Filmed back in the good old days when M. Night Shyamalan still knew how to make movies, The Village is probably one of the most underrated and most misunderstood films out there, boasting a captivating heroine, an ageless story and a mastery of the subtle, psychological terror that typifies its unfortunate director’s earlier films.
In an unnamed, rural American village in the late 1800’s lives a small, closed community of people that have entered into a truce with the creatures that populate the wood that surrounds their home on all sides. Each leaves the other alone, in exchange for no breach of borders. This has effectively cut the village off from the outside world, subjecting it to many of the tragic disadvantages that such a situation implies, exemplified by the film’s simple but moving opening portrayal of the funeral of a seven year old boy. Moved by the death of this child, with whom he had bonded, Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) asks permission to travel through the woods to the outside world, or ‘the towns’ to collect medicines that may save others from a similar fate. Having ascertained that the mentally-challenged Noah Percy (Adrien Brody), whom I hesitate the call the village idiot, has entered the woods before, he is convinced that the creatures will not harm him. Following this request, the village is soon bombarded by a variety of gruesome breaches of their border that positively scream ‘keep out,’ triggering an escalated fear of the woods and what lies within them. It’s only when Lucius is mortally wounded on the morning of his engagement that his young, blind fiancée Ivy Walker (a sublime Bryce Dallas Howard) decides to enter the woods and go to the towns to find the medicine that will save him. Her journey is a fierce, numbing, terrifying crossing across a world of fear rendered all the more dreadful by her heightened sense of hearing and stubborn determination to keep going no matter what.
Bryce Dallas Howard is mesmerising and luminous as the fiercely passionate and sanguine Ivy. She steers clear of stereotype by maintaining perfect equilibrium between the wild, red-haired tomboy and the sweet, feminine young girl. Having only the dimmest notion of what ‘sight’ actually is, she is not accustomed to hiding her emotions in her face. In consequence, she’s vividly raw and expressive; her smiles unashamedly wide, disarming and infectious; her moments of terror an intimate-feeling vision of dread and panic. The success of the film’s entire last act rests solely on her shoulders as she travels alone through the woods. Her universe, which she has previously known only as comprising familiar village sounds and presences, suddenly becomes a nightmarish, claustrophobic sound world in which each rustle or snapping of a twig signifies a black hole of fear, despair, helplessness and potential death. Shyamalan makes extensive use of the symbolism of woods in folklore as representing journeying, coming of age, the supernatural, and the potential for losing oneself, all of which influence Dallas Howard’s performance. The wood seems to swallow Ivy up, to deliberately put her on the wrong path and to lead her into danger, and our ordinary perceptions join with Ivy’s heightened ones to create an atmosphere than shimmers menacingly with fear, danger and sinister beauty.
Yet living alongside Ivy’s fear, we see a grim determination and courage that stems from the endurance of horror for the sake of love and which is ultimately what makes this slight, blind girl run deeper and deeper into a place she has feared her entire life. Ivy’s blinding light bonds perfectly with Joaquin Phoenix’s taciturn, yet somehow magnetic Lucius, who possesses an undefinable ability to lead and an unassuming courage and leaning towards the new while still wishing to preserve the old. Phoenix’s ability to convey all this through a character that is established from the beginning as being overly-fond of silence is very impressive, but if this film belongs to anyone, it belongs to Dallas Howard. Much of the film’s gorgeous soundtrack is influenced by her character, so that even in the rare moments when she’s not on screen, her presence is constantly felt.
Much of the film’s action spirals out from the isolation of its setting. The village is a place founded to ensure the protection of innocence, and is consequently free of corrupting elements; there’s no money, for instance; its young men and women marry for love; and even in adult characters there is a youthful playfulness and laughter in the way they go about their lives. Its inhabitants speak a gorgeous hybrid of English that I would love to think was conceived especially for the movie, but which I am inclined to think resulted from Shyamalan’s lack of knowledge as to how people spoke in the 19th century. Wherever it comes from, the way the characters speak only adds to the utopian air of their lives. But while the village does indeed aim and often succeeds to be a kind of utopian society, it is founded not merely on innocence but also on hatred and pain; a hatred of the modern world and of the sorrow that living in it brings. It shows us what people are willing to do to avoid sorrow, but also details how, in a society made to protect innocence and exclude strife, sorrow still follows humanity wherever it goes and wherever it tries to escape to.
This constant shadow is ever present in the faces and voices of the village elders, the commanding screen presences of old guard actors like William Hurt, Brendan Gleeson and Sigourney Weaver keeping it constantly in the foreground, where it lies hidden in plain sight from the young and carefree. To those who know something of the outside world, living is sorrow; and life, their life, has always been the choosing of one sorrow over another that they consider far greater. But is this choice right? It is left to the viewer to decide.
Widely hated and ridiculed, The Village garnered largely bad to average reviews at the time of its release, with many critics seeing it as the first level in M. Night Shyamalan’s fall from grace. What it really is is the peak of Shyamalan’s career: he simply peaked too quickly. The cinematography is gorgeous, the script highly aesthetic, and the acting first class. It is only after this film that things started to get as spectacularly bad as they are today.