Friday, September 04, 2015
The Shyamalan Series: The Village (2004)
The Village (2004) might be viewed as the essential turning point -- or even point of no return -- for the genre films of M. Night Shyamalan.
Although the film was a huge box office hit, grossing over 256 million dollars worldwide against a 50 million dollar budget, it also made significantly less than Signs (2002) did. That film had a global take of 408 million dollars.
Similarly, the reviewers at this point had traveled from mostly positive notices (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs) to strongly-mixed ones in their responses. From here -- with films such as Lady in the Water (2007), The Happening (2008) and After Earth (2013) -- the trend turned fully, catastrophically negative.
To put it another way, a critical darling soon turned critical punching bag, and The Village stands at ground zero for that tragic process. On that front, and according to some film-goers, it’s all downhill from here for M. Night Shyamalan.
I don’t feel that way.
In terms of theme and sensitivity of approach, The Village has much in common with the previous films by this director. Specifically, it concerns a main character who finds her purpose in life, and simultaneously involves the nature of sight. By the same token, the film involves another Shyamalan obsession: storytelling. It seems to ask, in some canny way, if it is ever okay for a storyteller to lie.
Is there a greater responsibility for a storyteller than to tell the truth?
That point roils underenath the film’s structure and characters, and may change how you perceive certain characters, or even the film’s story.
The main protagonist in The Village is also one of my all-time favorite Shyamalan characters: Ivy Walker, played by Bryce Dallas Howard. Unlike Malcolm Crowe, David Dunn, Elijah Price, Graham Hess or Mr. Heep, Ivy is not at all blind to her purpose in life.
She is actually -- literally -- blind in fact, but not so to what she wants, or how life should be. Specifically, Ivy is in love with mild-mannered blacksmith Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) and understands that they are supposed to share their lives together. Dark forces rear their head during the narrative and attempt to destroy that destiny, and Ivy faces incredible peril to preserve what she knows is the right path; to stay on course despite the duplicity and “storytelling” of the Elders in her community, including her father.
But more than anything else, Ivy is a point of significant light.
I love how the film expresses visually Ivy Walker’s sense of indomitable courage. She can’t face the world with her eyes because of her handicap. Instead, she reaches out to inteface with the world with a remarkable geture: an up-turned palm. There’s an expectation in that motion; in that action. Ivy knows not what will touch her palm, but she holds her hand out to encounter it nonetheless.
It’s a beautiful view of optimism and hope; of meeting the world on its own terms without fear or even, really expectation.
I admire The Village primarily as a character study, and to a high degree as her love story. Ivy is a beautiful person through and through, optimistic in the face of defeat, and tenacious before any challenge. She is truly, wondrously alive, and I could watch Howard play this character in a variety of stories. She is quite simply delightful. Ivy’s love of dance; her attaching of “color” to those in her life, and other affecting character traits make her, in my opinion, an unforgettable and worthwhile protagonist.
Similarly, the repartee between the loquacious Ivy and the taciturn Lucius is funny and touching. This duo shares a great scene in which they get directly at their noticeable personality differences in a lover's quarrel.
“Why can you not say what is in your head?” asks Ivy, flustered. “Why can you not stop saying what is in your head?” Lucius replies with exasperation. The film features many moments like this one; moments that seem to understand how no one can annoy or irritate us as much as the people we love. They've got our number. And we have theirs.
So largely on the basis of Ivy’s story, and her journey to achieve her purpose, I count The Village as a strong film.
Some of the mechanics of the plot don’t work nearly as well for me this time around, and I’ll engage with those deficits in the body of the review. But suffice it to say that The Village is wholly engaging -- immersive, even -- on a human level first, and so I recommend it on that basis.
Different movies boast different gifts; different virtues. The Village gives us a remarkable, joyous character in Ivy Walker. It is an unforgettable experience following her on her journey, even if aspects of that specific journey, perhaps, raise questions about storyteller "honesty" and matters of structure.
“We may question our decisions.”
In a remote, rural village governed by a group of Elders (William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson, etc.), these leaders rebuff the efforts of young Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) to visit the towns beyond, and bring back medicines and tools for the agrarian community.
Soon after Lucius’s entreaties, an old enemy -- monstrous creatures known as “Those We Don’t Speak Of” --- breach the town border, killing live-stock and marking the denizens' houses with the evil color, red.
Meanwhile, a developmentally-arrested young man, Noah Percy (Adrien Brody) stabs Lucius, badly wounding him, when he learns of the blacksmith's engagement to a friend, the blind Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard).
Lucius will die soon without medicine from the towns, and Ivy loves him desperately. A town Elder and founder of the town, Walker (Hurt) -- Ivy's father -- confides in her about the Village’s true nature, as well as the monsters.
Now, Ivy must venture, alone and afraid, to the towns if she hopes to save the life of her intended husband.
“I see the world, just not as you see it.”
My biggest concern with The Village is the way that it "cheats." I never felt in The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, or Signs that Shyamalan overtly or blatantly cheated to maintain one of his trademark false realities.
His films work, as you may recall, in the following fashion: A main character goes through life “blinded” by his or her perceptual sets, only to have those blinders removed in the last act. He or she then sees life how it really is. Some see this reckoning as a “twist ending.” I prefer to see the new angle of sight as the character’s recognition of his or her previous selective exposure.
In other words, this charcters suddenly sees the world in a new and more truthful away. All barriers to accurate sight dissipate. The character drops his or her previous perceptual baggage.
But early in The Village, there is a funeral for a child who has died, Danny Nicholson. We see his gravestone and it reads, on screen -- in close-up no less: 1890 - 1897.
These dates apparently tell us precisely when the action is occurring (Shortly before the twentieth century), and so we attune ourselves to that context. We are shown these dates deliberately.
And of course, they are a lie.
The year is not 1897, but likely 2003 or 2004. The people of “the village” have shunned the modern age and its violence (and technology), and have set back the clock over a hundred years. The details of this story bear this out, but the grave-stone is, for me, remains a problem. It answers a question we want answered regarding our orientation as an audience. It knowingly fools us. This date is not something nebulous that can be interpreted two ways (like Abby Crowe crying on her bed with a box of Kleenex), but something that is tangible and defined. And again, it’s a lie.
Now, one might note that it is possible that the families that established the isolated village chose a date, and set the clock and calendar back a hundred years. But why would they do that in an isolated society? If there is no outer world worth visiting the Village, why begin it in 1870, say, instead of 1970? What benefit would that hundred year difference give them? I can’t frankly, see one. The people born and raised in the village would have no idea what “1970” means in terms of context, it’s just a number. So it seems unnecessary to turn back the clock.
In other words, the date on the gravestone smells to me of a bread crumb left to lead us in the wrong direction, and nothing else. There aren’t two possible readings of it, and indeed the gravestone is not mentioned at the end of the film, when the truth is learned about the villagers being people displaced from violent modernity
However -- and it seems to me there’s always a “however” with the films of this talented artist -- it is also true that The Village involves implicitly, at least on some level, lies. Or more aptly, lies as they relate to stories and storytellers.
Walker and the other Elders maintain many lies every day. They maintain the lie of “Those Who Shall Not Be Spoken About.” They maintain the lie of the evil color (red). They maintain the lie of the calendar date. Walker must eventually explain such lies to Ivy, and she must then choose -- with this knowledge -- what to do. Does knowledge of the lie make her life better or worse? Or is the lie, ultimately inconsequential to her happiness?
We can assume that Ivy decides that she still wants the future she had with Lucius before she knew the truth. We cannot blame her for this. We all want what is familiar and safe. Offscreen, she decides that the lie is worth maintaining, because she can still find happiness within its confines.
We must now apply this idea to the film’s storyteller, M. Night Shyamalan. The presence of the grave-stone date pretty much qualifies as a lie. In this case, Shyamalan is showing us an untruth so he can tell this particular story; weave this particular narrative.
How can we judge if that is right?
Well what is the narrative? Is our enjoyment of it worth a lie?
Well, some might view The Village as a narrative about optimism and courage and hope in the young. The world may not be what they want it to be, but they can make it better. The Elders made a choice, and to quote the film “we may question our decisions” -- but their intentions were honorable. They wanted to make a world free of violence and crime; a world that was secure and safe, and free from modernity. They banished the color red (symbolic of blood) and sought to start over. So the film asks us explicitly to consider the idea that it may be okay to lie, if the cause is just.
But is it really right to lie for a good cause (like an entertaining cinematic experience?)
Perhaps Shyamalan felt he had to feature that visual lie -- the gravestone -- because his story of hope and courage, and of generations too, was worth telling. And perhaps, structurally speaking, he felt he needed that date on screen. Perhaps because he didn’t want audiences wondering constantly “when is this taking place?” instead of focusing on the characters and their journey.
I’m not an apologist, however, because I think the artist might have told the same story and subtracted that shot. I think we all would have been okay with that, and indeed that the film would have been improved. But I can see how the idea of “liars” is woven into the actions of the characters (namely the Elders) and reflected, actually, in the structure of the plot.
My other criticism of the film’s structure involves timing. The Village is structured in such a way that Ivy (and therefore the audience) learns the secret of the monsters before she is menaced by one (really Noah Percy dressed in the suit). I submit the movie would be a lot scarier if somehow it were possible to alter the order of things in the third act. So that when Ivy is ensconced in that field of red and menaced by the beast, the audience is still wondering what the hell that thing is. As it stands in the film, we know it’s Noah, and so we feel less fear and uncertainty than we should. We should be gripped with terror, wondering what the hell that thing is.
Similarly, I feel that this is the first film the director's made in which Shyamalan doesn’t demonstrate full faith and trust in the audience. We are probably told one or two too many times by the Elders about people in their families who died. The first time, we go right by it. The second time we understand that it is important information because we have heard it twice. The third time, it plays as obvious that we should be paying attention and anticipating the pay-off. We get that this is Very Important Information.
Were I to re-edit The Village, I would take out the grave-stone shot, remove one reference to a relative being killed in “the Towns” and try to figure out some way to change the timing of when we know the monster is simply Noah. That last one is the tallest order. But I feel the film would be completely rebuilt, and devoid of cognitive noise if those edits were made. Of course, having seen Lady in the Water, I also know exactly what Shymalan thinks of second-guessing movie critics!
So why do I still love The Village and count it as a good film?
Beyond featuring a wonderful central character, Ivy, in some way The Village speaks to the context of the time, 2004. Take out the specific details and you’re looking at a country (the village) which arranges a false flag operation so as to scare its people into compliance and maintain the secrets of its government.
In 2003, of course, our government exaggerated us into the Iraq War. Saddam would use nukes on us, and if we didn’t wage war, the result would be nuclear mushrooms over our cities. How many times did we hear that nonsense?
Well, Saddam neither had nukes, nor the delivery system to launch them into the United States. Yet somehow he became an existential threat that require a very expensive invasion. Never mind that he was a secular bulwark between theocratic nations, preserving the fragile stability of the Middle East...
The point I’m making involves lies (or again, exaggerations). They can be used to get people to do things a government desires. If you drill down the details of The Village even further, a certain color -- red – denotes fear and danger.
And of course, in 2004, Americans were getting used to the new color-coded graph of terrorism, freshly minted by the Department of Homeland Security. And red -- as it is in the film -- was the color of greatest jeopardy. Do colors denote meaning? No, of course not. (Consider, in 1927 Time Magazine was advocating that boys wear pink and girls wear blue...), but colors are often assigned meaning by social engineers in an effect to reinforce cultural norms, or achieve a social end (like validating the choice to go to war).
Overall, The Village appears to suggest that people can be controlled by lies, but simultaneously – in a weird way -- that one needn’t throw away the baby with the bathwater. Walker and the Elders have lied and manipulated the people, and Ivy is sad for them because they have transgressed morally. Walker begs her to forgive his “silly lies.” And to all available evidence, she does. Life is not so bad that it is worth destroying this village to save it.
I think very few film directors could write such lines as “The world moves for love. It kneels before it. In awe,” and get away with it. But William Hurt delivers Shyamalan’s dialogue well, and the focus there is right where it should be: on two people separated by fate, joined at heart. The movie may have some structural problems, but its heart is in the right place.
Sometimes, people we love to silly things, or try to make life perfect, forgetting that “heartache is a part of life.” They stumble in their pursuits. But The Village suggests that their mistakes were made out of love, and that the progeny of those foolhardy people might make a silly dream into a better version of reality.
That’s the social contract, isn’t it? The first generation makes a decision and tries to get things right, failing egregiously along the way. But the next generation starts, inch by inch, to perfect those advances. Watching The Village, and contemplating the lying, pathetic Elders, all I could think was: the future belongs to Ivy Walker, a blind woman who can see better and more clearly than her sighted father. She will address the wrongs of her father, surely.
The Village is, perhaps, the first Shyamalan film that I have considerable reservations about; that I feel isn’t constructed like the steel trap it should be (and like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs really are). It does have some miscues and some faults. But as a love story, and a story of generations, I find it quite beautiful, and quite rewarding. So I forgive the filmmaker the "silly lies" he utilizes to bring us this story and make it all hang together.
I try not to use the term guilty pleasure anymore -- because I don’t generally feel guilty for liking or enjoying films -- but I must confess that The Village is a film I love, and one that I don’t love entirely for rational or cerebral reasons. Making the intellectual case for it has been more difficult than it was, for instance, with Signs.
But the heart wants what it wants, right? I may rationally question my decision to love The Village, but love it I do.
Next up in The Shyamalan Series: Lady in the Water (2007).