It Takes a Village (to Lambast a Filmmaker)

Photo Credit The Village

While much of the world sits in judgement, furrowing its eyebrows at M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, it’s a film that’s near and dear to my heart.  Significantly, I didn’t even realize that was the case until I embarked on a Shyamal-a-thon this week and revisited many of his films after years of separation.  The Village, released in 2004, came out when I was a wayward sophomore in college.  In stark contrast to popular opinion, I liked the film so much I bought a copy of the DVD (which I didn’t watch much after that).  Despite my love of film and literature, my memory can be shoddy and I don’t always remember movies after I’ve seen them.  The Village, however, lingered in my mind long after the initial viewing.  As Michael and I watched it yesterday, I found myself able to predict almost every plot turn despite the time that’s lapsed since I last saw it.  A film has to be good, at least in my eyes, for me to remember it that well.  So I guess this piece is an attempt to defend the film – or to share why I like it – by pointing out the questions it raises, the tensions it explores, and why I think it’s so damn clever.  As per usual with M. Night, his tricky surprise ending will be revealed to give me full range of discussion and analysis, so brace yourself for spoilers.

To begin, The Village boasts an impressive cast.  Bryce Dallas Howard takes the lead as Ivy Walker, a pretty, self-possessed blind woman with a close friendship to the intellectually disabled Noah Percy (Adrian Brody) and romantic stirrings for Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix), who, we find out, quietly reciprocates her passion.  Sigourney Weaver plays Alice Hunt, village elder and mother of Lucius, Judy Greer plays Ivy’s whimsical, capricious sister, Kitty, and William Hurt plays Edward Walker – father to Kitty and Ivy and a sort of leader among the elders who run the village.  The now-popular Jesse Eisenberg also makes an appearance as a village boy named Jamison who tests how long he can stand with his back to the evil forest before turning around out of fear.  While the movie was poorly received by the public, clearly some of Hollywood’s best and brightest saw much promise in the script.  Then again, Shyamalan had already established himself by that point with The Sixth Sense, Signs, and Unbreakable.  Presumably, everyone wanted to be a part of what he had going on, film-wise.

Much of the beginning of the film foregrounds the mundane gradations of daily life in the village to highlight its difference from contemporary culture.  The village is surrounded by forest, and the elders keep referring to “towns” outside the village that may contain valuable supplies but are too dangerous to seek.  We learn fairly quickly that “those we do not speak of” inhabit the forest – a group of dangerous beasts in red cloaks that prove, later in the film, to look like a cross between an ugly pig and a standing porcupine, only with really long claws.  Ostensibly, the town has a pact with the creatures; the town’s inhabitants will stay out of the forest if the creatures stay out of the town.  However, after a curious Lucius takes a few steps into the forest (he wants to travel to the towns to collect supplies), tension unfolds.  The next night, the hooded porcupine-pigs (which really look much scarier than I’m describing them) enter the town and smear red slashes on the doors as a warning signal (perhaps a nod to Exodus, in which markings on a door signaled houses to be passed over by the angel of death).

Town dinner in The Village

Early in the film, scenes including Noah and Ivy establish a close friendship between the two, a friendship through which Ivy guides Noah and gently disciplines him when he strays.  Unfortunately, Noah has a different perception of their relationship.  When word spreads in the village that Ivy is set to marry Lucius Hunt, Noah skulks into a barn one day and stabs Lucius unexpectedly.  He returns to the village, distressed and with blood on his hands, only to be locked in an empty house for the safety of the other villagers.  Lucius is badly injured but not dead, and Ivy asks her father if she can take the risk of traveling through the forest to procure medical supplies that may save Lucius’s life.  To the chagrin of the other village elders, he consents and tells Ivy that the story of the porcupine-pig beasts is false (he does not use those terms); it was created to keep people in the village and thus protect them from a vicious world outside it.  One of many costumes of the beast hangs in an off-limits shed.  The elders wear the costumes to scare the town’s unknowing denizens—their children.  Ivy heads for the woods with that knowledge, a yellow cloak, and a list of items to find.  Though she’s been told the stories are farcical, she is still very obviously afraid.

Though we’re told the beasts don’t exist, Ivy finds herself in a patch of red berries; red has been designated as the “bad” color by the town, because it’s the color of the beasts’ cloaks.  She may not see the berries, but she senses danger and is attacked by a beast that she manages to kill through trickery.  The scene is terrifying – we speculate that perhaps creatures really do exist in the woods – until the beast falls to its death, the costume falls off, and Noah’s pained, surprised face reveals itself.  In his rage and jealousy (we assume) after stabbing Lucius, he found a hidden beast costume, followed Ivy into the woods, and endeavored to attack her.

The hooded beast – The Village

Ivy finally finds the stone path that signals she’s getting toward the end of the forest.  She must scale a wall, and when she falls onto the wall’s other side, she finds herself next to a paved road with a small security vehicle parked nearby.  Of course, Ivy is blind, so she doesn’t see the vehicle or the pavement, but we do, and we come to realize this seemingly antiquated village exists in contemporary times.  The village is fenced into part of a nature preserve.

An empathetic security guard is shocked that Ivy lives in the forest but finds the medical supplies she needs at the ranger station.  He orders her to stay where she is, so she never experiences a ride in his vehicle or talks to anyone else.  He procures the material and finds a ladder for Ivy, who climbs back over the wall and returns successfully to the village with the necessary materials.  The village elders reveal their secret; having lost loved ones to senseless violence, they created the sequestered village to keep life’s evils out.  By the film’s conclusion, we do not know if Lucius lives or if the villagers decide to stay in the village.

I can summarize most horror films in a paragraph, and this one took over a page.  I find this fact a testament to the complexity of the plot and the importance of every detail to an even somewhat in-depth analysis of the film.  Before I explore why I like the film, I’ll explore why one critic disliked it.  That critic?  My dad.  We went out to breakfast this morning, and I told him I was writing this piece.  Over breakfast we chatted about the film.  These are his qualms with it (I should create a “Phil says” sections of my blog pieces more often—my dad’s name is Phil):

  • It’s not very scary once you realize the monsters aren’t real.  He wished that the plot could have somehow included beasts that were real to make the film more of a true horror movie.
  • The act is corrupt; parents make an unfair decision for their children without telling them, and though modern society has many evils, the people of the village are missing out on many of the good things it affords.
  • It’s completely unrealistic. Phil contends that some goofy kid trying to make trouble would climb over the wall, walk through the woods and find the village.  Some reference to paying off airplanes, so they don’t fly over the village, is also made in the movie, which Phil thinks is B.S.  You may be able to pay off private planes, he contends, but commercial airlines will choose whatever route is best for them.  (As such, village members might see the planes and get a sense of the world outside the village).

To an extent, I agree with Phil’s first point.  Much of the movie is decidedly less scary when we learn the beasts probably don’t exist.  The fact undercuts the scariness of the movie and perhaps makes the movie something other than a horror film.  I can consider that position while replying with two points: First, the movie is conceptually brilliant from a plot standpoint, so I’m willing to sacrifice the presence of real beasts in the movie.  Second, M. Night messes with the viewer’s mind.  Suspense builds during Ivy’s walk through the forest; she recalls that the myth the village elders made up was based on a myth in a history textbook that really existed.  Then we see a beast in the distance, and we hear its growl.  I was truly afraid during this part of the movie; though I remembered much of the film, I forgot that the beast Ivy hears is really Noah in costume, and without that knowledge the scene is legitimately scary.  So Shyamalan does manage to produce a chilling scene with a beast that makes the viewer toy with the notion that the creatures exist.  This helps augment the horror movie’s “horror vibe.”

Photo Credit The Village

His second point is an excellent point – the fact that the village elders make a really controversial decision for their children in establishing their village and creating a story to keep their children out of contemporary society.  But the fact that their decision is controversial, rather than detract from the merit of the film, greatly enhances it.  The decision raises a lot of questions and allows much fodder for debate.  As my dad suggested, do the benefits of contemporary society outweigh its evils?  In an opening scene of the film a young child has just died, which indicates that bad things still happen in the village, and which could highlight the fact that the village lacks proper medical supplies.  Would we all be better off in a secluded village despite the dearth of innovation?  The village elders say they want to maintain their children’s innocence, but is doing so a possibility?  Is innocence meant to be a permanent state of being, or are we meant to undergo hardships and gain experience that destroys our innocence but give us insight.  After all, William Blake wrote a series of poems entitled Songs of Innocence and Experience, thus suggesting that the loss of innocence is a process everyone must undergo to gain life experience.  By that logic, a compulsion to preserve someone’s innocence throughout his or her entire life seems not just controlling, but bizarre and unnatural.

The view that the village elders present is that the world is a malicious, evil, unpredictable place.  But there are two elements of this supposition to question: First, is it?  Certainly there are evils in the world, but the village elders originally met in a counseling session to deal with the loss of loved ones in horrible, human-induced tragedies.  To that extent, they’re a very particular, small sect of the population; their experiences are markedly different from those of us who have never had a friend or relative brutally murdered.  When Ivy steps over the wall, she meets a kind man who helps her, and she notes the kindness in his voice.  The first thing she encounters in the world outside the village is kindness.  So we can’t necessarily trust the elders’ tainted perspective, and it’s problematic to project your qualms with contemporary society or the universe at large on your children by pulling them out of the world.  Second, is the village much better?  As tenuous as it is to make generalizations about human nature, I think it’s fair to say that part of human nature is a tendency to err in judgment, to make bad decisions and, sometimes, to harm others.  Did the elders think they could escape injustice and pain just by starting their own society?  Noah’s murder of Lucius, his attack on Ivy, and his own untimely death all underscore the fact that evil and tragedy are distinct possibilities no matter what you do to guard against them.  There is, in the end, so much of the universe that is beyond our control.  And the village elders (who, by the way, aren’t that elderly) are a group of unprecedented horror film control freaks.

A moment between Ivy and Lucius

As such, I love that the elders’ decision – a decision to leave society and frighten their children into never transgressing the walls of an outdated village – is controversial, even corrupt; I think the decision adds a lot of dimension to the film.  As for my father’s last qualm, I have to yield; the existence of a decently-sized, functioning village hidden in a nature preserve requires a significant suspension of disbelief.  I might argue against my dad, who seemed to indicate the inevitability of someone finding the village.  I would agree with him that it’s highly likely that someone might stumble upon the village, but the walls to the forest are fenced off and guarded carefully.  The scenario is incredibly unrealistic, but I’m willing to concede that it may not be completely impossible.  Or, to the extent that it is, I don’t really care.  The movie makes me think, and it still engages me.  That’s what I care about.  One will be hard-pressed to find a large group of believable horror films.

In the end, your willingness to believe that the existence of a hidden village is possible or your ability to suspend disbelief may determine whether or not you like the movie.  I am able to suspend disbelief enough to appreciate the script’s originality and Shyamalan’s exploration of controversial concepts.  I think the film is scary enough to belong to the horror genre but far more thought-provoking than your typical scary movie.  I do think Shyamalan has this weird tendency to make marginalized characters partially or completely villainous (the intellectually disabled, in this film, the mentally ill in The Visit, a black man with a bone disease in Unbreakable), but in this film, he takes another marginalized character – a blind woman – and makes her intelligent, bold and energetic.  Indeed, Shyamalan is excellent at creating strong female characters in his films; from a feminist standpoint I have little to complain about.  Interestingly, for all Ivy’s innocence, her love for Lucius may ultimately be what is poisonous to both him and the maintenance of the entire society, which makes her name apropos.  Despite her sweetness, she becomes much like poison ivy.  And though her love endangers Lucius, her blindness is ironic; she sees far more than most characters, although she never physically sees the new society that she steps into.      

Hiding from the beasts – The Village

Dystopian novels often use mind control and fear to manipulate the masses.  The Village depicts a corrupt society on a smaller level.  Though the self-appointed elders may be just in many respects, they are, ultimately, self-appointed, and they govern by creating fearful stories that distort the realities of their children.  As idealistic as the little place in The Village seems, its entire existence is a byproduct of fear and deceit.  We don’t know if Lucius dies by the end of the film, but his life may well have been better had he been raised in contemporary society – because he was unlikely to meet Noah and Ivy to begin with, and especially because medical help can be administered much more quickly in violent situations like the one he faces.  What is perhaps more terrifying is that Ivy’s father is the only elder who wants someone to leave the town and get medicine for him, and he desires this in part out of his love of Ivy.  The rest of the elders –including Lucius’s mother – are more than willing to sacrifice Lucius so the children may continue to be deceived.  Ultimately, the creation of the village is imaginative, but for all the elders’ good intentions, there is something vaguely sinister about the world they construct, and the lies that literally surround it, in the guise of a haunted forest.  But don’t take my word for it; watch the movie and see what you think.

Note:  To prepare for M. Night Shyamalan’s new film, Split, I’m writing a post a day on one of his films.  Click the following links for reviews of: The Visit, The Sixth Sense, Signs and Unbreakable.  A post about Split is on the way!

It Takes a Village (to Lambast a Filmmaker)

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