I liked all of M. Night Shyamalan’s past films. This one is a little more sophisticated and ambitious than his others. Like the others though, this film has plot holes one could drive convoys through; and yet, stylistically he performs cinematic slight-of-hand, and one can still enjoy the work. The biggest downside for the movie was how it was marketed; supposedly as a horror film. What it actually resembles is a character study, or a clever Rod Serling TWILIGHT ZONE episode. There are those who felt that the concept of the film could not be sustained for two hours, that it belonged on television, with commercial interruptions to pull our attention off its shortcomings. The hue and cry of protests seems to come from the motley crowd that wanted to see imaginative creatures and horrible m! onsters; something akin to the denizens of RESIDENT EVIL. And since none of those actually appear, even though they seem to at first, the movie becomes much ado about very little. Perhaps Shyamalan is suggesting, as Serling did before him, that the real monsters are simply those we see in the mirror while brushing our canine teeth; that there is a very dark side to man’s baser nature.

James Newton Howard composed the excellent musical score; no relation to Ron Howard. He is married to Rosanna Arquette. He used to tour with Elton John. He is a very prolific composer, having completed work on over one hundred films since 1985; like HIDALGO, THE FUGITIVE, and PRETTY WOMAN.

Some critics seemed to dislike the slow cadence of the Village speech. For me though, Shyamalan captured the feel of Quaker dialogue; quite reminiscent of the Shaker and Mennonite way of expression. All that was missing were the Thee and Thous. The Village was set up like a 19th century Utopian society. In the opening scene, during a funeral, we see the dates on a tombstone; b.1890-d.1897. This sets the scene for us. In his past films, Shyamalan has worked toward one big twist ending. In this movie, he wisely allowed us to have several revelations midway, so that we could savor that knowledge beyond the last reel. As clever as the plot concept was, it still was illogical and implausible. This seems to plague this director. It has always bothered me, for instance, why Mel Gibson in SIGNS did not have a firearm on his farm.

An odd but interesting symbol was the connotation of colors, that red was the “bad color”, and that yellow was the “protective color”. So all things red like flowers, berries, cloth, had to be banned and buried. And of course, “Those We Do Not Speak Of” wore bright red cloaks. I suppose this was to transfer to Village ethics. If so, how did they tolerate slaughtering their livestock without spilling blood of the bad color? Maybe they had to cross themselves and bury that too. I wondered where were the large livestock, the cattle and horses? They seemed to live on pork and chicken. Oh, and of course, if one of them rode a horse, that person might be tempted to ride “too far away”.

Ivy: What? What’s this? (to Noah) Oh berries. What a splendid present!
Lucius: Be cautious, you are holding the bad color.
Ivy: This color attracts Those We Don’t Speak Of. We must bury it.

In a topical review, one has to tread lightly so that the plot twists are not revealed. But in a narrative, like this, one needs to discuss the ramifications and machinations of the plot. It is a novel concept that a disenchanted millionaire, and several of his acquaintances, somewhere in the late 1960’s, would accept a chance at a new life; that they would venture into the past century searching for the goodness and simplicity they lost in the modern world. Further that this wealthy man happened to own a huge chunk of real estate, covered in dense forest, where this Utopian Village could be erected and this pure lifestyle could be attempted. It appeared that the Village had existed for over 25 years, based on the ages of the oldest children. The millionaire, Edward Walker, paid someone to prevent planes from flying in air space over the compound, and he employed full-time gu! ards to watch over the perimeter. In order to preserve the Utopia, the youngsters had to believe that they were prisoners in their valley, surrounded by forest, where dwelled “Those We Do Not Speak Of”. I felt that when we were let in on the big secret, it did add to the dimension of the piece.

There were a plethora of hints in the first half of the film, suggesting that the Society of Elders had “secrets”. Each of them kept hidden artifacts in a trunk; the “Trunk One Dared Not Peek Into”. When the characters referred to “The Towns”, the places of debauchery and darkness, certain facts kept nagging at me. For instance, where did the Villagers get all the supplies that they needed to survive? Things like tools, clothing, building supplies, flour and sugar, and tons of kerosene. They would certainly have needed quite a tank full of that precious commodity to keep all those perimeter lamps lit all night, every night. Did Walker send an elder for supplies? What lie would have to be told to cover that activity? And once again, Shyamalan c! reated a menaced population that found themselves without firearms to protect themselves from predators, which was preposterous and illogical. The director made his token Hitchcock appearance as the guard at the desk, on the outside.

This was a powerhouse cast. Some critics felt that many of the more talented cast members were given very little scenery to chew on. Bryce Dallas Howard played the blind Ivy Walker,

[And the Blind shall Lead You]. This was the pivotal role in the film, and she was very good in it. She was seen in a Broadway play before she was cast. She is the daughter of director Ron Howard. Her godfather is Henry Winkler. I wonder how Ron felt about some of the plot holes and inconsistencies in this movie?

Bryce was pretty spry for a blind girl. She couldn’t quite make up her mind if she was partially sighted or totally blind, but generally she was effective in her portrayal.

William Hurt as patriarch Edward Walker gave a competent, reserved performance. Yet his emotional scenes at the end of the film, gave it some balance. It is always a pleasure to watch him work.

Walker: We are grateful for the time that we have been given.

Walker: The world moves for love. It kneels before it in awe. Yes, I have risked. I hope that I am always able to risk for the right and just cause.

Sigourney Weaver as Alice seemed lost; lost to poor editing, lost in the miasma of poor writing. Did she and Walker have a tryst in the real world, which they could not continue in the Utopian environment of the Village? Or were they continuing to dally? It was a series of muddied moments.

Now Joaquin Phoenix, as Lucius Hunt, was almost given something to do, but not quite. His character had the attributes of heroes; shyness, honesty, bravery, and a trusting heart. Lucius was introduced to us as a probable protagonist, and then he was delegated to hand the reins of control over to Ms. Ivy Walker; an odd turn of events. Phoenix underplayed well, and set up circumstances in such a way that we could care for him, and about him. He was unafraid of the forest and its “monsters”, was willing to travel to “the Towns” on a quest for better medicines, and he saw through the sham of the Rule of the Elders. He sensed that they all had their secrets. But with all this set up, as well as his betrothal to Ivy, with one plot twist he found himself mortally wounded, bedridden, and down-for-the-count.

Walker (to Lucius): You are fearless in a way that I will never know.
Ivy: How is it that you are so brave while the rest of us shake in our boots?
Lucius: I don’t think of what might happen, only what must be done.
Ivy: Why don’t you ever speak what is in your head?
Lucius: Why do you never stop speaking what’s in yours?
Ivy: When we are married, will you dance with me? I find dancing very agreeable.
Lucius: Why must you lead, when I want to lead? If I want to dance, I will ask you to dance. If I want to speak I open my mouth and speak. Everyone is forever plaguing me to speak further. Why? What good is it to tell you you are in my every thought from the time I wake? What good can come from my saying that I sometimes cannot think clearly or do my work properly? What gain can rise of my telling you the only time I feel fear as others do is when I think of you in harm? That is why I am on this porch, Ivy Walker. I fear for your safety before all others. And yes, I will dance with you on our wedding night.

Several plotlines rotated around needing better medicines. Why in the deuce didn’t Walker allow certain antibiotics and better medicines to be available? Hold down the technology, yes, but why the medicines? The children would never have known the difference. He could have fabricated yet another cover story. If a man had the wealth to completely set up a hidden Utopia, then why not do it risk free?

Adrien Brody, a league away from his work in THE PIANIST, played the Village simpleton, Noah Perry. A giggling mentally challenged lad, he was introduced to us as harmless, with the IQ of a young child. He loved Ivy, and he spent a lot of time playing games with her. When Noah’s dark side was revealed, after he attacked Lucius out of jealousy and painful confusion, we were still left with another delicious surprise in store for us. Noah was a bad boy simpleton, and there was no limit to his mischievousness.

Noah: Bad color [points to the blood on his hands].

Brendan Gleeson, a fine actor, played August Nicholson. He was given one good scene in the opening of the film, where he was weeping over his son’s little casket. Following that, he was only required to show up and be part of the crowd.

Nicholson: We can move toward hope; that’s what’s beautiful about this place. But we cannot run from heartache…heartache is a part of life. We know that now.

This is not a great film and it does overreach itself, but it was enjoyable. Perhaps M. Night Shyamalan needs to lighten up, to break the mold of his specialty, and direct a rauchy comedy. Or maybe this was a comedy, and I just missed all the punchlines.

I gave this movie a rating of 2.5 stars
Glenn Buttkus 2004