There is doubtless an engrossing documentary to be made on the pitfalls of youthful directorial success, with M. Night Shyamalan bidding for a place as its focus. If “The Sixth Sense” was essentially a crackling-good “Twilight Zone” episode stretched to feature length and buoyed by a clever twist, the director’s subsequent efforts have been equally ambitious but less adept in sustaining their central conceits. Such is the case with “The Village,” a watchable film for awhile that unravels in a muddled last act likely to send many opening-weekend filmgoers home head-scratching and grumbling, both ominous in regard to box-office longevity.
Shyamalan is clearly a gifted technical filmmaker, ably building suspense about things that go bump in the night in a showcase that’s beautifully shot and oozes with atmosphere. Through the promising first third, the movie enticingly threatens to be “The Blair Witch Project” with a studio-sized budget, a Grimm’s scary tale for our times.
Still, they don’t dole out points for effort, and, by the time the credits roll, “The Village” qualifies as Shyamalan’s least satisfying post-“Sixth Sense” effort — adding a peculiar wrinkle to a resume that followed the intriguing “Unbreakable” with the spooky if ultimately disappointing “Signs.”
Revealing too much risks spoiling what fun there is in a movie that bears scant resemblance to anything else likely to invade multiplexes this summer for both good and ill — from the audacity of its setting to the low-wattage casting.
The action unfolds in a late 19th century American village surrounded by mysterious woods, home to dangerous if elusive creatures that town elders refer to as “Those we don’t speak of.” Although ostensibly safe in the village, the residents live in a state of fear, unable to pass through the woods in order to reach towns where they might find medicine to cure the sick.
In addition, skinned animals and strange markings on doors suggest the unnamed neighbors — drawn to the color red, which is thus forbidden — might be violating a longstanding truce with the villagers, for reasons that are anybody’s guess.
Young Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix), who is still smarting emotionally from the death of a child he befriended, offers to brave entering the woods. His courage is motivated in part by love for the blind Ivy (relative newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of Ron), and in part by their mutual fondness for the village idiot (Adrien Brody, in a post-Oscar choice only slightly less confounding than lip-lock partner Halle Berry’s leap into “Catwoman”).
Shyamalan knows how to keep an audience off-balance: The “Jaws”-like strains of James Newton Howard’s score that open the film give way to understated violin passages later. Moreover, the stilted period dialogue heightens some of the sly humor and tenderness, particularly in Ivy’s forward approach to courting Lucius after her sister bluntly professed her love for him, which is by far the film’s best sequence.
Eventually, though, “The Village’s” secrets must be revealed, with unforeseen events prompting a perilous if improbable journey. And while those sucked in initially will be inclined to root for the film to gather itself as it stumbles, the payoffs simply don’t measure up against Shyamalan’s earlier works or, for that matter, the hour that preceded them.
Reuniting with the director after “Signs,” Phoenix manages to create a character of quiet strength and nobility despite his own burdens with the “thee” and “thou”-style dialogue, and he and Howard deliver some laudable moments. No one else fares particularly well except William Hurt as her father. The babbling Brody unflatteringly brings to mind Dwight Frye’s Renfield from the 1931 version of “Dracula.”
Tapping into fears of the unknown — whether lurking among the stars or beyond the trees — is more difficult than Shyamalan makes it appear, and in that respect there are elements to admire here, from the artful production and creature design to the kinetic woods. Shyamalan builds his images carefully, understanding that peeling back layers slowly and sparingly can be more effective than a frontal assault.
The problem is that by now, the seams on his fastball are showing. And even if viewers can’t anticipate every twist and turn, many will find themselves impatient to get there only to be let down upon reaching their destination.