Even with his seemingly trademark stamp of malevolence, M. Night Shyamalan's The Village doesn't have nearly as many things bumping in the night as you might expect. Instead, the masterful storyteller has crafted a crash psych course on how fear can manipulate the human mind.
Set in what seems to be an idyllic 19th-century farming township, The Village follows a close-knit community as they go about their daily lives. Soon, however, it becomes evident things aren't quite so simple. The villagers believe a race of ferocious mythological creatures lives in the woods surrounding their little valley, but there's an unspoken truce between ''Those We Don't Speak Of'' and the townsfolk: don't go into their woods and they won't come chew up the town. That's all well and good, until the quiet and resolute Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) messes up the works. He tries to convince the village elders they need better medical supplies for the sick and that he should go through the woods, into the neighboring towns, to get them. The elders, including Lucius' mother, Alice Hunt (Sigourney Weaver), advises him to stay put, but the young man doesn't listen to their warnings and breaches the boundaries anyway, ever so slightly, effectively ending the truce. Uh-oh. Then there's Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard), the beautiful and spirited blind daughter of the town leader, Edward Walker (William Hurt), who captures Lucius' heart. Needless to say, things get twisted pretty quickly (we are talking about a Shyamalan film, after all), and it's Ivy who must eventually face entering the dreaded woods. As the menacing presence looms over the town, her bravery becomes the only thing that can save them. But, you'll soon be asking, from what? There's the rub.
Shyamalan has finally made a movie in which there are no soulful, moody, eerily intelligent children in it. OK, so, maybe you'll miss Sixth Sense's Haley Joel Osment and his pale face or Signs's Rory Culkin with his big eyes, just a little. But luckily, Shyamalan has found a new wonder--newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard, who replaced Kirsten Dunst as Ivy. As the daughter of the Oscar-winning director Ron Howard, it's easy to see how she got her foot in the door, but what's surprising is how affecting she is as Ivy. Playing a blind girl who must gather the courage to battle unseen fears isn't new--Audrey Hepburn was probably the best in the 1967 Wait Until Dark--yet, the talented Howard's naturally blithe and spunky personality brings her own freshness to the character. Phoenix is also quite heartbreaking as Lucius, who desperately loves Ivy but has trouble letting her know his feelings. His only way is by protecting her. Their moments together are exquisitely touching; all she has to do is reach out, as the townsfolk scurry for cover from impending danger, and he is there--no matter what. In the supporting roles, veterans Hurt and Weaver, as well as the rest of the elders, including Shyamalan favorite Cherry Jones (Signs) and Troy's Brendan Gleeson, do a nice job as the town's secretive leaders. But it's Adrien Brody, in his first real role since winning Best Actor for The Pianist, who stands out as fellow villager Noah, a mentally impaired man whose own feelings for Ivy take a tragic turn.
In a way, M. Night Shyamalan has become his own worst enemy, having to live up to this reputation as a master of horror and suspense, cloaking his projects in secrecy and generating unnecessary hype. But the fact of the matter is, he is one of Hollywood's more brilliant minds, on par with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman for originality, who has an innate talent for crafting individual moments of genuine, human emotions. Like Twilight
Zone's Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock before him, Shyamalan is more fascinated by how people react in frightening situations rather than just scaring the bejeezus out of you--and with The Village, Shyamalan delves deeper into human psyche more than ever before, examining the age-old saying ''The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.'' Having shot the film in southeast Pennsylvania, the director meticulously built this 19th-century universe from the ground up, with the wooden cabins and handmade props--and painting a picture of how fear of the unknown can propel a group of people to come together in harmony. Yet, regardless of how the fear of big, scary monsters brings the villagers together, audiences may be expecting big, scary monsters to come out of the woods, and therefore may not appreciate the somewhat anti-climactic, albeit twisty, ending.
While The Village may not ultimately be considered one of Shyamalan's best efforts, lacking genuine thrills and jaw-dropping twists, it still bears the wunderkind director's unique mark for understanding the human condition.