Ask someone to name their favorite M. Night Shyamalan film and you’re guaranteed to hear the same two titles: The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable. Sure, the odd outlier will praise Signs, but we all know they’re just trying to be different. And I get it. The Sixth Sense re-introduced the art of “the twist” to cinema, and Unbreakable was itself a twist on archetypal superhero storytelling, released at a time when comic book readers had very little to do at the movies. They’re both well made genre exercises, even if that’s the only level they’re operating on. I’d like to suggest, however, that The Village bests each of them simply because it’s actually about something. And not only is it about something, it’s about something that’s becoming more relevant than ever as we reach peak isolationism in 2016.
For years it’s bothered me that The Village was so widely and carelessly dismissed, not only by critics but by the companies that produced the film (there is still no Blu-ray for the film). Back in 2004, the negative consensus swirling around the film seemed to stem from two main grievances: The first being that the film’s revelation betrayed some fundamental requirement it had as a genre film (which, ten years later, I hope we can all agree is absurd), and the second was that its themes of political fear mongering and xenophobia were too on the nose in a post-9/11 world. Because that conversation was happening all around us already then, and weren’t we all oh-so culturally savvy at that particular moment.
The cynical, eye-rolling response to The Village bothered me at the time of its release because it signaled a troubling trend that, in my estimation, has only gotten more pervasive in the years since. And that’s the fact that we absolutely DO NOT want summer movies to be political in any way. And they certainly should never pick any kind of obvious ideological stance on anything. They should just do the job of delivering what we expect from them and go away so we can move on to the next piece of easily digestible “content”. The long term results of this early consumerist attitude are not surprising: the rise of corporate oversight, endless superhero movies, bland mainstream horror remakes, a shift towards TV, and a massive uptake in friendly animated features. I mean, how on earth are we living in a world where educated, adult film critics are twisting themselves into knots writing think-pieces about Disney princess movies and putting movies for kids on “best of the year” lists? Let it go, indeed.
Let’s be honest here. If we were all really so hip to how politicians and the media were using fear back in 2004 then how did we not see the flourishing of its effects on a global scale until now? We shudder at the thought of refugees entering our border, Britain just voted for a profound move back to nationalism and we’re literally contemplating building a wall to keep the monsters at bay. Shyamalan’s vision is manifesting itself all around us and the same blasé attitude that made us dismiss The Village back in in 2004 is largely blame.
In truth, The Village is more relevant today than ever. Taking its cues from Plato’s allegory of the cave, it imagines a forest society whose reality is informed by a lack of knowledge. Truth is distorted and facts are denied for the “safety” of its residents as well as the ideological wishes of its leaders. Modern science is looked upon with skepticism and deemed a source of corruption and evil, while villagers are kept within its borders through a vague fear of monsters called Those We Do Not Speak Of.
To really hit this allegory home, the film’s protagonist, Ivy Walker, is quite literally blind, a product of the culture she was born into. And her ascension into enlightenment requires facing the community’s fears on their behalf and revealing them as nothing more than constructs.
Keep in mind, the villagers are warned against the color red, which traditionally symbolizes knowledge, puberty and maturity. Since the much sought after purity of a culture can only be obtained at the expense of knowledge, what we end up with is a population of children. This is shown in the extreme through Adrien Brody’s portrayal of mentally challenged Noah Percy, who, to William Hurt’s patriarch Edward Walker, must stand as the ideal state of the population. So, as sad as it is, it’s not surprising that Noah becomes a victim of Ivy’s ascension, his death calling an end to a childlike ignorance about the world. You can’t tell me that Shyamalan is writing the sh*t out of this movie.
Now let’s talk about the film’s “twist”, which is unlike any other Shyamalan twist in that it actually serves the themes of the film. Again, it’s about something. It’s not just a cheap gotcha moment like the end of the recent The Visit, a film that, as enjoyable as it is, is about nothing at all. It’s not like the reveal at the end of Signs which is a bit better but only serves a character and nothing more. No, the ending of The Village signals a revelation that the world, regardless of what our leaders tell us, is in fact much larger than we can know. It tells us that reverting back to a simpler, supposedly pure and holy life is only achievable at the expense of facts and understanding, asking questions and the right to information. It comes at the expense of freedom itself.
I guess what I’m saying is: while I’m big fan of The Village, I don’t want to live there.