Disney’s thrilled. At long last, the company can claim a decent first weekend, with The Village bringing in an estimated $50.8 million. It’s hard to know if this success comes despite or because of an overwrought marketing campaign (see, for instance, the Sci-Fi Channel’s documentary boondoggle, which revealed dark, fake secrets about M. Night Shyamalan, reportedly with his connivance), but who’s, um, counting?
The Village opened 30 July, with precious few press screenings and Shyamalan’s usual proscription: no talking about the big twist ending! But, truth be told, the surprise isn’t particularly original, cunning, or even surprising. And so, the film leans heavily on its “mood,” that more or less expected creepiness that keeps you slightly on edge, anticipating noises in the woods and menacing creatures, as you await the revelation of the big twist (the director’s most original, exceptional movie remains his least appreciated, Unbreakable). And so: winds whoosh, branches creak, shadows undulate, as the denizens of a 19th-century-seeming Pennsylvania village patrol their borders and warn one another, always ominously, not to wander into the forest.
The movie begins with an average portentous moment, that is, a funeral. Still, it’s shot in an abrupt but also subtle reveal, by the incredible Roger Deakins, a visual strategy that promises intelligence, a quality the movie’s script abandons right away. Sobbing at the graveside of his son (who apparently died for lack of “medicines”), village elder August Nicholson (Brendan Gleeson) is watched by his fellows, who properly sigh and droop their shoulders. Later, at the ritual community meal, the elderest elder, Edward Walker (William Hurt), holds forth: “We may question ourselves at moments such as these: did we make the right decision in settling here?” His view, he makes clear, is that it was right and, moreover, that such questioning is best kept to a minimum. While all the elders have heartrending stories about murdered and raped relatives, experiences that apparently led to their decision, their children have no such options.
That is, while the younger villagers have heard of “the towns,” no one considers traipsing off to see them, or to brook any of the rules laid down by those isolationist elders. “Towns are wicked places where wicked people live: that’s all,” observes Finton (Michael Pitt), who sits each night in the watchtower, trembling and pulling his cloak over his head when he thinks he sees a monster.
To that point, the children have fully absorbed the stories they’ve heard about Those We Don’t Speak Of. Indeed, these creatures soon appear one night (apparently, they come around regularly enough to scare the kids into submission, rather like, oh, Colored Terror Alerts), and turn out to be lumbering creatures in red robes, with talons and toothy maws deeply recessed into their hoods. The creatures’ selection of red garb is not accidental — it is “the bad color,” the color of blood, violence, passion, and wild berries. By contrast, those who patrol the borders dress in yellow hoods and slap yellow paint on the poles marking the edge of safety.
The village boys manage their fears by familiar boyish activities, standing at the edge of the woods with their backs turned on the daunting darkness as long as they can, before the groany trees frighten them into rushing back into the village center, where they reassure one another that they’ve performed a manly deed. The boy reputed to have stood longest is quietly courageous Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix), son of lonely, widowed elder Alice Hunt (Sigourney Weaver, taut-faced and criminally underused). As William’s daughter Kitty (Judy Greer) enthuses, Lucius is “unlike the other boys: he doesn’t joke or bounce about.” True that: this kid is so sober you want to shake him.
You do learn, in Lucius’ devastating glance her way, that he’s not inclined to return Kitty’s admittedly riotous affections (she’s wanting a husband real bad, and when he rejects her, she asks another boy without much pause). Lucius has his own heart set on Kitty’s younger sister, Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), whose way to romance is cleared, conveniently, by Kitty’s rebound marriage. Ivy is plucky, intuitive, and wise, and her blindness signifies her purity of heart and spirit (though it hardly stops her from running around the village, and eventually, through the supposedly treacherous Covington Woods, into which her father sends her, in order to protect his own over-rationalized existence; as he puts it to her, “You’re fearless in a way I shall never know”). This metaphor’s clumsiness is emphasized by the film’s reckless use of it. Despite and because of her lack of actual sight, Ivy can see people’s “colors,” and while she won’t tell Lucius his color, you might presume it’s not the “bad” one.
In contrast to the exceedingly earnest relationship developing between the film’s leads stands Noah (Adrien Brody), the boy who has most recently wandered beyond the perimeter, and so incurred the anger of those who want everyone to stay put. A stock “village idiot,” Noah drools and giggles, dotes on Ivy, and becomes jealous of Lucius’ interest in her and, more importantly, threatened by the change in his own routine such interest betokens. Noah, being the emblematic “simpleton” (as in: those near-adventurous villagers silenced by the intimidating majority) is quite unable to articulate his unease. More to the point, no one is inclined to help this eternal child through his upset, leaving him to resolve his fear in his own horrible and strangely over-considered way (in two stages, the second taking some serious, entirely un-simpleton-like planning).
While Noah’s tragedy appears subsidiary to Ivy’s evolution from good girl to tenacious survivor (mostly because Noah’s story is handled so poorly, in short-shrifted, clichéd imagery and plot turns), it also neatly illustrates the film’s major allegory. He’s so wrapped up in his own emotions, so unable to understand differences between individuals, past and present, or images and reality, that he seems, at first, the most obvious embodiment of the film’s critique of a post-9/11 American isolationism. (If only he had a flag to wear while he’s punished, that is, locked up alone in the Quiet Room.) The logical if extreme product of such fearfulness, he’s by turns pathetic, beyond comprehension, and eventually, “bad.” Quite unbelievably, he becomes the enemy.
But the film’s emotional logic is also complicated and frustrating. By the time Ivy turns on Noah, brutally, The Village is asking you to sympathize with her rage, to share in her violence, and it soon delivers — in spectacular fashion — the justification for her feelings, in case you have any niggling inclinations to feel sorry for the village’s most egregiously abused and otherized victim. Instead, Shyamalan takes an undemanding and conventional route, granting Ivy’s noble (and frankly implausible) trek through the woods a simplistic morality in order to challenge those overreaching elders. The allegory never approaches the complexity of its apparent referent.