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.