Fifty miles past the end of nowhere lies Rockwell Falls, a self-styled perfect town that takes its solidarity, tranquility, and -- above all -- its equilibrium seriously. On the surface, it's a pleasant little town where everyone seems happy, crime is nonexistent, and you never have to look very far for your next piece of apple pie. It's a weird thing, though; the town's population never seems to change. It took a century for some genius at the Census Bureau to notice this oddity, but the bureaucracy finally decided to send someone out to investigate. Rockwell Falls doesn't cotton to strangers all that well, but the local leaders have little choice but to let Steve Kady (Jeremy Sisto), in to do his official government business. Everyone seems super-friendly to him, but it doesn't take him long to figure out that something is seriously wrong with this town. We the viewers learn early on just how Rockwell Falls keeps its population completely static, but it takes Steve a while to figure things out on his own.
Steve is stymied in his efforts to interview several members of the community; according to the mayor and local doctor, those citizens are currently suffering from "the fever." This fever isn't all that rare, but old Doctor Greaver is almost always successful at curing his patients one way or another. Steve eventually learns all about this fever, as well as the unique religious beliefs that form the basis of the town's peculiar way of life. The more he learns, the clearer it becomes that he is expected to become a permanent resident of Rockwell Falls. It's for his own good, really, as those who do attempt to escape the town are struck down by God himself. Steve doesn't buy that argument for a minute. He's determined to return to civilization as soon as possible, and he doesn't plan on leaving by himself, either. There's an orphan girl being treated for the fever by the good doctor, and a young lady named Courtney (Charlotte Sullivan) who wants out as badly as he does. I have to say I really liked the way this story played out, as the filmmakers chose not to play it safe -- perhaps realizing that a formulaic ending would negate the effectiveness and atmosphere of the entire film. I really got a kick out of the final scenes. (The DVD includes an alternate ending, which I have not seen and cannot comment on.)
Population 436 never manages to become truly suspenseful, and it's certainly not scary, but it is surprisingly effective nonetheless. After the first twenty minutes or so, the pacing of the story is quite good, letting the true nature of this local society emerge gradually, and the acting of the entire cast (even Fred Durst) is another feather in the film's cap. As good as the film's basic concept is, this kind of story could easily have degenerated into something really silly, but director Michelle Maxwell MacLaren never allowed that to happen. I'm not saying that everyone out there would enjoy this film, particularly action-oriented horror fans, but I think a lot of individuals will be pleasantly surprised by it -- and that includes young teenagers. For the life of me, I can't figure out why this film has an R rating -- there are very few violent scenes (and none of them are the least bit gory), the language is quite pedestrian in nature (all of this takes place in a really gung-ho -- albeit cult-based -- religious community), and the film's one and only sex scene is tamer than many a scene you'll find on network television.