The Village (2004)

Warning: Plot spoilers ahead.

It was set in the 1800s because I wanted to write about innocence.
— M. Night Shyamalan, “Deconstructing The Village

Those we don’t speak of, really, to me, they’re the embodiment of the darker side of the human spirit.
— Brendan Gleeson, “Deconstructing The Village

“I have to keep doing things that scare me, and this certainly scares me.” However M. Night Shyamalan understands his artistic and political drives, his movies are, at this point, tending to repeat. While he’s plainly a gifted visual artist, with a striking sense of where to put the camera and compose images, his storytelling lacks complexity. Following the overrated Sixth Sense, the most strange and excellent Unbreakable, and the redundant Signs, Mr. Twist Ending appears, in The Village, to be looking for scares for their own sake, or maybe to reinforce the reputation he’s built as a second coming of Spielberg.

This last is underlined by the inclusion, on the new Village DVD, of yet another of his childhood films, titled “M. Night’s Home Movie,” featuring little Night as an Indiana Jones figure, seeking treasure and assaulted by a German Shepherd. “I found something somewhat close to a period piece,” he says. This interest is a function of The Village‘s ostensible historical setting, 19th-century-seeming Pennsylvania village (if you don’t already know or want to know the “surprise” ending, stop reading now). The film’s primary contrivance — that this village is really the concoction of a group of erstwhile unhappy city people who decided some years ago to “go back” to a simpler and more “innocent” time — is at once clever and inane. First, this previous time never existed as such (which doesn’t mean these particular folks understand this), since life on the planet has always been hard and complicated, though with less media transmission of same.

And second, the community they devise only protracts and reshapes the same conflicts that they felt plagued their youth (crime, madness, greed). The Village doesn’t reveal this surprise until late, so much of its early tension is of the old-fashioned type: noises in the woods and menacing creatures (these are especially ridiculous, obviously someone in a monster suit, apparently enough to scare the kids in the village, as they’ve been raised as “innocent,” that is, easily manipulated). Winds whoosh, branches creak, shadows undulate, as the village denizens wear blankets, patrol their perimeters, and warn one another, in ominous close-ups, not to wander into the forest.

The movie begins with a funeral. Sobbing at the graveside of his son (who apparently died for lack of “medicines”), village elder August (Brendan Gleeson) is observed by his fellows, who 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?” He, however, has no doubt: they did right and, moreover, it’s best not to question him.

While all the elders have heartrending stories about murdered and raped relatives, experiences that apparently led to their decision to move to this village, their children have no such options. The kids have heard of “the towns,” but none 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 one of those monster-suits walking around.

As they have fully absorbed the stories they’ve heard about Those We Don’t Speak Of (that is, the monsters that keep them in their place), the children don’t even wonder about living another way. Their fears are regularly reinforced by brief appearances by a monster, a lumbering creature in red robes, with talons and toothy maws deeply recessed into its hood. The 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). As William’s daughter Kitty (Judy Greer) enthuses, Lucius is “unlike the other boys: he doesn’t joke or bounce about.” This kid is so sober you want to shake him.

The Village‘s interest in the costs and benefits of community fashioned as a big family (everyone knows everything about everybody, or feels entitled to) expands its allegorical possibilities. On one hand, the villagers pursue an odd sort of “self-actualization.” (This is also apparently true for the performers. Celia Weston, who plays one of the elders, says in the making of documentary, “Deconstructing The Village,” that learning to live as if in a “village” was all kinds of thrilling. “How empowering that is,” she insists, “to be able to make a fire, and make cheese.” Learning these skills, says Greer in the same doc, “added to the whole feeling of community.”)

On the other hand, the elders are elders, looking to preserve not only a way of life, but also a power structure. And the kids are kids, looking to rebel, even if they don’t quite know it yet. Lucius, for example, prefers Kitty’s younger sister, the outspoken and blind 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. (In the DVD’s “Bryce’s Diary,” Howard goes on for four minutes about her amazing experience on set: “Sigourney is so beautiful, you can see her heart in her eyes,” or, before the first day’s call, “Oh, my tummy is tingling”).

But her blindness hardly stops Ivy 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.” The clumsiness of the blindness = insight metaphor is repeated in repetitious dialogue (Ivy: “How can you not say what is in your head?” Lucius: “How can you not stop saying what is in yours?”). 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 Ivy and Lucius’ awfully earnest relationship stands Noah (Adrien Brody), who has 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. Punished beyond his comprehension (locked up alone in the Quiet Room), he’s unable to cope — though the adults should know better, they resort to abuse. As the logical if extreme product of their fearfulness, Noah is by turns pathetic, indecipherable, and eventually, “bad.”

But the film’s emotional logic is also complicated and frustrating. By the time Ivy turns on Noah, brutally, The Village asks you to sympathize with her rage, to share in her violence. It delivers — in spectacular fashion — the justification for her feelings, in case you have any inclination to feel sorry for the village’s most egregiously mistreated and otherized victim. Instead, Shyamalan takes a conventional route, granting Ivy’s noble trek through the woods a simplistic morality in order to challenge those overreaching elders. The allegory never approaches the complexity of its apparent referent.