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Building and breaking the vision of utopia 

In his latest movie, The Village, M. Night Shyamalan again displays his own distinctive combination of suspense and horror, which differs in both kind and degree from the work of his fellow toilers in the dark mines of dread. His best known work, successful or not, often blends the humdrum and the ordinary with genuine mystery, interrupted by moments of powerful shock.

A kind of family melodrama provides the foundation for such different films as The Sixth Sense (still his most popular movie), the dull stinker Unbreakable, and the generally silly and illogical Signs. Their sensation is grounded in the familiar complications of guilt and confusion that trouble even the most placidly domestic lives.

In The Village the writer-director establishes a small 19th-century community isolated in the American wilderness, far from civilization, apparently one of those many utopian colonies that proliferated all over the country in that time. Governed by a council of elders in a kind of consensual democracy, separated from the commerce and activity of the outside world, the people of the settlement live in a state of contentment based on trust, peace, and innocence.

Ominously, however, they allude cryptically to "Those We Do Not Speak Of," mysterious and frightening creatures who dwell in the surrounding forest outside the perimeter of the village. After some period of coexistence, the creatures now threaten the inhabitants.

Some mysterious events suggest that the creatures, for unknown reasons, are growing bolder and more aggressive toward the villagers. They awake in the mornings to find their livestock slaughtered and skinned, then to discover streaks of blood marking their doors, and at night, cowering in their cellars, they listen fearfully to the tramp of the unseen monsters' feet and their horrible scratching at the walls of their houses.

Against the background of increasing danger, the picture concentrates on the lives of several of the villagers, especially the family of Edward Walker (William Hurt), the schoolteacher and one of the elders, whose blind daughter Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard) falls in love with Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix). Ivy's relationship with Lucius and with Noah Percy (Adrien Brody), the village idiot, provides the central motivation for the various moments of shock and fright that indicate the precariousness of the community's vision of peace and innocence.

When Lucius suffers a terrible injury, Ivy volunteers to trek through the woods to obtain medicine in what the villagers call The Towns. Believing her blindness and innocence will protect her, Walker approves the journey, which leads to the full revelation of the film's mystery.

The originality of the writer-director's conception and the meticulous creation of the houses, furniture, implements, clothing, and manners, of the time, even a certain 19th-century formality of utterance, compensates for the generally predictable and essentially preposterous resolution of the puzzle. Shyamalan carefully manipulates his characters within the constricted world of the isolated community, convincingly establishing their good will, their contentment, and above all, their innocence.

He allows the necessary exposition to develop organically out of the speech and actions of the people, so we discover gradually that the elders left civilization and founded their village in order to escape the violence of the outside world and to preserve the innocence of succeeding generations.

Perhaps inadvertently, the picture suggests, however, that whatever the intentions of its founders, the village itself cultivates the seeds of its present distress, that the unspeakable creatures symbolize a failure within rather than without their boundary, some fault in their vision and its interpretation, that their ideal community depends as much on deception as on hope and love.

Certainly the menace that Ivy encounters on her dangerous trek through the forest resembles at times the forest itself, fraught with natural peril --- the snapping of twigs, the moaning of the wind through the bare trees, the sharp branches that claw at her, the treacherous ground she stumbles over --- so that the creature she encounters also seems both a part of the woods and a part of the village.

The cast performs with great skill, particularly Bryce Dallas Howard, who occupies the central role in the picture, nicely combining innocence with humor and intelligence, and really carrying the burden of the movie's considerable suspense and shock. William Hurt's careful diction and idiosyncratic cadences seem particularly effective for the 19th-century vocabulary and syntax. In one strong scene with Sigourney Weaver, who plays Lucius Hunt's mother, the two of them declare their love for each other, and its impossibility, without touching or even speaking of their emotion, conveying a wealth of meaning through the most minimal movement and gestures.

Whatever its faults, The Village succeeds through the careful sets, the fine acting, and the originality of its writer-director's vision. It also reminds us, intentionally or not, that utopia actually means "no place."

The Village (R), starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson, Cherry Jones, Celia Weston, Jayne Atkinson, Judy Greer, Fran Kranz, Michael Pitt, John Christopher Jones; written, produced, and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Cinemark Tinseltown, Loews Webster, Pittsford Plaza Cinema, Regal Culver Ridge, Regal Eastview, Regal Greece Ridge, Regal Henrietta.

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