The Village: revisiting a meaningful plot twist

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Bryce Dallas Howard, approaching a turn
  • Bryce Dallas Howard, approaching a turn
In the essay I wrote about Sean Baker's Starlet for last week's issue, I said that "despite its air of documentary-style naturalism, [the film] feels closer in spirit to M. Night Shyamalan." I only realized in hindsight that this might come across as a dig at Shyamalan, whose films I rather enjoy. The writer-director has become an easy target in recent years, his name synonymous in some circles with Hollywood hucksterism. But before people derided Shyamalan for his plot twists and somber atmosphere, they went to see his movies in droves—I remember having difficulty avoiding The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs in the years they came out.

The tide started turning upon the release of The Village. Though it opened at number one at the box office, it received fewer positive reviews than Shyamalan's previous films, and audiences seemed to walk out from it disappointed. The popular consensus was that the filmmaker was running out of ideas; the movie's plot twist, normally the big draw of Shyamalan's work, felt anticlimactic. Eight years on, The Village now looks to me like Shyamalan's best film, in part because its twist is so essential to its overall meaning. I've thought about it a good deal in the weeks since seeing Starlet.

The movie appears to takes place in an early 19th-century New England village that nobody leaves, out of fear of the mysterious creatures that live in the woods. Shyamalan later reveals that the story in fact takes place in the present, and that the village's founders are survivors of traumatic events who'd rather live in a fabricated past than face the horrors of contemporary life. The creatures in the woods are fake; the founders invented them to prevent future generations from exploring the outside world.

Compared to the plot twist in Starlet—or, for that matter, Shyamalan's previous films—the revelation here isn't a narrative sleight of hand. It comes as a surprise to the main character (Bryce Dallas Howard's Ivy, who's lived in the village all her life) as well as to the audience. More importantly, it doesn't simply expand upon the story, but recasts it as allegory. The film's adult characters have responded to tragedy by clinging to an idealized version of the past. That's an understandable instinct, but it's a bad foundation for living. (Many spectators complained that Shyamalan's images of 19th-century life were stilted and phony, which is of course part of the point.)

And it's an even worse foundation for a political platform, yet reactionaries of all stripes continue to appeal to a past they've never experienced to justify their agenda. Shyamalan described The Village as his "post-9/11 movie," and its plot twist becomes more provocative if read as an indirect critique of the Bush administration's war on terror. The final passages confirm that this phony American idyll not only requires that its denizens remain ignorant of the outside world, but that they live in perpetual fear of an enemy they never actually see. This revelation brings to mind the thesis of Adam Curtis's brilliant essay series The Power of Nightmares, which premiered, incidentally, around the same time as The Village.

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