The Village, dir. M. Night Shyamalan

Touchstone Pictures

Starring: Adrien Brody, Bryce Dallas Howard, Joaquin Phoenix, Sigourney Weaver

Reviewed by Djibril

This film has been much reviewed already, and the twist is probably no surprise to anybody any more; like most Shyamalan films, though, this doesn't much matter, as the story does not revolve around a surprise ending like a Tales of the Unexpected episode. Rather is it more subtle surprises, moments where the film misleads with apparent clichés or stereotypes, and then impresses by being less obvious than it might have been.

The village in question is a small, independent, 19th century community, isolated from the rest of the world (and especially from the evil of "the towns") by a haunted forest. The terrifying creatures who dwell in this forest, who are not to be named nor discussed, have a fragile truce with the villagers, and the dividing line between the two territories is religiously observed. In addition, the people of the village have to avoid the colour red at all costs, as this will attract the monsters.

The villagers live a life of simple self-sufficiency, of stoicism in the face of tragedy, and of almost puritan innocence; only the members of the small council of elders have ever known life outside the village, suffered in the towns, and chosen to seclude themselves from it all—everyone else has grown up here. The first subtle sign that all is not as it seems is in the opening sequence, where two women in puritan dress are sweeping a porch; we have an uncomfortable moment of foreboding as we expect a puritan, religious, repressed community, when suddenly the women begin to dance with their brooms (as stereotypical puritans would not be allowed to), and indeed the mores of the village turn out to be far freer, more open, and happier than the moment had led us to expect. As far as I recall, religion is never actually mentioned in the movie.

It is against the background of this life: happy and innocent on the one hand, shadowed by fear of the forest monsters and sobered by the tragedy of the occasional death by preventable illness that they just do not have the medicines to treat on the other, that we are introduced to the relationship between three friends. Ivy (Dallas Howard) is a blind girl, wise beyond her years; Lucius (Phoenix) is the eldest boy in the village, quiet, serious, and troubled; Moses (Brody) has what we should now call learning difficulties: he is a child in mind and emotions but a man in body and hormones, is rebellious and sometimes violent, and only Ivy can keep him under control. Lucius works up the courage to petition the elders to be allowed to go to the towns to purchase medicines and other urgent supplies, but they dare not allow him to enter the accursed forest.

It is when the monsters start to break the truce of non-interference with the village that the film's first weakness emerges: the monsters are quite frightening until we first see them in the flesh, and then their plastic, puppet-like appearance spoils the effect altogether for the audience, and they are no longer quite so effective. At this point, however, there are other horrors to take their place. Lucius is badly injured in a jealous attack, and the elders have a new moral dilemma: they suffered bereavement and disfigurement through disease and accident with stoicism, but for the first time the community has suffered from a violent crime, precisely what they left the towns to escape. It is harder now to justify not turning to the towns for the help which could save him.

The key to this film, in my view, is not the horror or the suspense, but the ethical implications of the elders' choice to withdraw from the wicked world outside. They have created an idyllic society, in the most part self-sufficient, where children play safely in the streets, adults work the land and live on the fuits of their own labours, where the whole community pulls together, celebrates together, grieves together. The downside of this utopia is not that they live without effective medicine—they accept this as the price of their indepence—but that they live in a state of deliberately imposed superstitious ingnorance of reality. On one hand this superstition is useful: their innate phobia of any sign of the colour red will prevent blood from being spilled (although I wonder how such a society deals with the phenomenon of menstruation, not to mention a sunset?). On the other hand, though, this deception is Plato's "useful lie", the justification for religious repression throughout the ages, the claim that we humans need a mythical threat and a legendary ten commandments in order to become virtuous. Humanists vehemently reject this claim.

If this is the argument, however, then The Village shows both sides of it, and allows the viewer to decide. This is a more subtle film than many; it soul-searches on occasion, never preaches. The story is also excellent, so if you are not of a philosophical bent, then do go along just for the ride.

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