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The Village

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M. Night Shyamalan's newest film, The Village, is an uncanny journey to America’s heart of darkness. Less a sustained teaser like his earlier films – The Sixth Sense and Signs – The Village feels like a sort of fable, or commentary on our national character, rather than a suspenseful thriller.


Whether you enjoy the film or not will depend entirely on your level of expectation. The Village is a dismal failure as a vehicle for the sort of explosive twist we’ve come to expect from a Shyamalan film. This doesn’t make it a bad film, only a poor example of the cunning reversal and possibly a fan letdown.


The village of Covington is dark, occulted and strange, part of an America ripe with secrets: A nation of guilty trespassers and people with histories they’d rather forget or bury underground. The grotesque fiend at the window is just the outer-most sign of the thing growing below the surface, in the root cellars and crypts.


You don’t want to dig too deep in this world. You never know what might be beneath that fertile soil, trying to burrow its way out of you, what sort of thing has been aborted and buried there, what mysteries you might unwittingly reveal. This culture of secrecy bears down on the residents of Covington, a small, close-knit colonial New England village.


Covington has a very special secret. The township is penned in, isolated, cut off from the rest of the world. The village elders have made a pact with the things that live in the wooded darkness, promising never to go beyond the prescribed barriers.


This fear taints the tiny utopia, leaving its imprint in every villager. Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) and Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) are young lovers denied the bourgeois pleasures of fitting in because they live in prolonged terror and dread. Lucius in particular feels the pull of youthful wanderlust and domestic duty, feels that he must slay the dragons penning his people in, while fearing for Ivy’s safety.


Noah Percy (Adrien Brody) is emotionally and mentally unstable, but his parents have never ventured outside of the village to enlist help. Instead of learning how to be a fully participating member of the community he has been reduced to a sort of shared burden, a ‘village idiot.’


The schoolmaster, Edward Walker (William Hurt), lectures his pupils out the meaning of the watchers in the woods, not the A, B, Cs, and keeps them on the edge of their seats as he discusses how these monsters had spared the village. Parents shield their children from the horror of the creatures, but the real beast is inside them, cocooned in their fear.


The elders’ pact binds their children to this life, to the fearful co-existence with nameless monsters, and the entire town attempts to appease the creatures through sacrificial offerings and altering even their most basic behavior. But even carefully obeying these rules does not ensure that the creatures will keep the peace, and odd invasions are not at all odd at Covington.


A series of weird invasions begin after Lucius violates the boundaries of the village. He feels that the town has been breeched because he disobeyed the law, and tries to make amends for his crime, but the trespasses increase and livestock are left skinned and dead after a wedding ceremony.


The film builds momentum slowly, relying on quiet scenes and charged dialog, but its climax, when it releases its secret twist, is ultimately unrewarding. It’s not just that the turn is predictable – anyone who didn’t catch onto the real plot behind the Sixth Sense probably shouldn’t be allowed in an adult movie – but that it seems contrived, self-consciously clever, more like an episode of the Twilight Zone than a feature film.


All the pregnant anticipation fizzled from the audience at the showing I attended. The collective deflation was a palpable force – like a wet balloon letting go in the middle of a birthday party – and some people were still grumbling when I walked out of the theater. The irony is, of course, that these people paid to have their expectations defied, and Shyamalan does just this in The Village.


No one would predict such a forced ending to a film that otherwise conducted itself as a stylish and intense psychological thriller. What saves the film, in my estimation, is the excellent direction, fine acting and thoughtful delivery.


The Village is in part a commentary on American life and its foundation of fear and isolation. It reveals how our utopian dreams are interwoven with irrationality, madness and fear. Fear and love are bedfellows in our collective imagination, and we cannot escape what we create ourselves.

 

The film is also a critique of the Baby Boomers, that generation that went from believing in the enduring power of innocence to overprotecting and stifling their children in two short decades. In the sixties these people championed cleansing the doors of perception and returning to Edenic communes, not unlike Covington; but a large number of them live in gated communities by now, bug their children’s rooms, and now see the garden of innocent love (sexuality) as fallen adults.


Covington is a fallen Eden, not only because it seeks to ensnarl its youths using fear, but also because it conceals a dark secret, transforming the power of love into a sort of web of deceit.


Shyamalan's scenes are genuinely scary. He has a knack for framing his subjects in innovative ways, so that a lot of the action appears off screen, or we catch a glimpse of something otherworldly out of the corners of our eyes. The film leaves a lot to the imagination, and The Village seems eerily like a territory of the mind, rather than a real place.


An atmospheric and uncanny film, The Village is also a unusually thoughtful and poignant film exploring a failed American utopia.

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