The Village

Have no fear: This review will be spoiler-free. And, really, have no fear, because this movie isn’t very scary.

M. Night Shyamalan, the writer/director who freaked us all out with a disturbed Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense and creepy aliens chasing Mel Gibson in Signs, doesn’t give anyone the willies with The Village.

The movie revolves around a 19th century settlement whose residents have a truce with mysterious creatures stalking the surrounding woods. Basically, the deal boils down to this: Don’t eat us, scary creatures, and we villagers won’t hunt you. Sounds all well and good until one fearless little camper, played by Joaquin Phoenix, decides to test the deal.

That’s when things should get scary. Instead, Shyamalan’s story falters, taking a fairly lame, obvious path. I’m no Ken from “Jeopardy,” but I guessed the big surprises early on.

Maybe Shyamalan is such a warped mastermind that the really big twist was to make the movie less creature-feature and more romantic drama. Probably not.

That’s not to say The Village is without merit. Shyamalan does know how to paint a pretty picture. His vibrant palate of blazing reds and mustard yellows lights up the screen.

Shyamalan also knows how to pick a cast. Despite the plot failings, Phoenix is great as Lucius Hunt, a man of few words. Phoenix proves as he did in Signs that he can do more with one blank stare than some actors can do with pages of dialogue.

Newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard turned out to be the great find she was touted to be. (Although, since her dad is Ron Howard, one of Hollywood’s biggest directors, it’s arguable that Shyamalan never had to look that hard for her.) The 23-year-old Howard smacks of a younger Claire Danes, bringing more strength and wisdom to the screen than her years might suggest possible.

Sigourney Weaver, William Hurt and Adrien Brody also turn in fine performances, in spite of the silly plot line.

But if I wanted to devote a perfectly good summer afternoon to a pretty period piece with Oscar-caliber actors delivering fine performances, I’d find some smarmy Miramax art-house flick. When M. Night Shyamalan puts his name all over a movie — let alone hypes the hell out of it to Sci Fi Channel nerds who would watch it anyway — I expect to be scared. I want moments where I’m gripping my seat, where my stomach sinks in anticipation of something wicked this way coming.

Such moments are too rare in The Village.

Heck, I’ve gotten scarier cell phone bills. I’ve been more terrified in the fast lane on I-696. I’ve enjoyed better twists in a frozen custard cone at Wally’s on the East Side. Now, those cones are something you should really check out this summer. The Village, not so much.

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