M. Night Shayamalan's movies put reviewers in a curious position. All four of his recent films, starting with The Sixth Sense, depend heavily on what the audience does not know to achieve the desired effect. That makes it impossible to talk much about the plot. But what makes a discussion of his films even harder is that Mr. Shayamalan weaves the philosophical undercurrent of his films right into his plot twists. One cannot even discuss the underlying ideas of his movies without risking the suspense Mr. Shayamalan works so hard to achieve.
His latest, The Village (rated PG-13 for a scene of violence and frightening situations), is consistent with this pattern. It is ostensibly about a remote 18th-century village inhabited by peaceful townsfolk cut off from civilization by necessity and by choice. Many of the older villagers, with memories of life elsewhere, have been badly bruised by their contact with the (fallen) world.
Of more immediate importance, though, is an arrangement with creatures in the woods surrounding the village. These woodland menaces guard their territory closely, but remain harmless if the villagers stay out of the woods. A series of events causes this uneasy agreement to dissipate. Younger villagers played by Joaquin Phoenix and Bryce Dallas Howard are tempted and compelled to enter the woods.
The Village doesn't entirely work. Its individual parts are as strong as anything Mr. Shayamalan has done-with several scenes of deep-seated suspense (and even beauty) and, as usual, an undercurrent of provocative ideas. But the result isn't as entertaining or as challenging as one might have hoped, partially because Mr. Shayamalan continues to insist on focusing his audience on a big "reveal" instead of on characters and issues at the heart of the film.
Just as 2002's Signs was as much about purpose and providence as it was about crop circles and aliens, The Village is about much more than monsters in the woods. Mr. Shayamalan will disappoint many in his audience with The Village because, although the first half of the film is suitably frightening, the final section doesn't conclude with the mindbender audiences are expecting. On the other hand, Mr. Shayamalan's ideas are again rich with potential, as he examines fear, isolation, adversity, and grief.