Where to begin in terms of the revelations in M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village”?
Let’s start with Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of director Ron Howard. With only stage roles and bit parts in her dad’s movies beforehand, Howard delivers a radiant leading-lady debut that dominates the film and its excellent ensemble, which includes Joaquin Phoenix, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver and Adrien Brody.
There are the usual Shyamalan twists, certainly not as jaw-dropping as the ending of “The Sixth Sense,” but still intriguing. Some will see the big surprise coming, and some may find it flimsy, even laughable, the way many greeted the conclusion of Shyamalan’s “Unbreakable.”
Yet unlike writer-director Shyamalan’s previous films, including 2002’s “Signs,” the twists and gothic creepiness are not the payoff of “The Village.” The rewards run much deeper in this simple story laced with a rich subtext and, like classic fairy tales, suffused with twilight terror and repressed carnality.
The real revelation is Shyamalan’s growth as a storyteller, advancing from a modern Rod Serling specializing in “Twilight Zone” zingers to a mythmaker invoking the restrained passion of the Bronte sisters and the puritanical inhibitions of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
“The Village” is Shyamalan’s best film yet, demanding repeated viewings and endless discussion about the morality and implications of the characters’ choices.
A date on a tombstone in the opening funeral sequence establishes the year as 1897, yet “The Village” exists in a timeless void, formal speech patterns and rigid lifestyles that hark to colonial times mixing with a more progressive looseness of expression and behavior.
A child is buried, a father grieves, a tightknit community gathers for a mournful meal, prefaced by a heartfelt mantra from village elder Edward Walker (Hurt): “We are grateful for the time we have been given.”
With painstaking detail on the 40-acre set built in his home turf of rural Pennsylvania, Shyamalan introduces the villagers’ idyllic lives of work, family and communal fealty.
But their isolated village has its boogeymen, carnivorous creatures that live in the surrounding woods, with whom the townsfolk share an uneasy coexistence. The villagers do not venture into the woods, and the beasts stay away from town.
The balance is disrupted when sturdy, taciturn youth Lucius Hunt (“Signs” co-star Phoenix) proposes journeying to the towns beyond the woods for medicines to prevent more young people from dying. After Lucius makes a test incursion into the forest, the creatures respond with a frightening foray into the village. The elders, including Lucius’ mother (Weaver), take it as a warning.
Calamitous circumstance involving Lucius, his spitfire sweetheart Ivy (Howard), the blind daughter of Edward Walker, and village idiot Noah (Brody) forces an expedition to the outside world, which the elders forsook as an unwholesome and violent place.
“The Village” raises compelling questions about the lengths parents might go to shield their children from harm, and whether isolating the young ones from the phantoms in the closet might simply unleash the monsters under the bed.
Shyamalan’s austere, almost childlike dialogue conceals hidden depths of anxiety, melancholy and yearning. When Phoenix’s Lucius, cut from stoic Pilgrim cloth, finally lets his hair down, his quaintly tender expression of love toward Ivy somehow is both joyous and heartbreaking.
Phoenix, Hurt and Brody offer deeply textured performances, while Brendan Gleeson and Cherry Jones provide fine support as village elders. Weaver sadly is underused, and the film leaves the impression that a subplot involving hers and Hurt’s characters ended up largely excised so Shyamalan could showcase Howard’s Ivy.
Howard usurps the film with a willful performance as Ivy progresses from gentle, playful soul to bullheaded trailblazer resolved to overcome the hobgoblins that have pervaded her nightmares since childhood.
Discovered by Shyamalan in an off-Broadway Shakespeare play, Howard next stars in “Manderlay,” taking on the role Nicole Kidman originated in “Dogville” for the second part of Lars von Trier’s trilogy.
No matter how “The Village” eventually ranks in Shyamalan’s filmography, the film may wind up best remembered for the emergence of Howard as a major Hollywood talent.