Shyamalan Channels the Soul of Rod Serling in "The Village"

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Rod Serling, the late creator and host of The Twilight Zone, was a genius who managed to sidestep the conservative TV censors of his day by addressing controversial social issues via thought-provoking morality plays presented as harrowing, science fiction fantasy.

With The Village, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan takes a page out of Serling's approach to storytelling, crafting a chilling cautionary tale onto an old-fashioned chiller thriller.

Shyamalan's name has been associated with atmospheric fright fare since he landed a couple of Oscar-nominations for The Sixth Sense (1999). The Hindu-American wunderkind followed-up that offering with the equally-arresting Unbreakable (2000) and Signs (2002). However, where those earlier works primarily entertained by keeping you squirming in your seats, his latest also tosses a brain grenade likely to leave its more introspective audience members still reflecting about the meaning of the
experience long after walking up the aisle.

The Village features an accomplished ensemble cast of stage and screen veterans, including Academy Award-winners Adrien Brody (for The Pianist) and William Hurt (for Kiss of the Spider Woman), and Oscar-nominees Sigourney Weaver (for Alien, Working Girl and Gorillas in the Mist) and Joaquin Phoenix (for Gladiator). But the show is stolen by virtual newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard, a recent alumna of NYU's prestigious film school.

Bryce arrives with an impressive pedigree, being the daughter of Ron "Opie" Howard. Though her only prior screen credits were a couple of unremarkable cameo appearances in her father's Apollo 13 and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, she landed the lead role of Ivy Walker without having to audition.

The Village is set in 1897 in mythical Covington, Pennsylvania, a vague combination Quaker/Shaker/Amish/Pilgrim-style sect whose idyllic, utopian oasis unfortunately sits surrounded by a dense forest ostensibly filled with unspeakable, dreaded creatures. Yet these self-contained townspeople have somehow made peace with their predicament by never venturing into the woods beyond their clearing's tree-lined boundary, and by performing an assortment of primitive, superstitious rituals to keep their anthropomorphic adversaries at bay.

The community is led by widower Edward Walker (Hurt), a dour elder with a dutiful wife, Tabitha (Jayne Atkinson), and two eligible daughters, blind Ivy (Howard) and Kitty (Judy Greer). Then there's single mom, Alice (Sigourney Weaver), her brooding, all but mute, son Lucius (Phoenix), the village idiot Noah (Brody), and the town preacher (Brendan Gleeson) who we see burying his son at our point of departure.

You'd think that a pre-modern society so consumed with keeping monsters at bay would have no time left for incestuous soap operas, especially amid an inbred population numbering only in the dozens. Think again. For behind their proper, if vigilant, facades, it seems that nearly every one of Covington's "hail-fellow-well-met" residents has a tawdry secret to hide.

Any further revelations or even a hint at The Village's underlying theme would ruin the film. Suffice to say that Shyamalan relies on virtually every familiar contrivance from the formulaic, M. Night playbook, including blowing curtains, basements and religious overtones. And the ending turns on one humdinger of a twist, as usual.

Will The Village scare the bejesus out of you? Not unless you're under the age of 10, for the master of suspense has failed to manufacture a palpable tension which measures up to his own high standards. Does it still offer a worthwhile cerebral cinematic experience in the Rod Serling sense? Yes, but only if you have no idea what's coming. Otherwise, it'll be a two-hour endurance test and far worse than watching a Twilight Zone episode whose ending you already know.

The movie was marred single-handedly by William Hurt's hideous performance in a pivotal role. He is inexplicably inarticulate, delivering his lines haltingly and disjointedly, as though he was only handed the script about five minutes before shooting. Everyone else, even Opie's freckled-face offspring, is utterly convincing. But Hurt proves it only takes one major distraction to limit a production's potential by discouraging its audience from suspending disbelief.

Good (2 stars)
Rated PG-13 for many frightening situations and several scenes of violence.

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