Sunday, December 11, 2016

THE VILLAGE: On Tragedy & Isolation

(Contains Spoilers)


11 Die Overseas in Combat

Man Sought in Multiple Slaying Case

These headlines and more are seen on a copy of The Philadelphia Examiner read by the guard at the desk near the end of the film (played by Shyamalan himself), and they neatly tie up the film’s central thesis when paired with the stories of the villagers that are revealed in the scene prior. Each member of the village shows us their emotional scars as a series of violent family deaths and personal tragedies. As one villager laments: “You can run from sorrow as we have. Sorrow will find you”. Directly following the 2002's Signs and its return-to-faith story, The Village also builds its thesis and narrative platform of off the “trauma that follows tragedy” trope to produce the ultimate post-9/11 statement. M. Night Shyamalan shows the power of trauma to push us into a state of permanent isolation, and how moving further and further into the depths or our anguish only causes additional pain and often irreparable damage.

The film tells the story of a late 19th century village in the American Northeast that remains isolated from the surrounding towns due to the presence of mysterious creatures known only as "Those We Don't Speak Of" that lie just beyond the perimeter, lurking in the woods. When Lucius Hunt, an introverted young man portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix asks for permission to go to the towns to retrieve medical supplies, he's scolded by the towns elders for wanting to travel to the "wicked" outside. Lucius is eventually stabbed by the presumably developmentally challenged Noah Percy (played by Adrien Brody. It is at this point that Ivy, the true central figure of this film played by Bryce Dallas Howard, is given special permission to travel through the woods to retrieve medical supplies crucial for Lucius's recovery. It is then revealed to her, and this is your last spoiler warning, that the monsters in the woods are merely costumes worn by the elders to keep the village in a perpetual state of fear. The film ends with two simultaneous reveals. One shows Ivy climbing the fence to reveal that the village is actually a stable commune existing in modern time completely hidden from the real world. Being blind, Ivy cannot see the world outside and thus continues to believe she is in the 19th century, even as she returns home to bring the medicine for Lucius a guard gives her from the station house. It ends with the elders realizing the feigned attacks in the woods give more fuel to the paranoia that has kept the dream of The Village alive for so long.

The village itself is a sort of towering monument to golden past thinking, but its structure is crumbling. There’s something to be said for the more minor political implications of the film: with America retreating from global affairs into isolationism after a series of military tragedies. Red is shown to be “the bad color” that attracts the mysterious creatures known only as “those we don’t speak of”, possibly representing America’s long-standing fear of Communism. But, Shyamalan retains focus on the social elements that surround the characters. What ultimately motivates the sort of golden past thinking exhibited by the villagers is fear. Jamison is afraid of those of which we do not speak, as are the two boys Ivy takes with her into the forest, and it was previously revealed the violent incidents which caused the elders to seek shelter in the village. The trauma they’ve experienced leads them not only to fear for their own safety but that of the ones they love. For the elders, this means the next generation. The world always seems to be getting worse from where we sit as we continue to romanticize the past. If the violence and degradation we face now is enough to horrify us, one wonders what their children might face years from now. These people don’t seek to return to simpler times because they are guided by primitive principles but because their minds are governed by terror, and an artificial one at that. Looking at the text through a post-9/11 lenses, it becomes a manifestation on the failure to move through grief properly. Like many of Shyamalan’s symbols, this failure is shown to be regressive in a literal sense as they return to the earlier times not from their own lives but from the rosy annals of American history. What’s discovered is not only are those supposed golden times not so golden upon further inspection, but that even retreating into the imaginary recesses of these fictionalized times doesn’t alleviate the very real nature of pain. 

There’s a reason that this supposedly perfect system of antiquity starts to bend under pressure. The ideal image begins to crumble as time goes on and sorrow begins to manifest within the borders of the village organically, even if the terror itself is artificial. It’s built off an unrealistic pipe dream of leaving behind one’s troubles without resolution. The elders are trapped in this perpetual state of grief, and this drives the next generation to grow up handicapped and disabled in different ways. Ivy is physically blind to the world around her, Noah is shown to be mentally deficient, and Lucius is totally socially inept, reserved, and as emotionally isolated as the elders themselves. The protective enclosure that the children lived under acted upon them to create imperfect and at times damaged adults. They’re not just physically incapable at times but emotionally insecure in their actions, and yet despite all this, Shyamalan doesn’t seem to want to portray them as being fundamentally broken. “I see the world, Lucius Hunt, just not as you do” seems to imply that these people, permanently altered by their environment, are perceptive of individual idiosyncrasies that the others are not. Lucius Hunt’s shyness and social anxiety is perhaps a subconscious recognition of the commune’s artificiality. Ivy reacts differently, her proverbial blindness allows her to hastily ignore the artifice to recognize the attitudes and behaviors Lucius cannot so easily see. It’s the idea that broken people sire fractured families and these families create damaged people that are never-the-less strong of heart and of will. 

Shyamalan’s brilliantly assembled team demonstrates this uneasiness lurking in the village through a number of definitively precise movements. It’s not as direct as in The Happening where the acting, camerawork, and writing all suggest a crooked state in the text. The claustrophobia manifests as crowded framing and sound design throughout the scenes in the village. Once juxtaposed against the openness of the forest, the sound is much more reflective, the framing more vacant. M. Night Shyamalan and Roger Deakins, both masters in form, use handheld photography in the subtlest but most effective ways, never clashing with the polished tone of the film nor used to feign reality but always as a device of deliberate and calculated tension. It plays not only in the moments of very real danger, when those we don’t speak of invade the village and when they terrorize Ivy in the forest, but also when Ivy’s perception of the world is disrupted. When Ivy and Edward walk to the shed and the secret of those we don’t speak of is revealed, this cinematic technique is used just as carefully as its earlier instances. 

In the context of 9/11, it’s easy to try and make some sort of plea for normalcy, for things to return to the way they were, to avoid grief entirely, but it’s this same damaging thinking that leads to the prolonged suffering of the community that tragedy has stricken. The Village postulates that sorrow is, in the grand scheme of things, inevitable, and mourning necessary to regain that sense of normalcy. 

Haydn DePriest is a student at the University of Texas at Austin.

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