Grade rating: AA (as in double-A, not Avatar: the last Airbender, which is frankly the polar opposite of this movie. What happened to Shyamalan?
Thursday, October 31, 2013
Halloween Review: Enter The Village
If you’re reading this right now, congratulations. You’re officially the member of a cultural elite devoted to pursuing intellectual activities like reading instead of badgering your neighbors in a stupid costume late one October night. I honestly would have put this special scary edition of The Author’s Files up sooner, but none of you reminded me that today was Halloween except my brother earlier this morning, so I was forced to write up this review on short notice over the last 12 hours. Life is hard for a part-time film critic who insists on being timely with his posts.
The late movie ‘critic’ Roger Ebert once wrote of The Village, “(It) is a colossal miscalculation, a movie based on a premise that cannot support it, a premise so transparent it would be laughable were the movie not so deadly solemn. Eventually the secret... is revealed. To call it an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes. It's a crummy secret, about one step up the ladder of narrative originality from It Was All a Dream.” Such is the dilemma of the best M. Night Shyamalan movie and possibly best horror movie ever made, that it will unavoidably divide viewers into those watchful patriots who fear “the village” itself and those narrow-minded thrill-seekers in the critical network who desperately want to fear the monsters lurking beyond this village but find their reason getting in the way. Through clever, unpredictable writing and symbolically rich direction, Shyamalan masterfully interweaves an array of tones and themes into a film that seems not like a disjointed jumble of genres but a cohesive and powerful story that terrifies thoughtful audiences on both an emotional and a psychological level. Far from being just a generic monster movie that the ad campaign might indicate, The Village is a harrowing, Gothic, and thought-provoking twist on the dystopian tale, drawing viewers into a small community governed by fear and constrained by deceit. All is not as it seems in this village, which one character declares has “secrets in every corner”, and those secrets are best discovered for onseself instead of prematurely absorbed through a blog review, so if you haven’t seen The Village yet, please bookmark and close this page immediately, then revisit it once you’ve watched the movie.
The titular village is a vaguely 19th century community situated on a praire that’s enclosed by an ominous and alien forest. The villagers, by rule of a council of elders, have marked the forest’s borders with yellow (“the safe color”) flags and paint to ward off “those we do not speak of”, dangerous and territorial entities cloaked in red (“the bad color”) who separate this isolated village from the towns that lie beyond the Covington woods. Central to the story is a trio of young friends in the village who live under the constant shadow of the wood’s inhabitants. Lucius Hunt is a stalwart and seemingly fearless man of few words who reads prepared speeches to the elders requesting permission to brave the woods and retrieve vital medicines from the towns. Noah Percy plays the village idiot, not so much by choice as by mental impairment, erratically shifting his focus, struggling to learn, and succumbing to violent bursts of fury. The nearly blind but ever vibrant daughter of the village leader Tom Walker, Ivy sees through a dense and unrevealing haze but recognizes Lucius by the unique color he exudes, a relationship that has drawn the two very close over the years, though the shy man has thus far failed to express what they both feel. Shortly after they confess their love for each other in a beautiful and marvelously underplayed scene, by a disturbing turn of events Ivy ceases to see Lucius’ color, and desperation drives her to complete her lover’s long anticipated journey through the woods to the towns, a foreign place the elders shun for its great evil. At this point, our heroine, so blind in more than just the obvious way, comes to discover that those we do not speak of, the village’s rituals, and even her whole existence have been built upon a foundation of lies, and here The Village morphs from an effective if tired experiment in using creepy sound design to elicit scares into a full-fledged, horrific assault on the audience’s mind and senses.
More so than anything else I’ve ever seen, The Village is an emphatically 1st-person film, especially in the final act, even without condescending to cheap handheld camera tricks and the other pitfalls trapping modern horror flicks that profess to unveil “found footage” of real events. As Ivy wanders through the forbidden realm of the forest, directionless and confused, her surroundings appear to blur in front of the camera’s eye, everything dissolving into a bleak and undistinctive gray while eerie moans and sharp noises of the wild spring from no definite area. When she emerges from a pit and finds the bright yellow of her coat masked under a heavy layer of mud, the change leaves not just her but the audience alarmed. Possibly the movie’s most chilling scene occurs when she unwittingly walks into a clearing of red flowers and the camera zooms out overhead, letting the stark and violent brilliance of the shade illuminate the full peril of her situation. We tremble not at the literal image but at its symbolic association, for we, like Ivy, have been nurtured for so long with symbols that we struggle to dissociate them from reality. When she subsequently turns to her side and glimpses one of the woods’ creatures standing at a distance, we see only the glaring red of its cloak against the muted backdrop of the trees, while the rest of its body is obscured in shadow, left to Ivy and her equally blind followers in the theater to imagine. It goes without question that The Village utilizes color and camerawork within its storytelling more effectively than virtually anything else; by refraining from disruptive angle switching in favor of lengthy, uninterrupted shots, Shyamalan lulls viewers into a kind of trance so that they overlook they’re watching a movie, and in withholding vibrant colors for the majority of the film’s run time, he makes their rare appearances even more dramatic and substantive in the narrative. The violin-intensive score by James Newton Howard enhances the mood exponentially, helping to establish a sad and haunting world away from worlds.
But all of Shyamalan’s directorial techniques would be for naught had he been working with a lackluster cast. A veteran of Shyamalan’s also noteworthy thriller Signs, Joaquin Phoenix is given as the star of the movie; fine though he is playing the honorable and uncommunicative Lucius, Bryce Dallas Howard is the true centerpiece of the film in the role of Ivy. Though she was basically an unknown face at the time this was shot, she’s since come to appear in a number of high-grossing pictures, portraying, for example, one of the evil white people in The Help. Needless to say, she’s a lot more memorable in The Village, which depends completely on her performance for the second half. The old “watch a vulnerable and usually unrealistically sexualized woman survive terrors in a haunted place” trick has been played many times throughout history, dating all the way back to Alien, in fact, but rarely have actresses played the part with as much tact and raw credibility as does Howard, who conveys both determination and apprehension, strength and fragility at once. That the film succeeds at inspiring horror even after Shyamalan assures us that the woods hold nothing to be feared is a testament not only to his prowess at visual storytelling but also to Howard’s force as a literally and figuratively blind woman who falters to accept the real state of things and is compelled by love to face her deepest fears.
The most frightening part of The Village, indeed, is not Those we do not speak of or the idea of becoming lost in the wilderness, but the sudden realization that one’s whole worldview and way of life have been based on a falsehood. Whether one is deeply affected by this fear or simply perplexed by it, like Ebert, will largely boil down to the skepticism one bears towards authority figures. The Village subtly raises many philosophical and sociopolitical questions, but Shyamalan wisely declines to spell out his verdict on them that plainly, as he unfortunately did with the spiritualist themes of Signs, which heavy-handedly pushed a rather simplistic and only vaguely theistic belief: “All things happen according to a plan/there are no coincidences.” At its core, the movie obviously deals with the contrast between the idyllic fantasy and tragic reality; can the elders’ social experiment be morally justified, as they use deception and fear to protect their offspring from their world’s true nature, or is their retreat from civilization a moral necessity to keep men from harming each other in their self-interest? Should we strive to “protect innocence”, and is such a goal even attainable? Can a utopia be sustained apart from lies, and if not, can it really be called a utopia?
As with Shyamalan’s resolution to all these questions, The Village concludes on an ambiguous note, leaving its characters apparently contented regardless of whatever doubt has now infiltrated their minds. Whether they choose to “move towards hope” and subdue that inner doubt or throw down their old beliefs to follow the gravel road towards truth falls ultimately to the individual viewer’s speculation. The implications of those villagers’ decision are truly horrifying, enough so to make this one of the finest dramas I’ve ever seen.