If you could walk away from the horrors and hardships of modern life and start over fresh, hand-picking elements from the past upon which to base your new society, would you? Ideas like this and more are at the heart of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, one of the most underrated and flat out misunderstood films of the 21st century – there, I said it. After a decade of being widely accepted as the film that started the downfall of director Shyamalan’s career, further reflection actually reveals it to be among his strongest efforts, and given how beloved his earlier works were and still are, that’s no faint praise. Something which was marketed as a schlocky summer fright-fest instead turned out to be a moving, hopeful allegory about the inherent flaws in isolationism. Simplistic, perhaps, but it’s food for thought that’s accessible enough for a wider audience to stomach, although certainly not what everyone was expecting during its initial run in theaters. That being said, did this film’s failure to meet a certain set of expectations make it a failure altogether?
The plot concerns a community of people in a period setting that have chosen to isolate themselves from the outside world, and have settled down in a village surrounded by dense woods which may or may not be inhabited by large humanoid creatures, preventing the townspeople from ever stepping foot outside of their community. But soon enough, violence, disease, and heartache slowly begin to encroach upon the townsfolk and their way of life, despite being totally separated from the outside world, and the elders of the village begin to learn that innocence cannot flourish in a society founded upon lies and deception. Pretty heady stuff for a film marketed to the public as the next big scare fest from Hollywood’s current blockbuster darling, and maybe not necessarily what general audience members were either willing or ready to deal with at the time.
Indeed, of all the areas to place the blame for this film’s initial backlash and longstanding reputation as a career destroyer for M. Night Shyamalan, the biggest and most obvious culprit is the marketing. Fresh off a succession of widely beloved supernatural thrillers, some advertising genius (who was hopefully waiting in an unemployment line the day after this film premiered) thought it would a good idea to market this as the next big horror fright-fest a la The Blair Witch Project or The Ring, a fact which is further exemplified in the film’s damn near unwatchable trailer. The truth of the matter was that this wasn’t a horror film – far from it, actually – but closer in spirit to a classical romance in the tradition of Jane Austen and Emily Bronte. Only this fable came with a moral dimension absent from most pre-modern storytelling. Upon revisiting The Village, it becomes even more apparent that it’s not really about the infamous third act twist or moments of fear and danger, but something more wistful, romantic, and foreboding.
If there’s one thing most people can agree that this film did right, it’s launching the career of then newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard, playing the lead role of the blind tomboy Ivy Walker, who proves in one single performance to be a more talented actress than her father [Ron Howard] is a director. Eleven years later, and she still has yet to top her work in this film, but given the strength of this breakout role of hers, that’s hardly a detriment. Ivy Walker is just the type of well-rounded, complicated female role that you don’t see that much of in mainstream Hollywood productions anymore, and the rest of the cast fares equally well. Joaquin Phoenix turns in a solid, understated performance as the incredibly shy Lucius Hunt, who has the starring role for the first half of the film, as well as featuring supporting turns Adrien Brody, Sigourney Weaver, and William Hurt in one of his least bland roles.
Now about that twist ending. While ultimately a tad predictable, it’s the sort of twist that exists firstly to serve the story and push forward the underlying thematic content of the film, rather than being there just for the sake of an empty “GOTCHA!” moment. At the very least, it helps that this final revelation is communicated mostly from a visual standpoint and without too much reliance on expository dialogue; a virtue M. Night Shyamalan unfortunately abandoned in his more recent films. And furthermore, one must also understand the context in which this film was made in order to fully grasp and appreciate what it was going for.
See, The Village was released in mid-2004, the same summer that saw the even more blatantly topical The Day After Tomorrow, and a period of time within the height of the presidential reign of George W. Bush. During that time, many people were still trapped in a post-9/11 sort of mindset, with more than a few citizens seriously considering leaving the country altogether, rather than enduring one more morning paper containing headlines of death tolls from the Middle East, or stories of free speech being punished. The truth is that the world can sometimes be an awfully cruel place, and the temptation to escape to somewhere else is always looming. While hardly a definitive solution to the problem, this film offers up a pretty likely outcome to such a scenario. As stated in the film, you simply cannot outrun the heartache and drama that life has to offer. However fearful, it’s always a better decision to face the troubles in your life head on, and if you can manage to do so with a loved one at your side, all the better.
Unfortunately, it’s not all that surprising that a film as earnest and nakedly emotional as The Village had so many detractors, especially for those who were misled by the marketing and went in expecting a plain old monster flick. But between the understated yet nonetheless effective emotional core, exquisite cinematography from Roger Deakins, and the luscious musical score (of which composer James Newton Howard has yet to match), this is a heartbreaking testament to the lengths we go for the people we love. In fact, the very essence of the film could be perfectly summed up in a quote from William Hurt’s character: “The world moves for love, and kneels before it in awe.” Go share your love, everyone, and Happy Valent – oh wait, it’s March.