The ending of this movie will infuriate some people, but for me it was a lot of fun and worked on many levels. And I thought about it all the way home.
However, it’s just about impossible to say anything more about the movie without spoiling the surprises, so you might want to stop reading right now. If not, you’ve been warned.
The people of the village of Covington live in an uneasy truce with creatures they describe as “those we do not speak about,” who live in the woods that ring their town. Of course, the villagers do speak about them all the time, as, for example, when they refer to them as “those we do not speak about.” They sometimes wonder whether they should try to leave the village — perhaps someone in one of the towns that lie on the other side of the woods might have medicine that could have saved a young boy. Fear of “those we do not speak about” keeps them well inside the boundaries ringed by ochre-colored flags. But young people are restless — and reckless — and dare each other to test the boundaries. And there is a developmentally disabled man named Noah (Adrien Brody) who does not always do what he is told.
The village schoolmaster is Edward Walker (William Hurt), who has two daughters, Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is blind, and Kitty (Judy Greer). Both are drawn to Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix), but he is interested only in Ivy, who has a warm and wise heart and a merry spirit. Lucius tries to go into the woods and it makes the creatures angry. There is an attack. But then something else goes very wrong and someone else must enter the woods, this time not to return without completing the journey.
Producer/writer/director M. Night Shyamalan knows how to use the camera to tell the story and has a sure control of tone and pace, alternating gasps and laughs to keep things moving. Working with Coen brothers’ cameraman Roger Deakins, he has created a wonderfully evocative setting. Hurt delivers one of his less mannered performances and his scenes with his daughters and with Sigourney Weaver, who plays Lucius’ mother, are movingly tender. The heart of the movie is Bryce Dallas Howard (daughter of actor/director Ron Howard) as Ivy. Every moment she is on screen is fresh, touching, and real.
Even aside from the ending, there is a lot in this movie. Ever since the days of fairy tales and Shakespeare, quests that take characters into the woods have been Jungian metaphors for journeys into the soul, voyages to growth and understanding, and we get a nod to that when a young yellow ridinghood (red upsets the creatures) enters the woods on a mission of mercy. Shyamalan is not, well, afraid, to take on some big notions about fear and inhumanity and the conflicts faced by parents who want to protect their children and he creates characters we are willing to trust and care about.
Shyamalan is in some ways the victim of his own success. He is under a lot of pressure to keep pulling surprise endings out of cinematic hats. The problem is that an expected surprise is, in addition to an oxymoron, inevitably disappointing. It has become a distraction, like the cameo appearances by Alfred Hitchcock (which Shyamalan emulates). Hitchcock solved the problem by getting his appearances out of the way at the beginning of his later movies; Shyamalan might want to think about doing that with his surprises as well — he has the chops to deliver a straight, twist-free drama, and if he tries that next time, it would be a nice surprise.
Parents should know that this is a very tense and scary thriller. While much of the scary stuff is in the audience’s imagination, there are some scary jump-out-at-you surprises and some gory graphic images. Characters are attacked and killed. There is a very positive portrayal of a blind character who is exceptionally capable and courageous. Some viewers may be concerned about the portrayal of a developmentally delayed and possibly disturbed character.
Families who see this movie should talk about what drew the families in the village to settle where they did in spite of the risks. They should also think about whether there were any clues in the movie that pointed to the ultimate twist. Why did Edward send Ivy? The movie was originally called “The Woods.” Is that a better title? What is the scariest part of the movie and why?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense and Signs. They will also enjoy the classic episodes of The Twilight Zone. And they might enjoy seeing Hurt and Weaver together in a movie they made more than 20 years ago, Eyewitness.