M Night Shyamalan, USA, 108 mins
Joaquin Phoenix, Sigourney Weaver, William Hurt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Adrian Brody
Being notorious for making films with the inevitable killer twist upon which his narrative drape themselves for dear life, is a label that M Night Shyamalan is uncomfortable with. So much so, that he even considered handing the twist to the audience on a platter at the beginning of the film to ensure they wouldn't bypass the subtle beauty of the story through a fog of anticipation. But by choosing to follow the massively successful formula of previous suspense hits like Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, he manages to meld an unlikely mesh of suspense, horror and period drama into what is successful primarily as both a love story, and an intriguing exploration of fear, rather than the tired Scary Movie genre, now so much more a pastiche of itself than genuinely frightening.
Set in the late 19th century, the eponymous village is a secluded, self contained community which has no contact with anyone outside their borders, beyond which, in the woods, lurk creatures so fearsome that they are referred to as "those who shall not be named". The villages exist in a flux of fear and innocence - They must not wear red, they must not breach the borders, they must not wander beyond the parameters of safety that the village allows them - if these rules are obeyed, the creatures will allow them to exist side by side, unharmed.
So far, so twee. The cinematography is creepily atmospheric; the chilling lingering shots which refuse to spell out the nature of the horror are blankly daunting, and the spidery trees enmeshing the villagers in a cosseted web of protection lend a certain menacing cache. But camerawork alone is not enough to entertain punters who came demanding to be truly terrified. Instead, he displays his growing maturity as a writer who understands the complexities of relationships, and weaves a hauntingly beautiful love story between the heroes of his story, Lucius and Ivy.
Lucius, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a silent young man so full of love for his fellow man that it threatens to choke his words away. Ivy, played with incredible presence and skill by newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard, is the blind girl whose sensitivity, vision and courage surpass even the oldest and wisest of the village elders. When a tragic accident befalls Lucius at the hands of village simpleton Noah (Adrien Brody, proving more than worthy of his Oscar as a dizzily convincing multi-layered half-wit, eliciting both revulsion and deepest sympathy), it is up to Ivy to travel to the towns to get medicine to restore his health.
It is not without foresight that Shyamalan chose to place the fate of the safety of the innocent villagers on the shoulders of a blind girl, her lack of sight subtly metaphoric of the blinkered actions of the misguided elders. With strong support from such venerable talents as William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, and the woefully underrated Judy Greer, the acting far surpasses the often wooden script.
The Village is the acme of the kind of controlled lifestyle that has no choice but to implode, and it is in this sense of suspended downfall that the true horror lies. What is its seclusion, if not a reaction against a world so terrifying that the only way to live is to hide away? As the Sixth Sense was a diatribe to the fragility of the human psyche, so once again Shyamalan examines, with whispered sensitivity, the nature of fear and the unknown, through the tender relationships played out in a tantalising waltz that completely overshadows the promised terrorisation that is his trademark.
Shyamalan has made his name by chilling our blood and whispering our worst fears into our ears. With The Village, it seems he's started to steal his own thunder, with the inevitable twist not so much glaringly obvious as painfully anticipated, triggering a collective sigh of relief when it finally reveals itself at the expected moment. It's time Shyamalan evolved to the next level of storytelling, and despite it's flaws, the delicately realised lessons of love and the nature of sacrifice in The Village proves that he's capable of doing exactly that.