Nuance, subtext and poetry: A defense of ‘The Village’

By
Feb 5th, 2012

Bryce Dallas Howard in "The Village"

I feel sorry for M. Night Shyamalan. After “The Last Airbender” debacle and the graceless marketing scheme for “The Happening” as his first rated-R film, M. Night needs an overhaul, and maybe some kind-hearted praise for what he’s done right in his films. There is a divisiveness evident in nearly all of his films—you either watch them with derisive condescension for figuring out the plot-twist before anyone else (well, aren’t you so smart!) or your gullible, bleeding heart is pulled over to the side of admiration and even respect. I admit that for some of his films I fall into the latter category. There is something about Mr. Shyamalan’s unabashed earnestness and imaginative-audacity-verging-on-ridiculousness that I have always admired. Mr. Shyamalan’s best films are mercifully free of cynicism, but still have darkly humorous undertones, such as in “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs.” Yes, they were both serious films about seeing dead people and hostile aliens, respectively, but they had their tongue-in-cheek moments as well. Bruce Willis’ hapless attempt at magic tricks and the sight of Mel Gibson as a preacher running around his house wielding a baseball bat whilst being forced to scream expletives are only two examples. Mr. Shyamalan puts his imagination and his emotional gut on the line, and that takes nerve, even if you think he’s a directorial hack. Yes, I am about to defend M. Night Shyamalan’s films. Well, one of them at least.

I must begin with a proclamation to all of those smart-asses who may be reading this: Please, get over the fact that you figured out the plot-twists before everyone else and take a moment to appreciate this film. There is no denying that “The Village” is well-acted, gorgeously shot and propelled by an elegant musical score. It is also thematically rich. “The Village” scrutinizes a 19th century community’s struggle to cling to innocence, unadulterated beauty and love, and the painful sacrifices they must make to protect this prelapsarian existence. The members of the village do not venture into the surrounding woods, and never have, due to an intrinsic fear of creatures known as “the one’s we do not speak of.” There exists a truce between the villagers and these unspeakable creatures, and the townsfolk take ritualistic precautions to hinder their threat; the color red is forbidden, as it attracts them, and sacrifices of meat are given. When Noah Percy, (Adrian Brody) a mentally disabled villager, ventures into the forbidden woods, the creatures begin to infiltrate the village. Their presence is at first unseen; they stealthily enter the village and leave disturbing omens, such as skinned animals. Eventually, they do make quite a terrifying appearance. But even more terrifying than the creatures themselves is the sense of claustrophobia that Mr. Shyamalan creates through the omniscient threat of the surrounding woods. Even the scenes in broad daylight of the villagers’ communal outdoor meals are fraught with tension and disquiet.

Above all, there is a strong cautionary tale inherent in the “The Village,” and here we have our first plot-twist: as it turns out, the real threat is not a supernatural monstrosity, but a human one. The woodland creatures are a “farce” invented by the founding villagers so that future generations will not venture into the corrupt, impure and violent towns. The village was established because each founding member has suffered from some heinous human act of violence. Their decision to seclude themselves from the darker side of humanity can be perceived as cowardly, but also admirably ambitious and idealistic. But the true horror of the film is that there is no escape from senseless violence and death. This tragic truth is realized when two of the film’s most innocent characters, Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Noah Percy (Adrien Brody) become unwitting perpetrators of their own love crimes.

Noah Percy’s character exposes the first blemishes of this supposedly untarnished village, and it is not because he is an outcast or mistreated by the townsfolk because of his mental illness. Noah symbolizes the consequences of being encased by innocence one’s entire life and of being incapable of knowing or understanding how to cope with the dark side when it begins to surface. When it becomes known to the villagers that Ivy and Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) are in love and are to be married, Noah feels betrayed by Ivy, his best friend, and comes to embody the animalistic, brute anguish of uncontrollable jealousy and repressed sexual desire. He brutally stabs Lucius and leaves him critically wounded, and Ivy demands to go to the towns for medicine. Ivy, who has been blind since birth, learns that the creatures are a fabrication from her father, Edward Walker (William Hurt), who is also the founder of the village. In this way, Ivy alone can venture into the woods without fear or deception.

When Ivy falls into a vast muddy ditch, the “safe” amber colors of her robe become soiled, and even though she knows the creatures are not real, she frantically attempts to wipe away the mud. We now arrive at our second plot-twist, which is actually a plot-twist within a plot-twist—a Russian nesting doll behemoth of a plot-twist: the unspeakable creatures are real! Ivy knows she is being hunted by an “unspeakable” when she can hear it mimicking her movements, which they are rumored to do before they attack. The creature then appears behind her from afar, menacingly still and quiet, cloaked in red, its features indiscernibly black and hollow within a red robe. When Ivy out-wits the creature and leads it straight into the ditch she had fallen into moments before, our plot-twist nesting doll opens its outer shell, and it is revealed that the creature is actually Noah, who has found a hidden costume underneath the floorboards of the room in which he had been sequestered after his crime.

Instead of feeling relief that the creatures are in fact still a farce, the revelation that Noah was masquerading as the creature and stalking Ivy in the woods is even more disturbing for the sexual violence that it implies. If you think I’m reaching too far by suggesting that Noah had intentions of raping Ivy, I’d like to invite you into the realm of yonic imagery. Yonic imagery is basically the feminine version of phallic imagery. Caves, ditches and small oval openings of any sort are the most common forms of yonic imagery. Yes, Mr. Shyamalan has Ivy fall into a muddy ditch for some cheap suspense, but more tellingly, to augment the sexual confrontation that is about to unfold between Ivy and Noah in the woods. When Ivy leads Noah straight into this ditch where he falls to his death, it would not be a stretch to say that Mr. Shyamalan is making his own twisted version of a feminist statement.

In stark opposition to this violent and sexual turmoil is the presence of delicate, chaste and restrained love. I watch “The Village” annually around this time of year, and what stirs me every time are the nuanced, intimate and restrained moments that are laced throughout the film. “The Village” certainly has its sensational-verging-on-ridiculous moments, but it also has moments of unassuming solemnity. In one of the film’s most tender scenes, Ivy finds Lucius sitting silently on her front porch at dusk. Even as a young boy, Lucius was drawn to Ivy by a primal instinct to act as her protector, even though, as the film will make clear, she needs none. Just as their heads come together for their first kiss, the camera looks modestly away, instead focusing on an empty rocking chair bathed in mist and twilight. When Ivy’s older sister decides to marry a man she presumable does not love, there is a brief but telling scene during her wedding in which Ivy embraces her sister. Ivy hugs her sister few beats longer than what may be considered proper, and the camera lingers for its entirety. Ivy’s face is hidden, but we realize that she is not congratulating her sister on her marriage, but thanking her. Now that her older sister is “spoken for,” Ivy is free to pursue her own love—Lucius.

This same subtle elegance is also inherent in Mr. Shyamalan’s script, which is perhaps one of the most mocked elements of “The Village” because its attempt at 19th century colloquialism feels quite forced. For example, we have mouthfuls like, “What manner of spectacle has attracted your attention so splendidly I ought to carry it my pocket to help me teach?” But we also have quietly devastating lines. Edward Walker and Alice Hunt (Sigourney Weaver) are in love, but cannot fulfill their love because they would be scorned and punished in the confines of their close-knit village. So when Edward sends Ivy to the towns to fetch medicine to save Alice’s son, he tells her, “It is all that I can give you,” and then repeats the phrase with sacred, almost prayer-like finality. Edward wants to give and receive so much more from Alice, but this one act is literally all he is able to give. And again, when Edward is justifying his decision break the villagers’ oath and send Ivy to the towns: “The world moves for love. It kneels before it in awe.” The first time I watched “The Village,” I was so taken aback by the graceful, unpretentious poetry of that line that I wanted to kneel before it in awe myself.

Perhaps my favorite line of the “The Village” is spoken by Lucius as he reads a letter to the village elders explaining that the creatures will not harm him if he enters the forbidden woods. It is a line that I believe encapsulates the brilliant but flawed filmmaker who is M. Night Shyamalan: “They will see I am pure of intention, and not afraid. The end.” Come back, M. Night! Restore and recapture the earnest and inspired, daring and divisive film-maker you once were.

And no, I will not reveal the final plot-twist. Stop assskiiinng.

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Vanessa is the press representative/blogger for The Plaza Cinema & Media Arts Center in Patchogue, NY. You can read her blog at stickyourthumbselsewhere.wordpress.com

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  • Teresa Tannahill

    For Goodness sake! Since we’ve GOT to have empathic dinosaurs in the movie, why not just go the whole Rex and admit that it was what it was. The dinosaur holds the ailing dinosaur’s head down so that it does not get spotted by the rest of the pack. It’s compassion. Pity. Reptilian kindness – whatever that is. “Keep your head down or they’ll see you!” Durr.

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