For four films straight—The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and now The Village—writer-director M. Night Shyamalan has conjured a winning formula that weds market-ready hooks and surprise payoffs with a Spielbergian knack for pop craftsmanship. By this point, the results are beginning to whiff of cold calculation, as if viewers exist only to be suckered. But Shyamalan is a master manipulator, so in control of his effects that it's hard not to follow him down his latest rabbit-hole. In the context of his career, The Village may have finally emptied his usual bag of tricks, but considered on its own merits, its skillful fusion of Grimm fairy-tale horror and pointed social parable find Shyamalan in peak form.
In a close-knit, conservative settlement where the ruling council of elders speaks in harsh tones about the "wicked" towns outside its borders, the villagers are forcibly isolated by the surrounding woods, unable to think about the outside world. The elders have formed an uneasy truce with "those we don't speak of"—an ominous phrase referring to the murderous creatures that are prepared to slaughter anyone who sets a toe into the forest. After a child dies from lack of medical care, intrepid loner Joaquin Phoenix volunteers to brave the woods in search of modern medicine, but his actions have potentially grave consequences for his fellow citizens. Council head William Hurt tries to dissuade him from leaving, but Hurt's blind daughter (Bryce Dallas Howard) inspires Phoenix with her curiosity and love, much to the chagrin of the psychologically imbalanced Adrien Brody.
Working with Coen brothers cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose artfully murky compositions recall classic Jacques Tourneur skin-crawlers like I Walked With A Zombie and Night Of The Demon, Shyamalan relies on old-fashioned techniques for suspense and shocks. As in Signs, the creatures gain their menace through precise framing, stomach-churning sound work, and offscreen space; it says something when the film's biggest jolt involves a brief flash of red across the screen. Now, if only Shyamalan were as skilled behind the typewriter as he is behind the camera: The plotting isn't exactly airtight, and his approximation of 19th-century dialogue often sounds like something Yoda would write.
Yet The Village succeeds most as a chilling storybook allegory on the pursuit of knowledge and the perils of isolationism. The Big Twist™, when it arrives, isn't some arbitrary bit of rug-pulling, but it enforces ideas that should resonate with American moviegoers weary of their own persistent threats and sealed borders. If Shyamalan can only keep from hemming himself in as a filmmaker, The Village bodes well for his future.