There’s something in the woods in the latest from the director of ‘The Sixth Sense’ and ‘Signs’ – and it turns out to be a hoary old chestnut. By now, we’ve come to expect creepy storytelling and, of course, a revelatory twist from Shyamalan, and he delivers both on cue in his first period piece. His particular interests here are self-preservation, security and conservatism – all key post-9/11 themes, of course – as explored in the story of a remote rural community in 1890s America. The people of this small village live simply under the strict control of a group of elders (including Sigourney Weaver and William Hurt) who forbid them to venture into the neighbouring forest. The villagers talk in fear of ‘those we don’t speak of’: creatures lurking among the trees ready to attack them at any time. At night, animals are mysteriously killed, and when one man (Joaquin Phoenix) dares to enter the woods, a retaliatory attack sends the villagers fleeing to their basements. I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice to say it tries to explain all this paranoia. For me, though, it was too much to swallow.
Shyamalan toys with political ideas, but buries them under an illogical, rather silly story. I interpreted his ending as a celebration of American isolation and militarism, but I suspect that’s more a result of his confused thinking and concern for drama over debate than anything more deliberate. The only real draw is newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard who puts in a great performance as a young blind girl (even if her role is propagating the tired idea that only the blind can ‘see’).