Just like Signs, this thriller from writer/director M. Night Shyamalan takes place in rural Pennsylvania. But his latest tale is a time-warp of sorts, transporting us to a quaint, puritanical community of quilters, candle makers and butter churners mysteriously cut off from human contact.
Why do they live in fear? Why can’t they venture to nearby towns? The answer lies just beyond their borders … in the woods. As schoolteacher Edward Walker explains, the surrounding forest is home to bloodthirsty creatures (drawn to the color red) that won’t enter the village so long as humans don’t tread on their turf. The “truce,” as Edward calls it, has endured for many years. But now the townsfolk have reason to believe those days of peaceful coexistence may be over.
Covington, Pa., is a peaceful community of well-intentioned people. They value family, hard work and prayer. Children respect adults who are committed to protecting their innocence. The whole village turns out to celebrate a wedding. Edward says he esteems a man’s character more highly than his wealth or social status. He also respects his daughter Ivy for having a positive outlook on life (“You see light when there is only darkness”).
Two young adults are especially noble. The meek Lucius Hunt is honorable and brave. After a child dies from a curable disease, he volunteers to venture into the foreboding woods to get medicines from another town to keep such a tragedy from happening again. Edward tells him, “You are fearless in a way that I shall never know.” When Lucius worries that his decision to take a few steps into the woods may have put the village at risk, he tells the elders what he did and apologizes. He humbly explains his bravery by saying, “I don’t worry about what will happen, only what needs to be done.”
Also at the fore is Ivy, a young blind woman who doesn’t wallow in self-pity or let her lack of sight become a debilitating handicap. She confidently claims to see “differently” than others. Ivy bravely embarks on a Frodo-like mission through the woods to procure medicine that might save the life of the man she loves. Part of what makes her quest so selfless is that, to protect privileged information, she ends up making the trip alone. (If she were selfish, she could reveal her secret and be escorted through the forest by those able to see.) She carries a unique burden and overcomes various obstacles. Ivy doesn’t succumb to a serious mishap, but later uses that accident to her advantage.
In addition, the film lends itself to thoughtful reflection. [Spoiler Warning: The rest of this section will allude to themes explored by Shyamalan that require a “big picture” understanding of the movie and all of its revelations. While I don’t intend to give away key plot twists, the following information may be somewhat of a spoiler for savvy fans. If you plan to see the movie, you may want to wait to read the remainder of “positive elements” afterward.] A triangle proves that romantic love can motivate people to commit heinous crimes or beautiful acts of self-sacrifice. Shyamalan suggests that while it’s noble for human beings to want to withdraw from potentially dangerous environments to protect family, improve sanity and preserve innocence, those who do may be exchanging one form of oppression for another.
Do the ends justify the means? He also implies that our fear of the unknown may be misguided—that we have more to fear from within our community than from outside of it (an interesting post-9/11 consideration). Indeed, the fallen nature knows no boundaries and people within our midst may be a greater threat than strangers. Also, we can’t get help from neighbors we have no relationship with.
Residents of the village acknowledge God. Edward leads them in corporate prayer (“We are grateful for the time we have been given”). Since the elders only agree to let someone enter the woods for medicine because a man was wounded as part of a crime (childhood illnesses are left to run their course), it seems the community leaves the fate of others entirely in God’s hands, putting Him to the test. To comfort frightened young men in the woods, Ivy pretends to have “magic rocks.”
The mentally challenged Noah is scolded for wrestling with boys and playfully hitting them with a stick. Adults tell stories of relatives who were murdered. Dead animals keep turning up skinned of their flesh and fur. The most disturbing moment in the film occurs when one character stabs another with a knife. A woman slaps a man repeatedly. A man falls to his death.
One or two expressions of “Oh my god.”
A grieving father gives in to pessimism (“Sorrow will find you. It can smell you”).
If M. Night Shyamalan’s cinematic style were a dance, it would have to be The Twist. He loves to give us that unexpected, Rod Serling-style revelation that turns everything on its head and has us replaying the movie in our minds, filing cogent clues and red herrings in the appropriate mental folders. But it may be that—after The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs—this popular writer/director has us so conditioned to look for a shocking switcheroo that we go in with heightened, even unrealistic expectations.
This film’s producer, Scott Rudin, told Entertainment Weekly, “The thing he’s wrestling with is that the audience is waiting for [the twist]. You can ask, could he make The Sixth Sense now? The minute the kid says ‘I see dead people,’ would you immediately go to ‘Bruce Willis is dead’? Every one of these movies raises the bar higher and makes it harder to deliver any kind of sleight of hand.”
He’s right. Which may explain why the theater audience I spent the evening with filed out of The Village looking like kids at an amusement park who had just stood in an hour-long line for a roller coaster that never left the platform. The prevailing reaction was disappointment. Instead of a supercharged adventure, what they got was a soberly paced, feature-length “thriller” that might have worked better as a half-hour Twilight Zone episode. At least then the payoff would have been proportionate to our investment. Some members of the crowd even seemed ticked. I can understand why. Disney’s marketing department set them up to see a certain kind of movie (the tag line reads, “Run. The Truce Is Ending”). It didn’t deliver and they felt conned. But let’s face it, in Shyamalan’s world, it’s all about setting the audience up for the twist, right? If only his final revelation was a whiz-bang wonder worthy of water-cooler conversation. (Most people will see it coming a mile away.)
What is worth talking about—besides the emergence of Ron Howard’s daughter in her first screen role—is the film’s interesting subtext. The Village works very well as a metaphor infused with socially significant ideas and transcendent themes. Of course, most viewers will be too busy trying to track Shyamalan’s cinematic sleight of hand to follow it on that level. That’s too bad. Given the chance to be more than mood-altering summer eye candy, The Village contains subtle, intellectual challenges for mature audiences—with very little troubling content. That may be small consolation for action-hungry horror fans trying to predict “the twist” and avoid falling asleep in their popcorn. What does it take for a manipulative director to lose his credibility with a mass audience? It takes a Village.