In Defense of M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Village’
Spoilers for The Village follow below.
“You may run from sorrow as we have. Sorrow will find you. It can smell you.”
So says Brendan Gleeson’s August Nicholson early in M. Night Shymalan’s The Village, as the character is reeling from the death of his child. Indeed, the very first scene in The Village is a funeral, as we watch Nicholson grieve over his young son’s grave. Of course, this wasn’t what audiences came in expecting. The Village was marketed as a terrifying thriller from the filmmaker behind The Sixth Sense. A “creatures in the woods” story with a premise ripe for a huge twist ending. This was what audiences were primed for, not a meditative drama about grief, loss, and the ways in which we as humans try to move on from sorrow. And it’s part of the reason why The Village, in many ways, was the film that broke the Shyamalan streak, leading us on a path towards disasters like The Happening and The Last Airbender. But I’m here to argue that The Village is Good, Actually.
When talking about The Village it’s important to consider context. Shyamalan became an overnight sensation with 1999’s The Sixth Sense, which not only earned a Best Picture nomination but became a true word-of-mouth hit as audiences couldn’t wait to discuss the shocking ending with their friends. The $40 million dramatic thriller grossed an insane $672.8 million—to put that into modern day context, this character-centric drama outgrossed Man of Steel, Iron Man 2, and Batman Begins, and that’s without even taking inflation into account.
So Shyamalan was huge. His next project, the superhero deconstruction Unbreakable, wasn’t as big a hit as The Sixth Sense but audience interest was still piqued, and the film’s twist ending solidified this touch as a signature of Shyamalan’s. Next after that was 2000’s Signs, Shyamalan’s take on an alien story albeit with a heavy dramatic bent. Signs was a big deal. Solid reviews, solid box office. So after his superhero movie and his religion-tinged alien movie, The Village was touted as a straight-up thriller if not an outright horror movie in the vein of The Sixth Sense. The trailers promised an intense, scary story about violent creatures threatening a peaceful 19th century settlement.
And here’s where I think the film ran into trouble. For its first half it plays the thriller aspect pretty straight, leading us to believe the creatures in the woods are real and something sinister is threatening this peaceful settlement. But once it’s revealed that there are no creatures, that in fact they were a construct made up by the town’s Elders as a deterrent to keep people from leaving, the air is let out of the balloon. Speaking from experience as one of those audience members who came in ready to be scared to death, this reveal was a huge letdown. And it doesn’t even come at the end of the movie.
So the scenes following this big reveal, in which Bryce Dallas Howard’s character Ivy is selected to venture into the towns to collect medicine to heal Joaquin Phoenix’s character Lucius, lack the tension and intrigue of the scenes before them. After all, what’s the danger in the woods now that we know there’s nothing out there? Shyamalan tries to have his cake and eat it too by revisiting comments from Ivy’s father Edward (William Hurt) about rumors of creatures in the woods, and then we get the bewildering standoff with Adrien Brody in one of the costumes that ends in his death, but the film never regains that thriller aspect after Hurt shows Howard the suit.
Then, of course, the film’s final twist also rubbed folks the wrong way. Once Ivy reaches the outer limits of the town, it’s revealed that the events of the film have not been playing out in the past. Instead, it’s actually modern day. The Elders, all of whom had been directly affected by a violent loss of a family member or loved one, decided in the 1970s to wall themselves off from humanity and create their own society, one shielded from pain and sorrow. Howard’s character returns with the medicine, and the Elders decide that despite an act of violence nearly taking the life of Lucius, they’d like to remain in the village and continue on with their experiment. Roll credits. “A Film by M. Night Shyamalan.”
People were pissed. And I mean really, really angry. Your reaction to these twists kind of colored the rest of the film. I know it did for me. I wrote The Village off as a disappointment. And I was wrong.
Rewatching The Village with knowledge of where it’s going is a far more pleasant and satisfying experience. Instead of trying to suss out what it all means or what’s going to happen, you’re able to better dig into the film’s themes, and more often than not Shyamalan hits them well.
The entire ordeal that forces Ivy to venture into the woods in the first place is a violent assault borne out of jealousy. Adrien Brody’s mentally challenged character Noah (who doesn’t hold up tremendously well in 2019) stabs Lucius after hearing that Lucius and Ivy intend to marry. The sin of envy compels Noah to take violent action, thus putting Lucius’ life in danger. This is in contrast to the death of August’s child that opens the film, which is presumably due to illness or natural causes.
The entire stated purpose of leaving civilization behind and to create this utopian village was to be free of the kind of violence that left its mark on the Elders, and yet here it is inborn to the community they created. The Elders have a tradition of opening these little black boxes filled with memories to remember their past lives and, subsequently, their past trauma. This is done to ensure that their trauma cannot fester. By actively revisiting these painful memories, the Elders also solidify the reason they left civilization behind in the first place.
But The Village explores ideas of original sin—can we as humans wall ourselves off from external forces that would cause us harm and pain, or is sorrow a natural, unavoidable occurrence of humanity? For as hard as the Elders tried to protect themselves and their offspring, the ascent of their children into adulthood coincides with the first notable act of violence within the community. It’s Cain and Abel. The inevitability is palpable, and yet by the end of the film, the Elders remain steadfast in their decision to remain cut off from society. Unwavering, they even choose to use Noah’s accidental death to further bolster fear of the woods in the townspeople.
It’s an ending right out of The Twilight Zone, and while it could be mistaken for triumphant, I take it to be a tragic. It’s all the more impactful when considering the film’s themes, which is why subsequent watches reveal The Village as a far more thoughtful and satisfying film than initially considered. This all in addition to the terrific performances from Howard, Phoenix, and Hurt, as well as Roger Deakins’ reliably phenomenal cinematography. The setting gives Deakins the opportunity to use a lot of natural light, and the result is positively gorgeous.
The Village isn’t without its problems. As stated above, the Noah character doesn’t quite work, and the additional monster attack on Ivy in the woods is a serious miscalculation on Shyamalan’s part. But The Village shines when it digs into themes of humanity’s relationship with sorrow, and whether pain and violence can be excised from our lives or if we’re destined to fall prey to harmful sins. Devoid of expectations, The Village holds up far better than you may remember.
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