Weekend Watch: The Village
28 September 2018 15:00
The Village marked something of a change of fortune for M. Night Shyamalan. Until its release in 2004, he’d been regarded as the golden boy of his generation: after a couple of underseen indie films, he’d announced himself with The Sixth Sense (1999), a genuine phenomenon and a huge hit to boot. This he had followed with Unbreakable (2000) and Signs (2002), each earning breathless comparisons with Spielberg or even Hitchcock.
Such comparisons were not made for The Village; it attracted harsh notices from previously supportive critics. And since Shyamalan’s subsequent films – The Lady in the Water (2006) and The Happening (2008) – were regarded as greater disasters still, The Village has been retrospectively recategorised as the film in which everything started to go wrong, the first step towards the nadir of The Last Airbender (2010).
This must be challenged. The Village is a far better film than popular memory allows, with levels of atmosphere and intrigue rare in contemporary, mainstream cinema. However, to talk about the film in the depth it deserves requires a confidence to be broken. Shyamalan at this time fancied himself the king of the twist – it had served him well enough for The Sixth Sense, after all – and duly foisted one on The Village.
There will be some who prefer to discover the secret for themselves, and they are entitled to do so – although it should be noted that many of the angrier reviews came from those who found the switcheroo gave them whiplash. But The Village may be the only film to improve from having its twist spoiled in advance: it certainly gains in richness on repeat viewings.
It is set in a remote village in Pennsylvania – in 1897, if the most recent tombstone is to be believed. Presided over by a group of benevolent elders (headed by William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver and Brendan Gleeson), it is a seeming idyll, with good land and fine people. However, it is not quite perfect.
The village is surrounded by woods on all sides and in the woods live the things known as ‘those we don’t speak of’ – even though they are discussed with some regularity. ‘Those we don’t speak of’ are monsters, with fierce talons and quills poking through their red cloaks. (Red is the colour of danger here; yellow – the safe colour – keeps them away). A truce has been established. There will be peace so long as the villagers stay out of the woods. This, though, means that they are entirely cut off from the wider world.
‘Those we don’t speak of’ are not monsters but mere pretence, a costume worn by the elders to keep the younger generation from going into the woods because, if they journeyed on, they’d find a fence. Beyond that fence, they’d find the modern world.
The elders created the village. They’d all suffered great loss and wanted to raise families safe from the horrors at large. To watch the film with this in mind is to ponder the ambitions, the tragedies and the ethics of the idea. These are not bad people – The Village isn’t Dogtooth (2009), that fine Greek film about imaginatively abusive parents; it’s only too easy to understand why they might have wanted to retreat to a simpler time. But they can’t shut out sadness (the film begins with a child’s funeral, a child modern medicine might have saved), nor human passion (someone is stabbed over an affair of the heart). Above all, it’s based on a foundation of lies.
There’s a political dimension to all this too, one that resonates even more loudly today. Doesn’t the village embody the sort of aggressive nostalgia that’s shaping political discourse around the world right now? It is the ultimate safe space: a return to a prelapsarian golden age, and one with its own self-reinforcing mythology to boot. Woke viewers will observe there are no people of colour here and that, while women are empowered to a certain degree, they still fulfil traditional roles.
Shyamalan leaves his characters in limbo. Over the course of the film, cracks have started to appear in the façade and, although the elders seemingly decide to continue their experiment, we must wonder what will happen next.
These days, the director is out of movie jail: his most recent film Split (2016) was deemed a return to form. Is it too much to hope he might venture back into the woods? After all, what better time could there be to show us what happens when the youngsters find out what their parents have done to them?