Encircled by dense woodland, a self-sufficient 19th century community lives in a delicate harmony with mysterious creatures hidden in the trees. As love blossoms between a blind girl (Howard) and a sullen young man (Phoenix), a series of secrets begin to unravel, the answers to which lie both out in the dark and inside the village itself.
Remember how Signs split audiences like a stray arrow? Its beautifully thought-out subterfuge either had you tickled scarlet at the plot ingenuity and spiritual subtext or ready to rip the posters off cinema walls in sheer frustration. The Village, despite being planted in the well-ploughed turf of the Brontës’ overwrought melodramas, will gather a similar mix of catcalls and adulation.
It is extraordinary, but it is also an overripe parlour trick, the plot already backed into a corner by the very fact of who directed it. You’ll spend too much time playing guess the hoodwink when the film would rather you left it alone to work its subtle ruses in peace — and there’s a cartload to get through.
Gratifyingly, though, Shyamalan is a fully paid-up member of that rarefied club of directors (Spielberg, Michael Mann, the Scott and Coen brothers) who operate under their own steam, living or dying care of nothing but their creative impulse: always worth seeing, always worth debating. The Village maintains his place as court jester, another cool Hitchcockian enterprise shrouded in necessary secrecy. There’s no hint of studio interference or focus group rehashing; the film is what he means it to be. And there’s the rub.
Transfixed by another genre (Gothic romance), Shyamalan uncloaks a backwater America caught between the pioneers and industrialisation, rapturously shot in a New England landscape drenched in earth tones so vibrant you can almost taste them. It’s the best-looking period piece since Road To Perdition, constantly on the simmer, ready to spill over into lurid shock. There is something terrifyingly dense about the ink-blots of nightfall barely kept at bay by sputtering oil-lamps, although the movie relies far more on the murky depths of character than the impulses of horror to brew its suspense. An elderly Blair Witch Project it most certainly is not.
Significantly, the unnamed village has cut itself off from the outside world, simply dubbed the “towns”, resolutely holding to its Utopian ideals free of money, crime and the props of civilisation. The only thing that matters is maintaining the colour-coded peace with their creepy neighbours. They are not, however, immune from heartache. And a love triangle between passionate but blind Ivy (Howard), purposeful Lucius (Phoenix) and unhinged Noah (Adrien Brody) begins to chip away at the sacred balance. Animal carcasses, warning signs smeared across doors and shadowy visitations from the crimson-clad creatures are only the start of things.
As is Shyamalan’s wont, the pace teeters on the sluggish, filmmaking treated like high mass. He wants you to savour every word, every actorly nuance, every painstakingly accurate detail of this quilted Americana. The care taken is outstanding, the script itself so precision-built that not a thread of doubt will remain as to the mechanics. The twists are laughable but not illogical and his skill and conviction will contradict your giggles.
A tip: as you leave, work from the ending backwards and you’ll discover an emotionally reasoned piece of audience deception. And amid the howls come injury time, there is one thing that will have pierced your heart. Like The Sixth Sense’s ghost-spotting Haley Joel Osment, Bryce Dallas Howard is this movie’s revelation, weaving a spell of haunted vulnerability and naked spirit across the gloom.
The denouement will infuriate and enthral in equal measure, but Shyamalan's latest is made with such elegance and atmosphere, it will nestle deep inside your head, refusing to budge.