The Village was released at the very apex of M. Night Shyamalan’s career, and as a result it’s one of his most gorgeously atmospheric and lyrical films. Set in what appears to be a nineteenth century settler community in the United States, it’s full of languid deep focus vistas, contoured by Roger Deakins’ cinematography. Yet it’s also more sombre than scary, and at times feels more like a drama than a horror film – or perhaps a fairy tale, tinged with an elegiac sadness. For while it might be peak Shyamalan, The Village is also the first hint of the late work that we see in Old and Knock at the Cabin – films that take place in a single space that is at odds with the temporarlity of the wider world. These later films don’t revel in twists so much as in morbid premises that are followed through to their unsettling conclusion, and while The Village is still indebted to the twists of Shyamalan’s classic era, the twist in this case is so telegraphed that it often feels as if Shyamalan wanted to reveal it from the outset.
Of course, the twist of The Village, as is now commonly known, is that the community in question isn’t living in the nineteeth century at all, but in the present day. It was founded by a group of concerned citizens, in the early twenty-first century, all of whom had lost someone to urban violence. Headed by Edward Walker, a former professor of American history, played by Edward Hurt, the community have raised their children to believe that they living in a bucolic nineteenth century setting. In order to discourage them from seeking out the world beyond their village, which is named Covington, these elders have devised a mythology of monsters who live in the woods – “those we don’t speak of.” These monsters are supposedly attracted by the colour red, and so the villagers expunge it from all of their objects, clothes and structures, as if determined to repress the memories of urban bloodshed in their pasts.
While Signs came out in 2002, The Village was the first of M. Night Shyamalan’s films conceived in its entirety after September 11, and the world that it ushered in. The community at Covington often feel as if they are retreating, specifically, from this world, and from the dangers that now await Americans in public urban space. All city life is relegated to the imaginary distance of “the towns,” while Edward has brokered a deal to prevent planes from flying over the community as well. In the years after the attack on the World Trade Centre, airline travel suddenly lost all its quotidian associations in American cinema, which isn’t to say that plane flights, and even plane disasters, couldn’t be shown, but that they were overlaid with a new sense of catastrophic doom. Shyamalan’s tweak on that tendency is to present us with a community in which the doom emerges partly from the conspicuous absence of planes.
As The Village unfolds, an older American trope of defending hearth and home thus segues into a more contemporary imaginative regression into period drama. Ironically, this recourse to the past is what makes Shyamalan’s film feel so of its time, pre-empting a wave of paleo-pastoral right-wing movements that would flourish in the wake of the Twin Towers. Yet while the founders of Covington manage to reclaim a public sphere, it is no less precarious than the urban core they left behind – and not just because it is a fiction. By retreating into the nineteenth century, the community has to leave behind many of the public amenities of the present, especially adequate and accessible healthcare, which becomes the main casualty of this collective nostalgic fantasy. The story largely unfolds through characters who have not received proper medical care, most notably Ivy, Edward’s daughter, a blind woman played by Bryce Dallas Howard, and Noah Percy, an intellectually disabled man played by Adrien Brody. Likewise, the tension emerges when the healthcare crisis in the community reaches such a pitch that Edward is compelled to allow Ivy to make her way through the woods for medicine.
In this way, The Village anticipates both the movement towards a pastoral or paleo mentality in American right wing culture in years to come, but also the way in which this mindset would become peculiarly galvanised around the question of accessible healthcare, especially during the Obamacare era. Shyamalan looks forward to a world in which the fantasy of regressive American heartland has become so strong that it forecloses the possibility of medical crisis,. While Joaquin Phoenix is ostensibly the protagonist of the film as Lucius Hunt, Ivy’s love interest, he spend the second half in a comatose state, as she seeks out medical care on his behalf. Lucius takes Covington’s pastoral-paleo values to their logical conclusion, achieving the role of protagonist by virtue of his unconsciousness, his absorption into a community that rally around him even as they all resist a systemic healthcare change that might benefit him.
Since so much of The Village is poised on the brink of the future, Shyamalan seems uncharacteristically restless to reach the twist, as if the new American era he envisages is already upon us, and needs to be processed as quickly as possible. Unlike most of his films from this era, hints of the twist permeate into the narrative in an ungainly and even clunky way, until the twist barely ramifies as such when Ivy reaches the edge of the woods and finds herself in contemporary America. Conversely, however, Ivy never quite recognises the full extent of the twist, which is largely visual, based on the total incongruity between the mise-en-scene that Covington have constructed for themselves, and the banal normality of the outside world, where Shyamalan makes his cameo as a security guard: “It’s a really easy gig Kevin – maintain and protect the border. That’s it.” And for all that The Village moves towards this border between the post-911 world and the nostalgic past, it also announces this border as the setting of the film from the outset, producing one of Shyamalan’s most dynamically conflicted efforts – a vision of a broader cultural shift that, like a twist, is hiding in plain sight, meaning that it starts to disintegrate the singularity of Shyamalan’s twist as we approach it.