Evil in the Village

 

by John Tyler Connoley

August 11, 2004

 

Spoiler Alert: If you haven't seen The Village and want to discover the twist ending for yourself, then skip this week's essay.

 

It's official. Critics and audiences alike are disappointed by M. Night Shyamalan's The Village. They can't forgive it for not being Sixth Sense or Signs, intricately plotted thrillers with surprise endings and little depth -- unless you see depth in a ghost psychiatrist who doesn't believe in ghosts, or an atheistic preacher who learns to believe in fate. The Village disappoints because audiences are expecting a carnival ride and Shyamalan has delivered an Elizabethan play.

 

However, while disappointing to the popcorn and bogeyman crowd, The Village is Shyamalan's best movie to date. With this film, the director finally tackles the philosophical and theological subjects that have always haunted his films, but which until now have been overshadowed by the frills and thrills.

 

The movie takes place in an idyllic nineteenth century village, where people talk in stilted dialogue and everyone has good manners. We know it's not perfect, because the first scene takes place at the funeral of a seven-year-old boy, but the laughing children, prancing sheep, and dancing women in the next few scenes make us think this must be a great place to live.

 

However, the village is also a frightening place, because of "The Ones of Which We Do Not Speak." These nameless creatures live in the woods around the village, are attracted by the color red, and have apparently killed villagers in the past. But, thank God, the villagers have a truce with them. They don't venture into the woods, and the monsters don't enter the village. This means the people are cut off from the surrounding towns, but it's okay because they're happy and safe.

 

As you can guess (since it's a Shyamalan film), things are not exactly as they appear. It's actually the 1990s, not the 1890s, and the village elders created the idyllic village and nameless monsters. They met in the early seventies in group therapy, where they were dealing with having lost family members to violent crime. One of the men had inherited billions of dollars from his murdered father, and could therefore afford to buy a game preserve and hire guards to keep everyone out (he even managed to have it declared a no-fly-zone). The members of the therapy group then moved to the preserve so they could enter a gentler bygone era, and invented the monsters to protect their children from the truth.

 

Unfortunately, as the movie progresses, we find their bucolic existence is unraveling. The boy whose funeral started the film could have been saved with proper medical care. There's also a blind girl and a mentally ill boy in the village, both of whom could probably be helped with modern medicine. One of the older boys has apparently heard the elders discussing this and wants permission to travel to the surrounding towns to get medical supplies. He believes the monsters will spare him because his mission is noble.

 

As the elders spend days wrestling with the young hero's request, another problem arises. A member of the village has apparently been skinning dogs and leaving them to be found by others. Of course, the children all think the monsters are doing it, which gives the elders an excuse for not letting the boy make his journey.

 

Then the truly unthinkable happens: murder in the village. The blind girl has fallen in love with the heroic boy. And in response, the mentally ill boy (who loves the blind girl and doesn't realize quite what he's doing) goes to the hero's house and stabs him. The hero doesn't die, but is close to death, and the only thing that can save him is medicine from outside the village.

 

Throughout the film, Shyamalan wrestles with questions of evil: where does it come from and how do we protect ourselves from it? The village elders represent the common response of blaming society. Another response is to blame some supernatural force, as the children do with the skinned dogs. But, the place we seldom look is where the evil really lies -- within us.

 

In their love for their families, and their desire to escape evil, the elders became responsible for the illnesses of their children. They had the means to heal them, but chose to protect them from "the towns" instead. As a result, they set up the circumstances that lead to the attempted murder; but they can't see this, because they're so conditioned to see evil only in the society they fled.

 

In the end, the elders decide to fetch medicine, but it's not clear whether the young hero will survive. What is clear is the elders' commitment to keep up the charade. The violence will continue, because they don't see that real safety lies not in hiding from the world, but in transforming it by transforming ourselves.

 

In many ways, The Village is a movie for our times. These days, Democrats portray Bush as the antichrist and Republicans continue to demonize Clinton, while they try to unite in their pursuit of homeland security. We think, if we could only rid the world of the people we don't like, then everything would be fine. Unfortunately, as The Village demonstrates, even if we had the means to protect our families from everyone else, the evil would still be with us. To be truly safe, we must stop hiding in fortresses, and instead face the real world inside ourselves -- and then transform it.

 

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Copyright 2004 by John Tyler Connoley

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