By Paul Newall (2005)
M. Night Shyamalan's The Village has aroused vociferous responses from viewers and commentators alike but there have been few detailed studies of the themes and ideas explored in considerable depth in the movie. In this essay we look at the celebration and criticism of utopian communities alongside the love story that forms the core of the film.
It is worth noting in passing, however, that Shyamalan is not thought the modern Hitchcock for nothing. In particular, the use of editing in The Village to maintain the deception until the last possible moment (especially when Ivy Walker is set to leave) is masterful. The role of colour, too, and the manner in which it adds to the tension and sense of separation, is quite brilliant. Some viewers reacted badly to the plot twists, perhaps because of his other works in which a similar experience of having the rug pulled out from under them had made them expect such a device, but here protests miss the point of the film and ignore what has been achieved over the course of the story. By examining it more closely we can learn how actually nothing has changed in the community between the opening and closing scenes, save our feeling for what was important about the village after all.
Before shooting began, Shyamalan put all his actors through a form of "boot camp" in which they were introduced to the skills required to live off the land self-sufficiently. From their own comments, it seems this period helped them appreciate how they would need to rely on one another as well as understand how much pleasure could be derived from such a life. Joaquin Phoenix even carved Bryce Dallas Howard a guide stick for her blind character Ivy Walker that made it easy work to pretend to be in love with him, she has said. It is against this backdrop, however, that Shyamalan examines the utopian ideal and the many questions associated with it.
Covington Woods is a community isolated from the outside world by the presence of "those we don't speak of", hostile creatures who live in the woods in something of a truce with the inhabitants of the village: they stay away so long as the people maintain their border unbreached. A line of markers and a watchtower mark the detente. These circumstances are apparently coincidental, however: the elders moved to Covington originally to get away from the nearby towns – "wicked places where wicked people live". Having lost loved ones to crime, the founders of the community have journeyed away from the decadence they saw in the world to try again and provide a better life for their children.
Shyamalan uses his village to plumb the depths of this life for philosophical insights into the nature of the utopian venture. The first and perhaps most general issue is whether we can secede from the world to avoid societal problems or whether these are inevitably part of life? Can we create a community without them? Many people, it seems, believe we cannot, holding wars and criminality to be unavoidable and a part – if an unfortunate one – of the human condition. This is August Nicholl's opinion, who wakes with a start mumbling "… like a dog can smell you." When Lucius Hunt asks him what was said, he expands:
You may run from sorrow, as we have; sorrow will find you. It can smell you.
Later, near the close of the movie, he repeats the lesson he has learned from recent events, including the death of his son, saying "we cannot run from heartache… heartache is a part of life. We know that now." Somehow this can strike us as an easy answer, though: certainly the community of Covington Woods does not appear to have any of the concerns faced by the distant towns, although we might say that Shyamalan has created a fiction only. There is a distinction to be made between unavoidable sorrows due to death and accidents, on the one hand, and malaises like rape and murder. Can people come to terms with the former while learning to avoid the latter? Is it unduly pessimistic or instead realistic to answer in the negative? The Village shows us that this demarcation is a sound one, but its accuracy depends on the extent to which we take the film to reflect genuine possibilities in our world. We can also look to actual utopian communities to help us decide this issue.
Even if they are not perfect, of course, we can still wonder whether Covington Woods and other utopians societies are better than the outside world, and what "better" can mean in this context. The villagers seem genuinely happy, for example, but again we can object that this is based on Shyamalan's imagination and may not be representative. Nevertheless, those of us with experience of life in smaller communities can attest to the value of closer integration with the people around us while, conversely, the alienation due to modern life in large cities has been the subject of much study by sociologists and psychologist, among others. When we listen to Jake (actually a cameo by Shyamalan himself) holding forth on how to best work for the Wildlife Preserve, all the stories in his newspaper concern murders or combat deaths.
What factors limit the success of separatism? The most important one for the story is the medical constraint. Stabbed by Noah Percy, Lucius lies dying from an infection that can be cured by medicines available in the dreaded towns and this knowledge weighs heavily on the mind of Edward Walker. The additional irony is that Lucius had himself requested permission to travel to the towns to return with potential new medicines, his intention being to improve the quality of life in the village and perhaps help Noah. This, of course, is a common objection to utopian ideals (and also to primitivism): we may rue the evils of modern life, but are we prepared to do without the many advances in medicine if we give up on it and try to start anew? The implication is that either we have to make just such a bargain or we cannot consistently reject the outside world.
When it comes to the threat faced by Lucius, indeed, Walker does not insist on the separation of Covington Woods that he has fought so hard to protect. His wife, on the other hand, is the voice of the critic of utopia:
You have made an oath, Edward, as we all have, never to go back. It is a painful bargain but no good can come without sacrifice. These are your words I am saying. You cannot break the oath. It is sacred.
This idea that "no good can come without sacrifice" is one some people accept, such as those who refuse blood transfusions or invasive surgery that could potentially save them in order to maintain a principle that holds these are morally (or otherwise) wrong. For Walker, however, matters are not so straightforward. "It is a crime what has happened to Lucius", he insists, and although this event occurred within the community, there is a sense in which the intentions behind it have been violated by the attempted murder, a justification Walker uses to appeal to outside help. Is this acceptable? More importantly, is it not somehow an absurd question to be asking?
This narrow view of utopias relies on a strict separation of them from the outside world, but on the face of it there is no reason why we should judge them according to a criterion of self-sufficiency. The Amish, for instance, prefer to live apart but occasionally trade with others. Can the utopian community, by its example, show that a different life is possible without necessarily giving up on everything? Shyamalan hints at this interpretation with the apparently incidental character of Kevin, the patrolman who guards the border of the Walker Wildlife Preserve. Confronted with the desperate figure of Ivy Walker, he is won over by her appeal and obtains the medicines she needs. More than this, however, we notice the mixture of quiet awe and fascination with which he sits in his van when she has gone, deep in contemplation. This is a particular case of the appeal of utopian ideas, of course, in which we wonder if the lives we lead are not really taking place in the best of all possible worlds in spite of the technological advances we claim to have made. Perhaps it is for this reason that Walker has arranged not to keep people in his community, a function carried out by "those we don't speak of", but to keep them out – achieved, as we learn, by paying government officials to prevent plane routes from passing over the woods as well as by the setting up of the preserve.
In addition to the matter of how the village should interact with the towns, there is the converse: how should wider society treat utopian communities? Do people have the right to secede if they wish? Here again we come to the medical critique: if a group proposes to settle apart from others, should they then be denied access to public institutions and services? The issue here is that in most states we are expected to contribute to the maintenance of order and other provisions, such that withdrawing into a separate community would deprive others of funding. Why, then, should such people remain entitled to healthcare? This tension is what Shyamalan exploits with the dilemma faced by the elders when Lucius' life hangs in the balance.
It remains the case that Walker breaks his own oath, if not himself then through his daughter, by allowing contact with the towns. With this exception, he and the other elders maintain the pretence of the creatures inhabiting the woods to sustain the separation of their community. Are "those we don't speak of" an example of a noble lie, a shared falsehood used ostensibly to bring about positive consequences? We see, eventually, that the creatures are only "farce", but they sustain the integrity of the village and its ideals. Here we find another interesting question explored by Shyamalan: are such noble lies required by utopias, in one form or another? Plainly other societies cope without the threat of beasts clad in red, but is there a necessity for an inward-looking mentality of one form or another, or at least a feeling that there is no need for the trappings of the outside world? For one thing, the suggestion seems to be that it is difficult to leave behind everything, as Lucius observes when he tells his mother that "there are secrets in every corner of this village. Do you not feel it? Do you not see it?" Her justification is that she does not want to be ruled by her memories but at the same time does not want to forget them and the reasons why she decided to become part of Covington Woods in the first place.
The noble lie, in any case, does not scare Lucius and he is conscious of this medical problem. Warned of the possible danger, he insists that the creatures will sense his motives: "they will see that I am pure of intention and not afraid." Where the death of Daniel Nicholson plays on his father’s mind, convincing him (as we have seen) that sorrow is unavoidable, for Lucius it outweighs the threat of potential harm – in short, it does not suffice to keep him content to stay in the village. This restlessness, caused in Lucius by a desire to help others, ifs effectively countered in his fellows by the reminders of "those we don't speak of" (particularly the warnings in the form of the skinned animals). That some, like Lucius, are not satisfied suggests that to preserve an order based on a lie those who seem likely to disregard it must be brought into the deception. This is the subtext when Walker asks "who do you think will continue this place, this life? Do you plan to live forever? It is in them that our future lies. It is in Ivy and Lucius that this way of life will continue."
This, though, is one of the most difficult aspects to the story and Shyamalan is careful with it, not providing a clear – if any – answer. The optimistic interpretation is perhaps that Ivy and Lucius will appreciate the value of the community they are a part of and agree that its survival is more important than the truth, such that a relatively harmless lie is a price worth paying. Walker tells his daughter that "there is no one in this village who has not lost someone irreplaceable, who has not felt loss so deeply that they question the very merit of living at all", but he is speaking only for the elders. When he insists that "it is a darkness I wished you would never know", there is no reason to doubt his sincerity and yet it is the morality of the means that disappoints Ivy. "I am sad for you, Papa", she replies, and this is the indictment of the endeavour as a whole and the point on which the story turns (with one exception, discussed below). Is the life in Covington Woods justification enough for the lie, or does it show us that utopias are predicated on a discontinuity with the rest of the world that in reality does not exist and hence can only be sustained by lies? "What was the purpose of our leaving?", Walker asks. "Let us not forget – it was out of hope of something good and right." Challenged that he has put the community at threat, he ultimately retreats to a moral argument:
Yes I have risked – I hope I am always able to risk – everything for the just and right cause. If we did not make this decision we could never again call ourselves innocent – and that, in the end, is what we have protected here: innocence. That I'm not ready to give up.
Here, it seems, is our answer: it is better always to do what is right, and the perspective of his beloved daughter has won the day.
Although this is an impassioned speech and it convinces the objectors, Shyamalan gives us a different kind of innocence to that Walker appears to have had in mind. All the exploration of utopian communities and ideals serves as a backdrop to what The Village ultimately is – a love story. For all the critical commentary on the twists in his plots, in this movie his direction takes second place to his writing, with some beautiful dialogue underscoring the depth of the relationship between Ivy and Lucius. The latter part, according to Shyamalan himself, was written specifically for Phoenix, and his soft, breathless delivery perfectly compliments his nervous yet quietly confident role as Ivy's guardian angel. "How is it that you are unafraid while the rest of us quake in our boots?", she asks him, and he responds in a way that helps us understand Shyamalan's verdict on Covington Woods and experiments like it:
I do not worry about what will happen – only what needs to be done.
For Lucius the threat of the depravity to be found in the towns or the dangers lurking in the trees has no effect because of the attitude he takes towards life. His utterly unconditional love for Ivy is but one facet of a character that seeks only to achieve what is necessary and no more. In many respects he may strike us as something of a simpleton, but this speaks to our own prejudices that Shyamalan is challenging. Lucius senses that the separation of the community from the world outside is one side of a false dilemma and wishes to travel to the towns not for his own benefit but for that of others. He is simultaneously trapped by his indecisiveness in personal matters, which Ivy summarises by telling him that "sometimes we don't do things we want to do so that others won't know that we want to do them." The tension arising in him as a result of these two aspects, in which his quietude and willingness to selflessly help others restricts his ability to tell Ivy how he really feels, is something of a microcosm for the strange way in which utopian communities exist outside the modern world even as their very closure limits what they can achieve.
For her part, Ivy is the heroine of the tale as a whole and ultimately saves Lucius. She is the leader-in-waiting of the community and is able to quiet Noah as no one else can. The interesting thing about her is that she is blind. For Shyamalan, likely intentionally, this has two consequences: firstly, she cannot see the outside world when she ventures into it – nor that the creature that attacks her in the woods is really Noah. When her father tells the Percys that "your son has made our lies real", his daughter’s lack of sight is an equal factor and gives them a chance to maintain the pretence if they wish to. The moment at which the elders all stand in agreement is significant, as we will come to appreciate below.
Secondly, she is truly self-reliant in a way that the other villagers (excepting Lucius) lack the courage to be – and even Walker, when faced with the conflict between his principles and his concern for Lucius, choses the former. We could say, of course, that this actually is the brave decision to make, but there is a strange disconnect between his words and his actions. He tells Ivy that the burden of travelling to the towns to find medicines is "yours and yours alone", but he sends two escorts to accompany her and tries to convince the other elders that this is the right thing to do. Moreover, that Lucius might have died was due to his living Covington Woods, where not only were barriers erected in the form of "those we don't speak of" to prevent villagers going to the towns to improve medical conditions but also the preserve is strictly controlled to ensure that no influences from the towns reaches it. When Noah stabs Lucius, then, it is difficult to accept that responsibility for remedying its consequences falls solely to Ivy when the elders have brought about the circumstances that would lead to death without the towns. Indeed, we could argue that the movie demonstrates that the effects of our choices are far wider ranging than we might suppose, in this case for all intents and purposes condemning a man to death for the sake of a principle. Walker is consistent initially but changes his mind when his daughter tells him that she will die with Lucius.
To understand how the problem is answered by Shyamalan, we have to look to the relationship between Lucius and Ivy and how it is used to conclude The Village. There is no better way to stress the importance of these characters than the beautiful porch scene in which Lucius quiets Ivy. "What can you not say what is in your head?", she asks him, after taunting him with talk of their wedding and making plain that she knows how he feels about her. "Why can you not stop saying what is in yours?", he replies, and then it begins, leaving the viewer spellbound:
Why must you lead, when I want to lead? If I want to dance, I will ask you to dance. If I want to speak, I will open my mouth and speak. Everyone is forever plaguing me to speak for them. Why? What good is it to tell you you are in my every thought from the time I wake? What good can come from my saying that I sometimes cannot think clearly or do my work properly? What gain can rise from my telling you that the only time I feel fear as others do is when I think of you in harm? That is why I am on this porch, Ivy Walker. I fear for your safety before all others.
Lucius loves Ivy completely, in a fashion that takes no account of where they are and for what reasons. Ivy, likewise, is utterly certain of their love and tests her faith in him when the creature first visits the village. As touching as this may be, though, what relevance does it have to any of the foregoing or to interpreting The Village? The answer lies in the closing moments, when the elders have made their pact to perpetuate their stories and the community the way it is. As they stand in unison, Ivy returns and ignores them all, rushing to the bedside. As she grips Lucius’ hand, the questions of where she is or what principles should guide our lives fade into nothing and the words of her father ring in our ears. "She is led by love. The world moves for love. It kneels before it in all." Covington Woods is many things – an experiment or a critique of society and the utopian communities that try to improve on it – but it is the place where yet again the world moves and buckles under the weight of love. What, in the final analysis, is most important? Ivy Walker answers in two words and all else comes to nought: "I'm back."