If ever a director's films could be described as Marmite, none fit the bill more than those of M. Night Shyamalan, whose slow pacing and heavy reliance on symbolism frustrates as many viewers as it entices. Whatever the opinion on Shyamalan as a director, there's little doubt that his features since breakout hit The Sixth Sense have decreased in popularity. One that deserves another look is 2004 effort The Village, arguably Shyamalan's greatest achievement on a visual and artistic level. Set in an ill-defined period, in an equally ill-defined location, it's the tale of a settlement terrorised by creatures who live in the woods beyond, and whose appearance is signalled by the colour red. For once, the director's stilted dialogue is complemented and even helped by the period setting and appropriately mannered performances.
It's also arguably the finest collaboration between the director and veteran composer James Newton Howard, who has scored all of Shyamalan's films thus far (and has earned rave reviews for his recent score for The Last Airbender). It's one that's poised on tenterhooks throughout, a sense of homely beauty frequently torn asunder by frighteningly aggressive orchestral outbursts as the village is invaded by its enemies.
Dominating throughout are the lovely, folksy violin solos from virtuoso Hilary Hahn, speaking of the pastoral, earthly, back to basics innocence of the villagers. It's tempered though by an appropriately melancholic edge, hinting both at the complex dynamics of the isolated community and the love triangle that emerges between Joaquin Phoenix's Lucius, Bryce Dallas Howard's blind Ivy and Adrien Brody's Noah. "Noah Visits" introduces the first strains of the spine-tingling main theme, which weaves through the score like a breath of wind. It's developed to outstanding heights in the lengthy "What Are You Asking Me?" one of the high-points of Newton Howard's career to date. Its necessary fragility makes the more violent moments positively terrifying when they appear.
Before they do, "The Bad Colour" introduces a creeping sense of unease, distorted, abrasive winds introducing a sense of subtle discord. This is mere preparation for the all out terror in "Those We Don't Speak Of", a frightening orchestral stinger leading into a pounding percussive rhythm complete with blatting rams horns that add a chilling texture. Midway through however, Newton Howard performs a breathtaking coup by segueing from his dissonant material into a remarkably florid and gorgeous rendition of the main theme, encompassing both sides of the film's narrative in one fell swoop. It's a tremendous achievement, one of many in the score.
"Will You Help Me?" which follows is breathtakingly beautiful, the composer painting on the sort of intimate scale at which he excels. Later on, "Race To Resting Rock" continues in much the same vein. Throughout, there is a marvellous juxtaposition of lyricism and terror, with carefully shifting orchestral colours such as the fluttering solo in "I Cannot See His Colour" indicating the wider sense of unease that comes to increasingly grip the score. It is this sense of darkness that eventually takes over as the narrative proceeds towards Shyamalan's controversial (in this instance) twist ending, Dallas Howard's Ivy being forced to make the gut-wrenching journey outside the village boundaries. "Rituals" and "The Gravel Road" introduce moody variations on the previously harmonic main theme; the sense of beauty becoming especially precious as it is pitted ever more against the encroaching horror.
"The Forbidden Line" promptly shatters the pastoral calm again, rattles and growling brass replacing the score's thematic identity with something more complex and troubling. The theme is fully restored, for one last time, in the heart-wrenching "The Vote", before the eerie, climactic one-two of "It Is Not Real" and "The Shed Not To Be Used" reiterates the sense of dread, ending the score on an appropriately ambivalent note in-keeping with Shyamalan's vision.
Throughout there is a gripping sense of ambiguous, threatening adult uncertainties bubbling beneath the surface, which challenge the sense of melodic unity. It's wonderfully edgy but entirely listenable for all that, and that may be Newton Howard's greatest achievement. It's no mean feat to compose a horror-thriller score balancing both beauty and fear in one package... but to make it such a coherent, enjoyable and intelligent experience is something else entirely. The Village is one of the composer's finest efforts, standing proud alongside Restoration, Waterworld and others, well deserving of its eventual Oscar nomination.