'The Village' Smart And Scary; 'Manchurian Candidate' Electrifying, By Kurt Loder

M. Night Shyamalan, Jonathan Demme know how to do the twist.

"The Village" is the smartest scary movie since director M. Night Shyamalan's 1999 breakthrough hit, "The Sixth Sense." It's creepy and nerve-rending, and, this being a Shyamalan film, it naturally contains a dizzying plot flip. It also offers the opportunity to watch a 23-year-old actress morph into a full-fledged movie star right before your eyes. I'd like to tell you more about this picture, but I can't. Or I shouldn't. Well, maybe a little.

The movie opens in a rural settlement in which a burial is being conducted. From the size of the casket, we can see that the deceased was a small child. From the date on the tombstone, we see that it is 1897. The homespun look of the mourners, with their lumpy suits and blunt haircuts, suggests a 19th century religious separatist group along the lines of the Oneida Community, or the Shakers. These people have withdrawn from the world — from "the towns," as they put it — and they know what they've gained by doing so: self-sufficiency (they do their own sheep-shearing, weaving and candle-making) and self-determination. But they know what they've given up, too: From the graveside murmuring, we realize that the child in the casket needn't have died — that certain medicines might have saved him, had they been on hand.

One young man, Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix), volunteers to go off on his own to the towns, wherever they are, and bring back medical supplies. His mother (Sigourney Weaver) is dead set against this, as are the rest of the village elders. The trip would require passing through the woods that border the village, and the woods, inexplicably, are filled with hideous monsters — "Those We Don't Speak Of" — who would rip Lucius apart, as they sometimes do the settlement's animals. These gruesome creatures are always out there, hiding, waiting, through weddings and dances and communal outdoor suppers. But the elders have learned how to keep them more or less at bay: The villagers don't go into the woods, ever; and they never wear red ("The bad color — it attracts them"). Sometimes, however, these precautions are insufficient, and when lookouts up on the community watchtowers hear the creatures crunching toward them through the underbrush, a bell is rung and the people flee to their cellars to wait out the inevitably bloody invasion.

So nobody wants Lucius to set off through the woods, least of all Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard), the blind daughter of the village leader, Edward Walker (William Hurt). Ivy is attracted to the taciturn Lucius, but he's hard to read. And feebleminded Noah Percy (Adrien Brody), the rowdy village simpleton, is attracted to her, which turns out to be a crucial complication.

To say any more about the intricately knotted plot of "The Village" would be unfair to those who haven't seen the picture. It's a unique film, a horror movie that opens up into something completely (for me, anyway) unexpected. Its layering of pervasive eeriness over a rich emotional structure constitutes another genre triumph for Shyamalan, who at 33 is already a virtuoso at this sort of thing. He's often been compared to Alfred Hitchcock, another master of suspense, who also knew that waiting for something awful to happen can be even more exquisitely fearful than actually watching it happen. But Shyamalan comes up with these strange stories entirely on his own, and he writes the scripts, too. Hitchcock never managed that.

The most remarkable thing about "The Village" — a movie populated by actors who have either won an Academy Award (Hurt and Brody) or been nominated for one (Phoenix and Weaver) — is that the most memorable performance in it is given by Bryce Dallas Howard, a young stage actress whose previous film experience has essentially consisted of bit parts in two movies directed by her father, Ron Howard. Shyamalan saw her in a New York production of Shakespeare's "As You Like It," and hired her virtually on the spot. It was an inspired choice. Since the Ivy Walker character grew up in the village, and thus would be intimately familiar with its topography, Howard plays her without the stumbling unsteadiness that usually signals a character's blindness; and like many blind people (as Howard discovered in her research for the role) Ivy "looks" right into the face of whomever she's talking to. She's a strong, optimistic young woman who experiences the world in a vivid inner way; and the scene in which she and Lucius, shot in profile, talk all around the fact of their mutual attraction while a thick bank of mist floats across the field in front of them is a radiant set piece, of a sort for which this kind of movie — a simple fright flick, ostensibly — very rarely finds room.

* * *

"The Manchurian Candidate" is an electrifying overhaul of one of the most famous paranoid thrillers of the Cold War era. The original movie, released in 1962, broke startling new ground in its treatment of such topics as brainwashing, betrayal and — one year before President John Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas — political assassination. The new remake — directed by Jonathan Demme with his customary affinity for burnished, hellacious imagery — jacks up just about every element of the earlier film to new and more jolting levels. And for those who've seen the first "Manchurian Candidate," and figure they know how this one ends, two words: You don't.

The leads are a pleasure to behold. Denzel Washington, with his understated star presence, is Major Ben Marco, a Gulf War I veteran who's been having some disturbing dreams. On reconnaissance behind enemy lines in Kuwait in 1991, Marco and his men were ambushed and would have been wiped out had it not been for the bravery of Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), who single-handedly fought off a company of Iraqi attackers. Aloof and unpopular with his fellow troops, Shaw was nevertheless described by each and every one of them after the incident as an excellent fellow in all ways, and he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Thirteen years later, Marco, now stationed in Washington, D.C., is beginning to wonder if any of that heroic story was ever real. In his dreams, he sees a leering scientist conducting sinister experiments of some sort, and he sees his men, some of them bloodied, and he sees himself holding a gun. As for Raymond Shaw ... well, let's say he doesn't see Raymond Shaw bravely fighting off enemy attackers.

Shaw himself, as cold and remote as ever, is now a New York congressman whose ruthless mother, Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep), with the backing of a shadowy conglomerate called Manchurian Global, is angling to turn him into a vice-presidential candidate, in which position he would conveniently be, as they say, one heartbeat away from the presidency. Watching this from afar, at first, Marco begins to suspect that something is very, very wrong, and of course he's right.

Denzel Washington has never been more vulnerably appealing than he is here. And Liev Schreiber, playing a man who's down to his last shred of recognizable humanity, turns Raymond Shaw into an icon of icy despair. But the person clearly having the most fun in this picture is Meryl Streep, who plays the appalling Senator Shaw with all but a whoop of glee. (Intriguingly, her portrayal of this steely political operator seems unambiguously based on Hillary Clinton.) Demme charges the movie's nightmare scenario of a corporate takeover of the U.S. government with some powerful scenes — especially the infernal brainwashing sequences; a starkly alarming double drowning; and a brain-drilling implant shot complete with a fine dust of pulverized skull bone drifting out of the hole.

"The Manchurian Candidate" is a remake that surpasses the movie on which it's modeled. The original film scared people with its twisted vision of communist political subversion. In his re-imagining of that story, Demme suggests that since that time, things have gotten a lot scarier.

("The Manchurian Candidate" is released by Paramount Pictures, a subsidiary of Viacom, which also owns MTV.)

* * *

As deep thoughts go, "You have to feel life even if it hurts" lacks head-smacking illumination. But in "Garden State," it resonates with Andrew Largeman, who's been zoned out on lithium and Zoloft since he was 10 years old, courtesy of his psychiatrist, who also happens to be his father. So when Dad calls Andrew in Los Angeles, where he's pursuing a career as an actor/waiter, and tells him that his mother has died, he decides to finally bag the meds and fly back home to New Jersey to see if he can actually feel something about this loss.

"Garden State" is a small, sweet first film by "Scrubs" star (and Jersey native) Zach Braff, who wrote and directed it, and who brings a whimsical, droopy charm to the role of Andrew. Arriving in New Jersey — clearly the actual place, with its excessive greenery and sagging suburban sidewalks — he starts making the rounds of old high-school friends to see what they're up to. Not much, it turns out. True, one of them has struck it rich with a geeky invention he calls "Silent Velcro" (it doesn't make that ripping sound when you unfasten it). But the guy is such a feeb that after running out and buying a mansion with his sudden riches, he can't think of anything more interesting to do with the place than ride a golf cart around in it.

The rest of Andrew's friends, like Mark (played by the invaluable Peter Sarsgaard, under-used here), appear to be living lives in which bong hits loom large. But then there's Sam, a girl he meets and bonds with over a song by the Shins. Sam is played by Natalie Portman, and her giddy, live-wire performance is reason enough to see this movie. Sam is one of life's enthusiasts, an undimmable optimist. She's epileptic, but pays the condition no mind. She lives with her amiable mom in a house that features a sizable pet cemetery out back. ("A lot of these are fish," she hastens to explain, as Andrew surveys the curiously large number of little headstones.) She's not all that concerned with telling the truth, although she apparently really did catch Andrew's appearance in some TV movie. ("Did you play the retarded quarterback?" she asks. "Are you really retarded?")

Over the course of four days, the newly meds-free Andrew begins to feel a renewed fondness for his old buddies; he also has a nine-years-overdue talk with his father (played by Ian Holm), and — most affectingly — he comes to the realization that he and Sam are total soulmates. It must be love, he figures — and Sam agrees. "I haven't even lied in two days," she says. "Is that true?" Andrew asks. She thinks about it. "No."

"Garden State" is about the youthful disorientation that occurs when you realize that "the house you grew up in isn't really home anymore." The movie is anecdotal — it's essentially a string of amusing scenes. The young people in it are basically slackers, going nowhere (you almost want to slap them). And the decision Andrew makes at the end of the movie seems wrong to me.

If nothing else, however, this film suggests that Zach Braff has a future beyond TV, and beyond acting, too. And that Natalie Portman has reserves of loveable verve and silliness that haven't begun to be fully exploited.