Stevi Costa rewatches M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village and calls out the heteronormativity of its central narrative as well as the film’s troublesome usage of disability.
A lot of us over here at Ten Years Ago will sign up to review a series of films, grabbing a host of choices from a particular director, actor, or writer. I am always the first person to sign up for anything with Ewan McGregor in it, but I don’t generally stick to just one auteur or scribe. However, I seem to be awfully interested in revisiting the works of M. Night Shyamalan. Shyamalan had showed great promise at the turn of the millennium with his breakout hit The Sixth Sense, which was articulate, suspenseful, and pretty tightly written. Many loved his follow-up Unbreakable, too, hailing it as a perfect comic book movie that is, amazingly, about original material. I’ll even go to bat for Signs, which I think is a pretty tight narrative, even if it’s logically flawed (as I discuss in my review). But there’s definitely a point at which his cinematic career starts to decline, and I think it’s The Village.
I didn’t hate The Village back in 2004, though I can’t tell you with any certainty why. It has a lot of great actors, and they’re all doing a pretty good job given the material. The setting is pastoral and lovely. The use of color is ham-fisted, but visually arresting. But the writing is not up to snuff, and the film is actually terribly boring. The plot twist in this film, Shyamalan’s beloved “trademark” as a writer, is and always has been utterly stupid. For those of you who haven’t seen The Village, let me save you the $4 streaming rental fee and two hours of your time with some summary.
This is a film that takes place in what seems to be an early American town in what I might guess is roughly 1800. Our protagonist is a blind woman named Ivy who is moderately spunky. She is played by the sighted Bryce Dallas Howard. There is a council of elders who spend a lot of time in a Town Hall making decisions for everyone. They include Cherry Jones, William Hurt, and Sigourney Weaver. But life isn’t easy here. In fact, our first scene is of the town burying a small child. So quiet, brooding town hunk Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix, still at peak hunkiness) earnestly asks the council if he may go to the nearby towns to procure medicine to improve quality of life in the village. The problem with this is that nobody ever leaves the village, and so his request is denied.
Why does no one ever leave the village? Well, that’s a complicated answer. The residents of the village have been told that there are creatures in the woods, known only as Those We Do Not Speak Of, that are dangerous. So no one wears red. (Not sure why – I guess it attracts Those We Do Not Speak Of.) And the perimeter of the woods is guarded by a series of mustard yellow flags, and festooned with night watch stations, where people like Michael Pitt keep an eye out at night for Those We Do Not Speak Of. (I also guess that Those We Do Not Speak Of are repelled by the color yellow.)
So, given this set up, we get little hints that something, probably Those We Do Not Speak Of, might be sneaking past Michael Pitt and entering the town. A series of rabbit corpses are shown, flayed, but with the flesh of their little bunny heads still intact. Sigourney Weaver assures everyone it’s just coyotes. And then one night, we see one of the creatures as it snorts its way through the village, creating fear simply by appearing before everyone. Those We Do Not Speak Of are, for lack of a better description, giant hedgehogs in red cloaks. They’re like something out of Beatrix Potter . . . only evil?
But there is no real threat in Those We Do Not Speak Of, either in the flayed rabbits or the snorting through town. No one is actually harmed, just scared. The creatures are neither menacing nor dangerous at all, in fact, because they are not real. Those We Do Not Speak Of are a myth perpetrated by the Town Council to keep people from leaving the village . . . because the Town Council created the village in the woods deep inside a wildlife preserve in the late 1970s because they were too afraid of what society had become. It is how they all have chosen to deal with the trauma of losing a loved one to violence.
Don’t mistake the above summary for a plot though, because it isn’t. That’s all just world-building and scene-setting. The real story of this film goes like this: Lucius is the town hunk and Judy Greer loves him, but he turns her down. Then Judy Greer marries Fran Kranz, so now Ivy can actually marry Lucius, which is what they both really want. The only problem with this is that Noah (Adrien Brody), a mentally challenged man who spends a lot of time with blind Ivy, also ostensibly loves her, and so he stabs Lucius when he finds out about their engagement. (This “plot” is the first hour of the film, and it is really slow and really boring and really heteronormative.) Lucius is most certainly going to die, and so Ivy begs her father to let her make the journey through the woods to the towns to get medicine. Her father then tells her that Those We Do Not Speak Of aren’t real, lets her touch the cool hedgehog suits, and then sends her on her way through the woods to play the greatest game of Blind Lady Versus that anyone has ever played.
In the woods, Ivy is mostly fine, though, because there are no real threats. Sure, she falls into hole, but she scurries her way out. She does, however, end up accidentally-on-purpose killing Noah (in that very same hole!) because he has acquired a hedgehog suit and somehow managed to sneak into the woods without anyone in the village noticing. (Because even in a hippie commune, no one gives a shit about the disabled, apparently.) Thinking that it’s one of the creatures, but assuring herself they aren’t real, she lures it toward the hole and lets it fall in. The camera shows us Noah’s face covered in blood before he dies in agony, a victim of Ivy’s quest for heterosexual love.
Once Ivy makes it to the not-at-all-on-the-nose ivy-covered wall at the edge of the woods, she climbs over and is discovered by a park ranger at Walker Wildlife Preserve, who only needs but a little convincing by the pretty blind girl to go acquire some antibiotics to save her fiancé. Park ranger Kevin steals the drugs from behind his boss’ raised newspaper as his boss, played by Shyamalan, utters some nonsense about letting people believe stuff or something. The next shot we see is the town council looking worried over a sleeping Joaquin Phoenix, and then Ivy running in to his home with medicine in her hands and weeping.
The knowledge of what the village really is gets conveyed with a shot of William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver staring at a photo of the Town Council in 1970s clothing while each of them, in voiceover, tells us a story about how a relative died violently. This happens while, we assume, Ivy is climbing the wall. This is a moment of really awful storytelling because instead of seeing our heroine DO SOMETHING HEROIC, we get a static shot of faces staring at a photo, while Ivy’s triumph happens off screen. Therefore, rather than having the reveal hit us as Ivy climbs over the wall and we, the knowing audience, see Walker Wildlife Preserve and have to make sense of it ourselves, we’re already set up for it, and so we can’t experience triumph with Ivy or the confusion that a twist is supposed to ignite. Rather, Shyamalan spoon-feeds it to us through a static shot and VO.
However atmospheric parts of this film may be, and however good the design may look, the story itself is the problem, and the way it is told disrupts its ability to become an interesting narrative. As I’ve mentioned, the problem with the suspenseful/scary aspects of this film are that they aren’t actually scary or suspenseful at all. As an audience, we never feel the fear that the folks in the village do. And I’m not saying that as someone who knows the twist, but as a conscious reader/viewer. If livestock are dying, the thing killing them is probably a wolf or a coyote. If there’s no evidence that Those We Do Not Speak Of have ever harmed a human, then there’s no reason to fear that they will. The Town Council, in short, is not even very good at perpetrating its own lie. I really wish this film had written a myth about the death of some villager at the hands of Those We Do Not Speak Of, because that’s how you really create fear through folklore. As I tell my writing students, specificity is always going to get you much further than being vague. With specificity, there’d be some stakes in being fearful, but here there really aren’t any at all.
Further, the first hour of the film dwells in these not-at-all-effective hints of fear, but actually spends all of its time setting up the romance plot. I’ve got no beef with heteronormative romance plots, but they’re a dime a dozen. What I’ve got beef with is this: I really want to like Ivy as heroine in this film, but because of the machinations of the romance plot, I can’t. One of the first actions in the film sets Lucius up to be the hero when he requests that he go to the towns to get medicine and is denied. On the one hand, it is really awesome that Ivy gets to take up the hero’s quest, but her reason for doing so undercuts this. Lucius’ heroic drive is purely altruistic. He wants to help the sick people in the town by getting medicine. Ivy’s impetus to take up Lucius’ quest is because he is her betrothed and he is dying. William Hurt, who plays her father, mutters something about Ivy and Lucius being the future of this way of life, so his stake in her achieving this goal places the good of the village in the fruits of heteronormative marriage. Therefore, Ivy’s quest is doubly problematic because she doesn’t approach it as altruistic, but the Town Council does. Her desires are being inscribed with something more culturally binding than simply not wanting her fiancé to die. To be clear, I don’t blame her for wanting to save her partner’s life. Anyone would want that. It is the structure of the plot, however, that only makes Ivy-as-hero possible through romance that is a problem. Couple that with the camera’s undercutting of her heroism in the revelation of the plot twist, and I wonder if we’re supposed to see Ivy as a hero at all.
Another way in which Ivy’s heroism is neutered in this film is in the treatment of her blindness, which, like everything else in The Village, is just a glorified plot device. Her blindness allows her to experience the world outside the village without actually seeing the differences, thus making her able to go back to her way of life. She is convenient to the purposes of the Town Council, and they make use of her blindness in such a way that allows them to maintain the status quo. If the film weren’t so hung up on its 11th-hour twist, this could have been a really interesting film in which a heroic blind woman actually changes her village’s way of life. But it’s not. That the film allows us to see Ivy as capable and heroic in any capacity is a feat, though, that deserves a little bit of praise. We see many shots of her navigating the town unescorted, which is amazing given that Bryce Dallas Howard really has no fucking clue how to use that cane to guide herself anywhere. We also see many shots of her abandoning her cane and freely running through the fields with Noah. When she journeys into the woods, she certainly falls down a lot, which makes sense, as the woods are full of things to trip over, and when she claws her way out of the sinkhole she falls into, we get to see her physical strength in a way we hadn’t before. I suppose it’s also nice that, in this early 19th century town, everyone is totally cool with the blind lady and they hang out with her and invite her places and integrate her into social life. It’s clear that the residents of the village see her as capable, and that’s great. But all of those good things are flattened by her existence as a plot device, not a hero.
We should also talk about Noah, the mentally challenged member of this happy little commune. Noah and Ivy are paired off as friends from the beginning because of their difference. They have many scenes together where they run around and play hide and seek, which Ivy is also really good at, especially the seeking part. As one-dimensional as basically all of the characters in this film are (especially Lucius, who spends most of the film either crying or sleeping), Noah is especially problematic. It is unclear what his particular challenges are, nor does that seem to matter to the film. Noah is treated by the other villagers as the medieval village idiot; He’s somewhat beloved, but there are also systems in place to handle him when he acts out. Notably, a room called “The Quiet Room,” which is actually quite a capacious room with windows and a fireplace in his parents’ home that locks on both the interior and exterior doors. No one treats him especially well, nor especially poorly. But, like Ivy, his function in the narrative is problematic. His sole purpose, it seems, is to be upset about Ivy’s engagement and then stab Lucius. Noah, in essence, is the root cause of Ivy’s heteronormative quest narrative at the end of the film. And the fact that she then accidentally kills him in the process of saving the life of her betrothed only further solidifies that her quest is driven by heteronormative monogamy. The threat to her relationship, in the form of this other suitor, dies in the woods while Lucius is saved to continue on this way of life.
Here the film gets a little bit eugenic, whether it intends to or not, as it hierarchizes the types of disabilities that are allowed to propagate via heteronormative marriage, and which must suffer alone in the woods. Ivy isn’t blind from birth. It’s a fact we learn only through a casual piece of dialogue in which her father mentions how sad he was when his youngest daughter “finally lost her sight and would be forever blind.” We don’t know exactly how long she was sighted, and it doesn’t matter for the purposes of this narrative because the real conditions of her lived experience as a blind woman are unimportant in the grand metaphorical scheme of things. Perhaps it is because her disability is not something she was born with that it is allowed, while Noah’s is not. Essentially, the film treats Ivy as though she isn’t a women with a disability, while Noah is perpetually other. Even as Ivy crosses over the wall and finds the Walker Wildlife Preserve perimeter, it is not clear to me that park ranger Kevin recognizes her as disabled. Her cane is on the other side of the wall. For all intents and purposes, Ivy can masquerade as a sighted woman. Her eyes don’t present as non-functional. They look like Bryce Dallas Howard’s eyes. No cataracts. No scarring. Her only presentational signs of her disability are her cane and her slightly downcast gaze. She’s generally well-kempt. She dresses like every other woman in town, and though her hair seems a little wild, it looks nice. I comment on this not because blind people aren’t well-kempt people, but because Noah is not. His hair is long and shaggy, stringy and greasy. It looks unwashed. His posture is slightly hunched, as though Adrien Brody read this part and thought, “Yes, I finally get to play Igor!” And his clothes are perpetually ill-fitting and dirty. The film dresses Ivy as though she belongs truly and fully, and Noah as though he doesn’t and can’t. These stylistic choices, coupled with the narrative function of each character, seem to hierarchize the character’s disabilities. Ivy can function like a human being, with some modifications, and care for herself and others. Noah cannot. He cannot control his own impulses and stabs Lucius. Indeed, when he dies, he is dressed as an animal, because people with mental disabilities totally need to be further seen as inhuman. So of course Noah doesn’t get the girl and dies alone in a hole in the woods, dressed as Those We Do Not Speak Of. Because Those We Do Not Speak Of really are the disabled.
And now is the part of the review where we consider the representational politics of able-bodied actors playing characters with disabilities. Playwright Christopher Shinn (who is an amputee) recently published a piece for The Atlantic in which he calls for more roles for disabled actors, because “leaving out actual disabled people undercuts the power of works ostensibly about disability” and allows disability-as-metaphor to flourish. This is exactly what’s happening in The Village. Ivy and Noah are metaphoric plot devices, not just because they’re poorly written, but because of the actors behind them. This is not to say that Howard and Brody are doing a particularly bad job as actors, but that because they are both able-bodied, we as an audience are able to read Ivy and Noah as metaphoric. This also makes them more even more one-dimensional than they are on the page, though. And while I’d like to see more roles for actors with disabilities, they can’t be written like this. They need to be real and realized. To have an actual blind woman or an actor with a mental disability in these roles would not make them any better roles, and would actual make the violence that happens to Noah even more sad and uncomfortable. I do agree with Shinn that leaving out actual disabled people undercuts the narrative potential of works about disability. But The Village is not one of those works that’s actually “about” disability. And in that, it’s use of disability does nothing to add to anyone’s understanding of the lives of disabled people because it fails to see beyond metaphor in any part of its so-called plot.
– It’s fun to watch this film and replace the characters in it with other characters the actors have played. Then you get scenes where Mad-Eye Moody is upset that his brother was shot through the eye, which is SPOOKY! Or scenes where Ellen Ripley tells Johnny Cash that he’s a good son. Or scenes where the founder of Facebook is terrified of hedgehogs. Or scenes where Kitty Sanchez cries a lot because Theodore Twomley won’t go on a date with her. This version of the movie is a lot less boring.
– By the way, lots of actors are in this! Actors we know now but didn’t know in 2004! Jesse Eisenberg! Judy Greer! Fran Kranz!
– The wedding scene in this film looks like the most darling Portland wedding I could ever hope to attend. The twee factor is very high. There are candles strung up throughout a barn in mason jars. Everyone is wearing flowers in their hair. I think there’s a pipe band.
– As with many things, I get really caught up in the actual economic and social structures of literary and cinematic worlds. My main problem with the village here is that I can’t seem to figure out what anyone does all day. They have livestock, and I can see that they grow cabbage and kale, but, like, who is making all of these early-1800s dresses? This village seamstress is REALLY GOOD, you guys! WHERE DO THEY GET FABRIC? I SEE NO SHEEP! It just doesn’t seem like their economy, which we assume is a barter system since William Hurt has to explain currency to Bryce Dallas Howard, is very sustainable or actually thought-out.
– I also wonder about where the patterns for this period-accurate clothing came from in the first place. Like, this shit is hard to sew. And I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t be able to figure it out without a pattern. So when the Town Council decided to create the village, where did they access these historical patterns? These things aren’t easy to find even in an internet-enabled age, so where the hell did they come from in the 1970s?
– You know this is a badly written movie when I can’t even commend a single line of dialogue as outstanding. I read through this piece again just now and realized how many times I describe the lines as being “muttered,” which is both accurate and also an awful way to describe the work of an actor, or a piece of dialogue.
– It must be really difficult to train 10 adults to speak in a slightly antiquated form of English and then keep that up for generations. That’s some serious method acting.
– Those mustard cloaks, though, they do be on point.