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August 2, 2004

The Village

Unlike Roger Ebert (note: Ebert's indignant negative review is a thing of beauty) and Stephanie Zacharek, I never promised Disney, Touchstone, or M. Night Shyamalan that I wouldn't reveal the plot twists in Shyamalan's most recent film, The Village (IMDB). I will try to put most of these revelations below the fold to protect readers who haven't seen the film, but hopefully my review of the film will protect readers from ever seeing the film in the first place. In my initial conversations with Jim about the film, we did work out a fairly interesting "symptomatic" reading of the film, noting that The Village has a fairly engaging treatment of "isolationism," of the need to withdraw from a dangerous and threatening world. Such an allegorical reading works pretty well, but in retrospect, I'm a little less impressed with the way in which the film works out that concept.

The basics of the plot: we begin with a small, isolated 19th century village where the villagers are threatened by a group of creatures who live in the woods beyond the edge of the village. These creatures (who have a pseudo-ominous name I'm too lazy to re-type) have, according to the elders, killed villagers who fail to observe the rules of the truce (don't wear red, don't go beyond the edge of the woods, etc). The elders succeed in frightening the children of the village from ever stepping foot into the woods to find "the towns" that apparently exist nearby. Despite these dangers, the villagers lead a happy, if unexciting, life, in which teenage girls are preoccupied with marriage, and schoolteachers recite lessons to attentive students (that part I liked). However, because of an "accident," it becomes necessary to go to the towns to obtain "medicines" that will save one of the villagers. I'm probably revealing too much above the fold and do so at the risk of incurring the wrath of M. Night.

Visually, the film is relatively interesting. Roger Deakins' cinematography fits the film's narrative nicely. While Zacharek faults the film for having "an Old Sturbridge Village vibe" (I compared it to an Abercrombie and Fitch, or better, L.L. Bean, catalog photograph), the artificiality of the village seemed apprpriate to the film's overall meaning. This artificiality translates into our perceptions of the characters who inhabit the unnamed village: we have the the kindly teacher (William Hurt), the spunky blind girl (Bryce Dallas Howard), the village idiot (Adrien Brody in a rather disappointing performance and an even more disappointing make-up job), and the heroic and kind young man (Joaquin Phoenix), all recognizable stereotypes from similar fictions, and while I appreciated Dark City's use of film noir stereotypes in conveying the artificial reality in that film, the treatment of the artificial in The Village falters considerably.

Spoilers ahead.

The plot twist that Shyamalan has taken great pains to hide seemed rather predictable to me. About ten or fifteen minutes into the film, I recognized that the village was going to turn out to somehow or another be "fake" or artificial. I didn't predict the precise nature of that reality, although I did guess that the film was supposed to be taking place "now."

As viewers of the film will know, we learn that the village was built by a billionaire (the William Hurt character) in collaboration with a group of others who had suffered traumatic experiences due to their lives in the city (Sigourney Weaver's younger sister was raped and murdered in "the towns," etc). This is revealed when William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver open a black box that contains souvenirs (newspaper clippings, photographs) of their lives before entering the village. This reveal was fairly interesting, and the artificiality of the village does offer an interesting take on virtuality (although I think that Dark City and The Thirteenth Floor are more accomplished in this regard). Like Blade Runner and Dark City, which allow photographs to be a crucial clue into the virtuality of the exisiting world (or at least the people who inhabit it), The Village uses photographs to introduce us to the "real" time of the film, the contemporary moment of crime-ridden cities, home computers, and Patriot Acts (to be more precise, it may be significant that the villagers choose to withdraw from the world in the 1970s, as implied by the haircuts and fashions revealed in the pictures).

The reveal also provides a useful way of thinking about the film's critique of the "elders" who have chosen to withdraw from the world and to force that decision onto the rest of the villagers even if it means cuasing them physical or psychological harm (the film implies that the village idiot could be cured with the right medication). The effects of their emotional and physical violence on the people in the village, even if this violence is merely passively accepting preventable deaths, is pretty powerful, but I'm not sure the allegory can be complicated much further than that.

It's also very, shall we say, convenient that one of the villagers just so happens to be blind. Bryce Dallas Howard's character, Ivy, also happens to be a "tomboy," capable of navigating the woods "as well as any boy" (I'll leave the gender issues alone). This plot device allows us to see that the village is actually a giant "gated community" patrolled by rangers who have been paid by the billionaire and believe the area to be a wildlife refuge.

In general, I'm becoming less patient with Shyamalan's films. I skipped Signs altogether, in part because I've had my quota of Mel Gibson for this lifetime. But the "plot twist" approach is becoming increasingly less convincing with each permutation of it. The use of the plot twist often acts as a substitute for "real" profundity, and upon reflection, I think that's what is happening here. The film still offers a potentially interesting symptomatic reading, but on the whole I was a little disappointed.

Posted by chuck at August 2, 2004 1:01 PM

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it's a scooby doo ending!

Posted by: cynthia at August 2, 2004 2:26 PM

That's it! I kept waiting for Velma and Daphne to pull off old man Bill Hurt's mask....

Posted by: chuck at August 2, 2004 2:33 PM

So, scary or not?

Posted by: Jen at August 2, 2004 3:34 PM

Not really, in my opinion. My friend Jim jumped once or twice. He claimed I jumped, but I didn't really jump....

You might get a second opinion, though.

Posted by: chuck at August 2, 2004 3:46 PM

I liked The Sixth Sense, and I even liked Unbreakable, but he really pissed me off with Signs. He spent a whole five-minute scene near the end of that movie recapping key plot points. It was as if he was saying, "I think you're too stupid to get this the first time, so allow me to repeat myself." Also, showing a whole alien sucked all the wind out of that at the end.

Don't know if I'll watch this one or not.

Posted by: Rusty at August 2, 2004 10:20 PM

As a 19th-c. specialist, I fear that I ought to see this (it sounds vaguely neo-Victorian). But, then again, now that I know the plot twist, perhaps I can plead extenuating circumstances.

I quite liked The Sixth Sense, but haven't seen anything else by Shyamalan. It does sound like he has developed a plot tic, so to speak.

Posted by: Miriam at August 3, 2004 12:44 AM

Rusty: I think *that's* what annoys me about Shyamalan: the self-importance and arrogance towards his audience. And I think that's where he departs from Hitchcock who never took himself quite so seriously, even if he worked through his ideas in an "intellectual" way.

Miriam: Village is sort of neo-Victorian, but it also has a post-Puritan quality, although the Puritanism in "The Village" is less sexual and less gendered (women have roles on the Council of Elders, etc). If there are other things playing, I think you can afford to skip this film.

Posted by: chuck at August 3, 2004 1:52 PM

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