Monday, February 13, 2012

Reconsidered: The Village

Okay, M. Night Shyamalan has gotten a bad rep. He came out of the gate strong (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable) and then went right the fuck off the rails. That said, I don't think it's entirely his fault. Being "that guy with the twist endings" (and why didn't John Carpenter get tagged with that? His endings are usually twists, and usually awesome) meant his movies weren't going to be watched as movies so much as exercises in how to get to a twist ending. Once you're that guy, there's no way your movies are going to get a fair shake.

I am going to go to bat for The Village.

It gets a lot of flak for being "obvious", but it wouldn't have if it hadn't been directed by Shyamalan. It's a spooky period piece, about a mysterious village plagued by equally mysterious monsters. But if you go in looking for the twist, for the catch, then you're going to throw the story and the setting and the mood aside and turn it into some kind of fucked-up narrative equivalent of "Where's Waldo?" It's like watching Psycho solely to spot Hitchcock's cameo - it's not watching a film, it's gimmick-hunting and screw that. The Village is beautifully shot, atmospheric, and tense. And the "twist" isn't just a gimmick - it's an integral part of the movie's underlying theme.

The Village is a story about protective fictions, the stories we tell each other and ourselves to keep us sane. When the world lets you down, you have to make meaning of it. The easiest way to do that is by reframing the nature of the world through new stories. If you repeat the stories enough, you begin to believe them. If enough generations repeat the stories, they become true, in a sense. 

It turns out that the titular village - which we initially believe is located in the 18th or 19th century - is actually hidden in a large nature preserve in the modern world. It was founded by a bunch of people who were traumatized by the death of someone close to them and decided that the sane response to this was to abandon the modern world for an invented pre-industrial agrarian society. 

This society is a fiction intended to keep real horror at bay. These are people so in shock at the pointless deaths of their loved ones that they reject the entire proposition of modern life, blaming it for their loss. The cities breed crime, pollution, disease, industrial accidents. This is the horror with which we live in exchange for modern amenities. We make our peace with it, or we go a little nuts. There was no way for these people to reframe their trauma, no way to fit it into the modern story that they could see. So they wrote an entirely new story, about a village and the families who founded it. Traditions, ritual, roles.

And these people have kids. Of course they do - what better way to defy death than new life? The village isn't just a retreat, a pastoral retirement, it's a new start, and for life to go on, there needs to be another generation, who will in turn create another generation. The story will get repeated from generation to generation, and eventually the village will become true. The founders, long after they are dead, will have ensured a life free from pointless death for themselves and those they love.

However, kids being kids,  they know that their children are going to want to explore life beyond the village. Since life beyond the village is what drove the adults to create the village in the first place, the adults don't see that as an option - no rumspringa here. So the adults create "those of whom we do not speak." They invent small horrors to keep their children safe from the larger horror of the outside world, from which they have made themselves safe with their own invented village. Their protective fiction has its own protective fiction, complete with pantomime raids and sacrifices and costumes hanging in a shed at the edge of the woods. It's almost an inoculation - they introduce a controlled amount of fear into the community to prevent larger outbreaks. There are still horrors out there, in the woods beyond the village, but they are controlled horrors, manageable horrors, horrors which can do no real harm. They're telling their children one thing while they tell themselves another.

And yet, they can't keep trauma and violence at bay. One of their own, for reasons nobody can fathom, does something horrible. What the founders didn't understand was that the city was not the problem, and never was. They spent way too much time reading Thoreau and not enough reading the Old Testament. A man who is intellectually but a child attempts to kill someone who has something he wants. Not because he truly wants him dead, but because he wants him out of the way so he can take the thing he wants. It's no different in motivation than the toddler who pushes another one down to take his toy. He's just playing for adult stakes even though he can't know it. Violence is not some external force, some invader. It is a product of what it means to be human. Just because the story sounds good and sounds convincing doesn't make it true. The founders told their children there were monsters out there, and lied to protect them. They told themselves they were safe here, and lied to protect themselves. 

So violence becomes something for which nobody's fictions can account. And their only chance to avert the monster they ran from, reappeared in their midst, is to send someone out into the world to retrieve medical help. They send a blind woman - a woman for whom the dark isn't just my clumsy metaphor, but life itself. She fumbles out into the dark beyond the village, guided only by necessity, without the comfort of fiction to keep her safe. No matter what narrative we construct, be it community, tradition, birth and growth, or monsters in the closet, it always comes back to the dark and all the ways we shelter ourselves from it.


  1. Interesting article. I'm still never forgiving Shyamalan for Avatar: The Last Airbender, though. Took one of my more favorite worlds and ran it through his digestive system.

  2. As far as I'm concerned, all bets are off after The Village.

  3. Thanks for the article. I'm in complete agreement. I, admittedly, enjoy the fact that everyone hates The Village because I like being different. For me, this film is in my top five of all time, and I have no shame in saying that. It is beautifully choreographed and the score, ethereal and moving, reflects the genuine nature of so many of the inhabitants: they are good people who found solace in a cause that, while perhaps not the best solution, was made with genuine intentions. The director himself stated that this was his attempt at a love story. To me, it is the perfect love story for a guy. I'm not into the soppy chick flick, so what better than to have a love story disguised as a horror film. One of the main reasons this film has "failed" on so many accounts is because it followed in the footsteps of a pre-established horror genre and was marketed as such. People, including myself, came in expecting to be terrified and left feeling disappointed. Most, I guess, never gave it a second chance.

    As Cliff pointed out, the twist, far from being a ploy, is an integral element to the story. It is another layer of an already multi-faceted story. The elders, acknowledging the sacred nature of their oath, realize that it is technically (by their own rules) admissible for Ivy to go, given her blindness. Personally, I find the most moving scene to be that in which the elders grill Edward as to how he could let his daughter go to the towns. He gives several reasons. He confronts the fact that, one day, Ivy and Lucius will need to learn the truth to continue this way of life. He recognizes that the attack against Lucius was, in his own words, a crime. This merits a response. Most importantly--and I think the apex of the film's love story--is Edward's admission that his daughter is moved by love. He follows this by saying, "The world moves for love. It kneels before it awe." William Hurt's delivery is perfect. Truer words are seldom said in Hollywood.

    I'm from rural Pennsylvania not far from where this was filmed (in Chadds Ford) and can resonate with the environment and "feel" of the setting. It truly feels like the Brandywine Valley. M. Night has also said that he wanted the film to have the feel of an Andrew Wyeth painting. I think he succeeded in doing this. Apart from being a love story, the film brings to light a number of issues in dealing with modern society. Is human interaction more genuine when one-on-one conversation replaces texting, emailing, and all other passive forms of communication? Does a simpler lifestyle produce truer happiness on a consistent basis? These are timeless questions that, I feel, will become more and more relevant as we progress through an era dominated by technological advances that are fundamentally changing our way of life. Thanks again for the article--a good read.