If all you’re looking for in the new nail-biter from suspense guru M. Night Shyamalan is an ending to out-twist The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs, The Village is no place to visit. The only way the climax of this blend of horror, romance and political allegory can come as a shock is to close your eyes and ears to everything that comes before it. That would be as butt-stupid as writing off Shyamalan as a trickster to be judged solely on how many rabbits he can pull out of his hat. That hasn’t stopped Internet fan boys, who snagged a script, from laughing off the film’s evocation of an isolated community, with nineteenth-century dress and manners, being menaced by creatures on its borders. Then there’s the recent Sci Fi Channel documentary that the director reportedly tried to shut down. It turns out Shyamalan was in on the scam — a guerrilla marketing campaign gone awry.
Now what? Let the film speak for itself. The Village, even when its step falters, is on to something more provocative than seeing dead people. Its power, unrelated to digital monsters, comes from the tension building inside the characters. Shyamalan benefits from a stellar cast, including William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver as emotionally bruised village elders, and Joaquin Phoenix and Oscar winner Adrien Brody — doing a bizarro take on the village idiot — as younger members of the tribe. And roll out a welcome for new Bryce Dallas Howard, the daughter of director Ron Howard. She gives a breakout performance as a blind girl whose radiant innocence can’t hide her independent spirit and scrappy wit.
Shyamalan and magician cinematographer Roger Deakins work wonders at suggesting a lurking menace in the sylvan beauty of the Pennsylvania countryside. To venture out, a villager needs permission that the elders, led by Edward Walker (Hurt) — a teacher with a vast knowledge of the region’s history — refuse to grant. Lucius (Phoenix), the son of elder Alice Hunt (Weaver), is rebuffed. Only Ivy (Howard), Edward’s blind, love-struck daughter, is given a pass because…well, no fair squealing. The elders fear the creatures on their borders, referred to as “those we do not speak of,” who stage periodic raids. The rules are strict: “Never enter the woods — that is where they wait.” And, “Let the bad color not be seen — it attracts them.” The bad color is red, evoking blood and violence. There is one scene — a stabbing superbly staged by Shyamalan — that hits like a thunderbolt. There is also a love story, played with shimmering delicacy by Phoenix and Howard, that cuts to the heart. Brody makes up the third side of that triangle. In crafting a film about the ways fear can manipulate — are there really creatures of mass destruction in the woods? — Shyamalan gives the film a metaphorical weight that goes deeper than goose bumps. He may find himself linked with Michael Moore as a political provocateur. “Do your best not to scream your loudest,” Edward tells Ivy when he opens a woodshed and uncovers long-buried secrets. It’s a wicked invitation for the audience to scream its head off. Go for it. But do your best not to miss the dark implications that empower The Village to haunt your dreams.