Thursday, 2 June 2011

An analysis of "M. Night Shyamalan's The Village"

                                                                                  
Warning: Spoilers Ahead 

I'm interested to see how director M. Night Shyamalan will be percieved thirty or fifty years from now. I'll be in my seventies by then and I'll either be telling my grandkids how poorly recieved some of his films used to be even if they're looked upon more fondly by then, or I may be having to explain why I like elements of his films that people still hate. I would hope The Sixth Sense (1999) his breakthrough film would retain the stature it has now and would have evolved in to an acknowledged horror classic. I think something like Unbreakable, which some actually regard as his best film also seems like a film which could gain in stature. I also think Signs, which is my favourite of Shyamalan's films, should be reavaluated. In particular, I'm interested to see how  The Village ages. The Village is a film that invokes strong emotions from people. In a way, I think its practically impossible to have a neurtral opinion on this film, you either hate it and think Shyamalan's signature twist ending silly and cheap, or you love it, thinking it has quite a beautiful love story at its center, and is an interesting parrable on the time in which it was made.

In the late seventies an American history professor named Edward Walker (William Hurt) approached a group of people he met at a grief counselling clinic after his father was murdered with an idea. The idea was to use his wealthy father's money to build a secluded town in the middle of a nature preserve. The elders also create a myth of "those we do not speak of," creatures that haunt the woods but do not come in to the village because of a truce. The elders have also set the clock back to the 19th century. As the film opens we see from the tombstone of August Nicholson's (Brendan Gleeson) recently deceased son that it is 1897 within this self contained world. Now, what I have just said about the creation of the village is only revealed at end of the film and I think this may be where the problems with the film start. The concept of people overcome by grief who retreat in to a artficially created world is for me fascinating. Thinking about The Village's twists, I'd wish Shymalan would have disregarded the twist ending and played the film straight, revealing this twist early on, and possibly showing flashbacks to the seventies. This is not to say that an absence of flashbacks in the film is a huge flaw; that single photograph Shymalan shows us near the end of the film with the elders of the village is extremely haunting, particularly with the voiceover of the actors discussing what brought them to the grief counselling center. I like the implications of the ending but I feel that Shyamalan leaves us with these implications rather than fully explore them. Now, to be fair, he does explore issues of innocence, fear, bravery and seclusion throughout the film, themes which relate to the ending, but they are explored while tip toeing around the actual situation these characters are in; and even on subsequent viewings this tip toeing is still present.

What I find most interesting about the first twist in this film is how Shyamalan is using his most familar trademark to order to subvert the expectations of a M. Night Shyamalan film. His three previous films, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable (2000), and Signs (2002), stayed true to the supernatural or other worldly aspects that were established in the films, and actually reinforced by the endings. In The Sixth Sense, Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is one of the ghosts Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) is able to see; in Unbreakable, Elijah Prince (Samuel L. Jackson) is the supervillian to David Dunn's (Bruce Willis) superhero, and in Signs, the aliens are revealed to be completely real. In The Village, on the other hand, the first twist subverts the supernatural aspects of the film, revealing The Village to be very different than his previous three films. We of course learn that the creatures are not real when Edward reveals the truth to his blind daughter Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard). The final twist, which establishes that the villagers are not in the 19th century but in the 21st, can also be seen as subverting the expectations of a Shyamalan film because we have also come to expect that the worlds Shyamalan's characters occupy are also going to stay true to what has been established, which also relates to the presence of the supernatural.

By not revealing the secrets of the village until the end, Shyamalan seems to want it both ways in this film: he wants to provide a supernatural mystery that became his signature in The Sixth Sense but at the same subvert these expectations and provide a religious and political parrable that is pretty much distanced from the supernatural. I think the balance pretty much works because Shyamalan is pretty light on the suspense sequences in this film. Seeing the film knowing the twist, I think one can sense that Shyamalan is already preparing the audience for the realization that the supernatural does have as firm existence as in his previous films, as well as allowing the audience to adjust themselves to the fact that this is Shyamlan's first genuine romance film. Romance was there in The Sixth Sense but I think the romance of the film only becomes apparent in the last scene. I do really like the romance between Lucius and Ivy, particularly the porch scene where Ivy asks Lucius if he'll dance with her on their wedding night.

Ivy and Lucius are two points of a love triangle that also includes the mentally challenged Noah Percy (Adrien Brody). I find that Brody's performance is both limited in terms of screen time and also character dimension. I think Shyamalan made Noah mentally challenged to make him more sympathethic as well as reinforce how the fear of the outside world stopped the elders or anyone else going to get medicine to help Noah's condition. He is sympathetic but as I said, he's too much of a cypher. I believe that Shyamalan is dealing with the most characters up to this point in his filmography, particularly compared to his previous film Signs. I feel that juggling this amount of characters makes Shyamalan not so much unsure of who is important but that everyone seems to become important but many of characters aren't developed enough. I find it disappointing that Lucius gets stabbed by a jealous Noah about an hour in to the film, then spending the rest of the film in a coma, particularly since it seemed that it arch wasn't yet completed. I think Lucius should have gotten sick so then he could still regain consciousness and still feel a part of the story aside from just a character who needs to be saved.

This is not only Shyamalan's first genuine romance film but it's also his first female driven film, with Ivy becoming the one who ventures to the towns to save the man she loves' life. Sigourney Weaver, who plays Lucius's mother, probably saw a connection between the emergence of Ivy as the heroine and the character she played in Alien, Ellen Ripley, who by the end of that film became the heroine, and thus becoming  the central frigure of the Alien franchise. Ivy of course is a softer character than Ripley, more vulnerable I find. I've always loved Howard's performance in this film. I think her performance has the most life to it than the rest of the cast, which I feel is intentional. She has a transcendent, almost otherworldy quality to her in this film, which is why we can believe that the reserved Lucius could fall in love with her. I also like Phoenix in this film; he conveys conviction and a bravery in the face of fear, a fear that he later states relates to Ivy's safety, very well.

While Shyamalan's screenwriting can be fairly criticized, I think that Shaymalan's visual sense, his feel for composition and editing, is something that even his distractors could learn to admire. Some of his images could even be paintings, they're so well thought out and quietly beautiful, particularly in the porch scene.Unfortunately, One feels like Shyamalan's formalism can feel too constricting, that he is too much focused on his carefully storyboarded images than moving every single scene forward as dynamically as he should.

When The Village was released in the summer of 2004, the Second Gulf War had only just begun the year prior, and the events of September 11, 2001 had happened less than three years prior. I think the film speaks to the time in which it was made, as well as the years following its release because it captures the fear of the "other" that I think was and still is prevalent today in Northern America. Many of Shyamlan's films deal with the element of fear and how one confronts his or her fears, whether it be Cole in The Sixth Sense, who sees ghosts, Elijah in Unbrekable, who is afraid of not having a purpose in the world, or Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) in Signs, afraid of not being able to protect his family. The Village, at its core is about how fear of our world can make people want to hide away from it, to go back to a simpler time. This same fear is what the elders use to subjugate the other villagers, except they disguise it with the myths of the creatures.

I'm still divided about The Village but I nevertheless love parts of this film and overall I like it. It is a continuing fascinating exploration of how fear can corrupt the human experience yet even in the most morally ambiguous of situations, hope can still presevere.  



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