The Village (12A)

If you go down to the woods today...
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'Expect the unexpected" - M Night Shyamalan must wake up at night sweating at the thought of this phrase. Having established himself as a master of twist endings in The Sixth Sense, and pulled off the same trick again in Unbreakable, he has doomed himself to audiences forever sitting arms folded, daring him to throw a totally unpredictable switcheroo at them every time. In The Village, Shyamalan doesn't disappoint: in fact there are two major twists, one halfway through, one at the end, neither of which I can in all honour reveal. All respect to him: when Hollywood seems interested only in critic-proof product, it's good to see someone daring to make films that lay themselves at the mercy of critics' discretion.

'Expect the unexpected" - M Night Shyamalan must wake up at night sweating at the thought of this phrase. Having established himself as a master of twist endings in The Sixth Sense, and pulled off the same trick again in Unbreakable, he has doomed himself to audiences forever sitting arms folded, daring him to throw a totally unpredictable switcheroo at them every time. In The Village, Shyamalan doesn't disappoint: in fact there are two major twists, one halfway through, one at the end, neither of which I can in all honour reveal. All respect to him: when Hollywood seems interested only in critic-proof product, it's good to see someone daring to make films that lay themselves at the mercy of critics' discretion.

If you're hoping for surprises as sharp and as economical as in The Sixth Sense, or for the creeping unease promised by The Village's opening credits, then you'll probably feel short-changed. You may find the film too laboriously ingenious, too crammed with narrative contradictions, with niggling how-could-theys and why-did-shes. But as a baroque anomaly among Hollywood films, it has a fascination all its own.

The setting is an enclosed 19th-century American rural community, a settlement of gentle, pious folk, situated near a dark, dreadful forest. The forest, it seems, is inhabited by unmentionably fearsome creatures ("Those We Do Not Speak Of"), which leaves the villagers no access to the towns beyond. Under the benign leadership of a group of elders, including Sigourney Weaver and the pensively muttering William Hurt, village life is based on strict taboos: the creatures are attracted to the colour red, so all things red are proscribed, including flowers and berries. Yellow, however, seems to work as a protective charm, hence a perimeter of yellow flags, resembling a Christo-style land-art installation.

The most striking effect of this premise is visual: as in The Sixth Sense, where he dressed everything in sepulchral grey, Shyamalan suppresses certain colours, stresses others. Not only does red haunt the film's palette by its absence, but when it does appear, it takes on immense power: one of the biggest shocks comes when a character wanders into a field of berries. Walking through the woods in a mustard-coloured cloak, intrepid blind heroine Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a chromatically adjusted Little Red Riding Hood, giving a distinctive twist to Shyamalan's fairy-tale imagery.

Much of the strangeness, as with H P Lovecraft's tales of New England Gothic, derives from the contrast between the sedate setting and the shrieking horror that is forever hinted at. The scene where the villagers shelter in their cellars from some ravening horror outside is straight out of Night of the Living Dead, while a wedding festooned with corn plaits is a more decorous echo of the hoedowns in Heaven's Gate. The whole film is a bizarre combination of contemporary pulp horror and 19th-century literary Americana: it's like watching Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blair Witch Project or reading Stephen King's Walden.

There's something altogether artificial, almost Brechtian, about the whole set-up, especially with the cast's somewhat theatrical delivery of their ostentatiously archaic dialogue: "Forgive me - I am but scared for my only son's life." Yet the overall stiltedness adds to the exotic fascination, and also highlights Shyamalan's surprisingly subtle grace notes, such as a stabbing conveyed in three simple shots, with almost an absence of drama, in a shorthand like comic-strip Bresson.

Shyamalan's stylistic idiosyncrasies may sometimes give his films an air of solemn self-importance, but his touch is significantly different from anything we're used to in Hollywood (the one disastrously conventional element of The Village is James Newton Howard's overpowering score). The film is shot with bracing severity by Roger Deakins, with characters often observed from a distance or through the open doorways of darkened rooms. Sometimes our attention is mysteriously directed towards objects that may or may not prove significant but that are charged with portentous presence: a stove, a grey box, an empty rocking chair.

Narratively, however, Shyamalan is on shaky territory. He takes a big risk in positioning his first twist halfway through the film, apparently defusing all the effect he's achieved and leaving us to wonder where he can possibly go. In fact, having pulled the rug from under us, he eventually reveals that underneath it was another, bigger, rug all along. You'll think his final revelation is either audacious or just plain silly, depending on your goodwill, but Shyamalan certainly diminishes his final effect by leaving some 10 minutes' worth of coda for us to mull over the tale's greater significance. Besides, he blows our goodwill entirely by making a terrible song and dance about one of those Hitchcockian director cameos of which he's so fond.

The real surprise, however - especially after the conservative religiosity of Shyamalan's feeble alien-invasion story Signs - is The Village's political thrust. The film is nothing if not a parable about contemporary America, isolating itself in terror of a little-understood enemy, locking itself in with reassuring taboos and security rituals, and dreaming of mythical better days: Hurt's character talks about the village preserving its "innocence", a beloved word of the nostalgist American right. The community's idealistic belief in a "just and right cause" is seen as entirely debilitating, and religious social order as founded on repression and deceit. There have been opposing readings: the Village Voice saw this as a film "a White House full of evangelicals could've written". I can't see that, although there's undeniably a conservative slant to the portrayal of the community as a timorous herd who may be led to enlightenment by a daring individual.

Another revelation, finally, is Bryce Dallas Howard. Watching her as the blind virgin alone and terrified in the woods, you can see why that brutish imp Lars Von Trier pounced on her to play his next female martyr, but Howard is indeed a discovery: other-worldly, mischievous and with a great sense of period. Someone should build a Henry James adaptation around her.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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