The Village: A Film Built on Questions
M. Night Shyamalan’s career as a postmodern auteur seems to have suffered a kind of reverse trajectory. He appears to have led with his strongest stuff and then gotten either progressively lazier or increasingly out of touch. The notices concerning this summer’s The Happening were dismal at best, indicating creeping desperation.
To date, the Shyamalan oeuvre has consisted of the deconstructed puzzle whose pieces constantly click together, and whose most revealing moments are intended as emotionally satisfying sidelights on the way to a big finish, where some surprise or other awaits and everything can reevaluated (over dinner, after the curtain) in light of new information.
In the press lately, Shyamalan has eschewed such notions as confining, but a quick viewing of his work from The Sixth Sense forward will confirm that this is a box into which he has happily placed himself. Viewers, critics, and box-office receipts have all been saying the same thing: we’d rather have a good story and something to gnaw on afterwards than sleights-of-hand and cool vanity.
Working entirely within his givens, and consistent with his recent spiral, in 2004 Mr. Shyamalan offered us The Village. And although the film is in many ways far-flung and fat on its own sense of virtue, still it cracks open a feast of tasty questions — questions that it is, alas, completely unprepared to answer. Nevertheless, many of those questions are handy ones to have around these days, and even if he gives the viewer no utensils or cups with which to manage the meal, at least Mr. Shyamalan has heaped the plate and set it before us.
The film is generally set in the late 19th century; generally in the unsettled lands of late American manifest destiny; generally in the cold of autumn; generally peopled by a Shaker-like folk who, for all intents and purposes, would appear to be emotionally distant settlers. Their pursuit of quiet and simplicity, however, is threatened by a red-cloaked menace that dwells in the woods near their settlement, and of course this turns out to matter immensely. To say much more wouldn’t add, so I’ll leave it at that.
When you strip away the artifice, The Village is mostly a dance around various notions of innocence and purity. The technique by which these themes are managed and kept open is really fairly simple: everything from place to dialogue is kept amazingly nonspecific, so that the viewer is consistently recruited to interpret for him- or herself what is happening.
According to the critical reception at the time, this was viewed as the film’s chief error among many—that it was maddeningly smooth-edged, offering nothing concrete to hold onto, except some admittedly poor surprises in the last two reels. (It also meant that reviewers took great pains to describe the film, and were enjoined not to reveal its ending, which itself was insubstantial!)
There’s nothing new to such methodology. Alain Resnais used it to gorgeous effect in Last Year at Marienbad (1961), and the best-of compilers still glow over it to this day. Whereas Mr. Resnais poked at the relativity of the psychological concept of time, Mr. Shyamalan hunts for presumably bigger game, asking what lengths we should go to in order to preserve innocence. He wants to know what happens when people retreat from the reality of their lives into self-constructed utopias, and what they do when they reach the end of what their own societies provide.
What happens, he asks, if the heathen world from which we’ve literally walled ourselves off possesses the cure we need to ensure for our survival? Will reaching out for help beyond us paradoxically spell the end of us?
And what if “we” were actually built not on some puritanical crusade, but rather on a great big lie about ourselves? Could we ever face that reality squarely enough to be changed by it, or would we turn away from the brutal truth?
In the end, Mr. Shyamalan would appear to say that we can only look at the naked truth for so long and then must turn away or be blinded by it —which, while mostly true, isn’t the whole story. For as Yeats wrote, “The innocent and the beautiful / Have no enemy but time.”
No matter how they pull in the covers over their heads, no matter how many threats they beat back, truth and time will eventually win, and the village will be subsumed into reality.
Copyright © 2008 Torey Lightcap.