mean I didn't feel any attachment to them. Night has written a complex story, but still managed to find time to develop engaging characters, and the actors in this film do an excellent job in bringing them to life. William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver play two of the elders that carry the burden of protecting the village while dealing with their everyday lives and the lives of their children. The elders seem to have the weight of the world on their shoulders, and these two actors in particular show the quiet resignation in their character's lives. Joaquin Phoenix , in his second film with M. Night Shyamalan, plays Lucius Hunt, a young man who thinks braving the woods could help his fellow villagers. His character has an intensity that most of the other members of the village seem to lack. Adrien Brody and Bryce Dallas Howard give engaging performances as friends of Lucius whose own lives are shaped by his actions. Bryce is particularly memorable as Ivy, a young woman whose strength is tested in ways she never would have expected.

Camera work starts out a bit shaky at the very beginning of the film, but the dizzying perspective is cleared up quickly. The whole film is shot under cloudy skies or darkness, adding to the feeling of foreboding. Costuming and set decoration give the sense of a late nineteenth-century village. And the creatures? Oh, no. You're not getting that kind of information outta me, that's for sure. Hey, just because I said that I enjoyed this movie despite my spoiler-fears doesn't mean I'm going to give you any obvious tip-offs. This movie gives good creep, and not knowing what will happen next only adds to the suspense.

This movie doesn't shy away from some tough questions. How far would you be willing to go to protect yourself and the ones you love? How far should you go? And can love and hope survive surrounded by fear and apprehension? These are questions that the audience has to mull over in their own mind, because Night provides no easy answers. In this case solving everything would turn a thought-provoking film into pablum, and that would have been a shame. Thankfully, he gives us something for out minds to chew on as we leave the theater.

With The Village, M. Night Shyamalan shows that he can get deeper inside the minds of his characters and still create a suspenseful story. His blending of well told tales, moral and/or ethical dilemmas and Robert Bloch-like twists have the makings of a new millennium Hitchcock. It will be interesting to see where his muse takes him, but I know this for sure; from now on, I'll be looking forward to his films for more than just the shocks they bring. But I still refuse to be held responsible for any damage I may do to those folks who spill the beans.

[Denise Dutton]

The official Web site is a suitably creepy but slow loading collection of the usual Internet goodies. What makes it worth stopping by is the "Face Your Fears" section, where you can tell everyone what really scares you, and read what feeds other people's fears.