Although Lady in the Water was roundly panned, I’ve heard M. Night Shyamalan can make excellent films. I loved Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense, so I watched The Village tonight and plan to watch Signs before the week is out.

Reading George MacDonald proved good preparation for The Village, a tale with mythical elements that are, if nothing else, astoundingly beautiful. Though I know little of the technical elements that make a movie artistically well done, The Village stands out for its gorgeous nature shots, detailed costuming, superb acting and breathtaking score. An amateur like I am couldn’t help fall in love with the world Shyamalan created and his creative team brought to life.

Highlighted by the performances by Joaquim Phoenix and William Hurt, the actors make it look easy. They seemed to take the very long shots Shyamalan decided to take in stride – he chose experienced screen actors for this reason, in fact. Further, the actors were able to get into the bodies of their characters. Bryce Dallas Howard, for instance, played the blind Ivy Walker flawlessly, allowing her character’s vivacity to overcome her handicap, but allow her blindness to get in the way as we would expect. Phoenix played Lucius as quiet and demur but full of bravery and wisdom.

The score also deserves special note. Shyamalan knows how to bring in talent: James Newton Howard wrote the apt eerie music and selected a world-class violinist. The lilting tones of the violin enhance the beauty and mystery of the town.

The plot is simple but gripping (warning: spoilers): A group of villagers is surrounded by a forest in which fierce beasts live, ready to eat any who would wander into their domain. The town is idyllic, though they won’t allow any red to appear because it attracts the beasts. William Hurt, one of seven town elders, teaches the children the legend of the creatures and that the village is formed as a bastion of goodness against the wickedness of the cities. His blind daughter, Ivy, falls in love with the reclusive Lucius and on the night of Ivy’s sister’s wedding they proclaim love for one another (a lovely scene, by the way). The creatures, meanwhile, show up more and more often and begin sending “warnings” to the villagers. Noah, the autistic friend of Ivy and Lucius, stabs Lucius the next morning apparently out of jealousy. His parents, elders in the town, lock him up while the doctor tells Ivy and the rest of the town that Lucius has an infection and will die without medicine.

Hurt’s character lets Ivy go to the town to find medicine. Before sending her off, however, he tells her that he and the other elders invented the story of the creatures in order to preserve the innocense of the townspeople. She believes him and hastens off to save her lover. Despite his assurances, she meeets one of the creatures which dies in an attempt to kill her. It turns out to be an escaped Noah. Ivy finds the medicine and brings it back to save Lucius while the elders reunite to keep the ruse going and help Ivy and Lucius to lead the next generation.

I hate to pan any aspect of this brilliant film, but two elements in the plot bother me. First, the idea that an elite class has the moral justification to tell a lie to others to preserve their goodness/innocence is despicable. It’s a Huxleian Brave New World situation, which allows for moral relativism by the “noble” and “sacrificial” leaders to preserve the simple, innocent masses. Of course, Hurt’s character, the ringleader, taught at an Ivy League University – a realistic move given that such ideas tend to originate in that kind of institution. On top of this, artificial preservation of innocence is an impossible task. Shyamalan doesn’t let us know what he means by innocence at any point, but we assume it means seeing bad things hapen given that the elders embarked on the retreat due to the pain of loss by modern, urban violence. The implied conclusion here is that those who see no evil, do no evil. Consultation of any good parents will quickly dispel this notion. Tormenting one’s little brother or sister comes as naturally to a child as running to mommy and daddy for comfort. Evil, I’m truly sorry to say, is not a learned behavior. Incidentally, this truth is the cause of the failure of every attempt at utopia – American history is full of such endeavors. A very tight film like The Village can make us forget, but Laws don’t make people good at the end of the day.

On a much more minor note, I was frustrated that Ivy goes on a heroic mission to save Lucius and not vice versa. This is where reading MacDonald was bad preparation for the film. I expected the quiet knight to ride forth and overcome his internal vices to save his damsel in distress. (This is all so politically incorrect I don’t know what will become of me.) I hasten to add that a strong female character like Ivy doesn’t bother me. In fact, she is the perfect antidote to Lucius’ relectance and reclusivity. Howard’s performance leaves me utterly eager to see her star as Shakespeare’s strongest female character, Rosalind, in my favorite of the Bard’s comedies As You Like It. However, I think the scene where Ivy gropes her way through the dark forest loses some of its impact because she isn’t able to maintain the focus on the object of her quest the same way the Lucius character could have. I tended to forget what she was out there for because her fear (and her blindness) distracted. I wanted someone to go save her. But maybe this desire can be chalked up to a few too many fairy tales. Incidentally, Hurt’s lines that her love would keep her safe and that love makes the world move were powerful and true. I never doubted Ivy’s ability to successfully complete the mission. I hope my reader has ears to hear what I’m saying…

Notwithstanding my two complaints – the first much greater than the second – The Village was a beautiful film that I heartily recommend. Shyamalan may have failed with Lady in the Water, but you can rest assured that his ripe creativity will produce another cinematic feast for us in the near future.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

7 Comments

  1. I’d love to hear your thoughts on Signs (one of my favorite movies). I have an interesting take on a very Christian theme in it, but I’ll hold off saying anything until you’ve seen it.

    I agree with you that The Village is a great movie. Even though I knew the basic plot sketch and even the twist before I saw it, I was still completely enthralled by it.

    I do want to take issue with your first complaint, however. I think Shyamalan was actually arguing against utopia in the movie. I thought what he was trying to say was look at this perfect and idyllic world, where the elders have thought of everything. They’ve been in control of it all and have truly created a paradise. But even here, the one thing they sought to remove – the very reason for creating all of this – cannot be prevented. They’ve removed all the normal explanations for violence and murder, and are left with simply the blackness of the human heart.

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  2. I also think that Shyamalan was arguing against utopia. The elders had taken every precaution to bar evil (from which they had fled) from the village. Yet the same evil attacked them from within. It is yet another paradoxical tragedy that always befalls those who run to extremes.

    “The Village” was an amazing movie. My only complaint was that painful last scene wherein the elders decided to continue “this place.” They should’ve learned.

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  3. “First, the idea that an elite class has the moral justification to tell a lie to others to preserve their goodness/innocence is despicable.”

    Hmm… funny. Remember reading that in Republic somewhere.

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  4. Brant
    They’ve been in control of it all and have truly created a paradise. But even here, the one thing they sought to remove – the very reason for creating all of this – cannot be prevented. They’ve removed all the normal explanations for violence and murder, and are left with simply the blackness of the human heart.

    I thought about this interpretation but rejected it. The reason is that Noah (Adrien Brody’s character) is mentally retarded and thus not (as) accountable for his actions. I wouldn’t call his heart “black.” I think Shyamalan is careful to portray Noah as likeable and innocent in the beginning of the film – he’s so playful! (Brody is an incredible actor, as far as my uneducated opinion goes.) If it were one of the elders, I would be on board with your interpretation in a second. But since Noah is the “bad guy” – it sounds funny to call him that – I must conclude that Shyamalan’s point is not to illustrate the failed nature of utopias.

    Also, the elders at the end of the film decide to continue their utopia. Now they even have fresh ammunition since Noah has, in Hurt’s words, “made their stories real.” They also have let the younger generation in on the secret, so they can propogate the village myth. I don’t see the condemnation of utopianism here, but instead a film firmly advocating it!

    I’d love to hear a counter-argument and I’m willing (even hoping) to be persuaded because I love Shyamalan’s films.

    The Signs discussion will have to wait until another day. It was awesome, though!

    ——-
    Jim,
    Hmm… funny. Remember reading that in Republic somewhere.

    Remember, the city in words is an image of the soul. The project is to find out what justice in the soul is by looking at justice in a city in words, i.e. a pretend city. Don’t make the same mistake as Socrates interlocuters in Book IV and get caught up in the weird city Socrates creates!

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  5. Ah, Andrew, but for the image to be true–for an argument from analogy to work–doesn’t the analogy also have to ring true? In other words, if I declare “democracy is like a three-layer cake,” and then describe how the bottom layer is made of gravel–and then argue that “hey, it’s just an analogy”–hasn’t that defeated the point of my analogy?

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  6. Jim,

    That is a good question that I don’t totally have worked out yet. I think Socrates isn’t quite making an argument by analogy in the formal logical sense. I think he is doing something more like crafting a picture that makes clear the distinction between the various parts of the soul.

    Remember that in book 2 the interlocutors object to the simple city Socrates initially creates (the “city fit for pigs”) and beg him to make one with extravagances. This seems to indicate that Socrates has other ideas, but modifies his strategy to keep his interlocutors interested in the good.

    The other reason I think Plato doesn’t want us to take the city in words in the Republic seriously is that in his Laws, the project of which is explicitly to create a functional, real life city, the Athenian Stranger and friends don’t have crazy things like women in common and lies to the peasants.

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  7. The question isn’t whether Socrates-er-Plato considers lying to the peasantry ideal, but if he shares the intuition that it’s somehow immoral.

    Anyhow, the initial jab was in jest. In truth, The Village is a pompous, insipid, torpid piece of blather as pitifully self-righteous as its lead character, and one of the dullest films I have seen in some time. M. Night Shyamalan is the worst kind of hack: a hack with a message.

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