Friday 6 October 2017

We Don't Go Back #67: The Village (2004)

For me, the gauge of how well a film's plot twist is executed is how easy it is to talk about said film without giving it away; you can for example say a lot about Get Out, The Wicker Man or Robin Redbreast without spilling the beans. Likewise, if a film is still good once you know the shock ending, still good the second time round, you know you're on to a winner. Psycho is full of twists and turns but it doesn't matter, it's still a nailbiter. And the final twist in Planet of the Apes enriches the world it creates sufficiently that eight more films have been made, all of which don't just depend on that twist, but rest on it, have all of their weight defined by the gravity of that one bonkers, histrionic final moment.

On the other hand, a bad twist can be really disheartening. I'm not even talking about predictable twists here, because a good film can have a predictable twist and that's OK if the story is strong enough. It might even be a good thing. For example, one of my favourite things about Get Out is that there's one reveal that's obvious right from the beginning, and you know the other shoe is going to drop, but you don't want it to, even after we see conclusive proof that this is what the case is, and we're still caught when the mask finally comes off.

A terrible twist, on the other hand, grabs you by the shoulders just a bit too hard and yells GOTCHA! from like three inches away from your face so that your head rings and there's a bit of spittle that went up your nose and you feel betrayed and angry that you wasted your time when this was the result, and the culprit is standing there with this vague expectant grin and pointing both fingers like a three year old gunslinger and looking really bloody smug.

Some of the very worst twists I've ever seen are the ones that turn the film they're in into a pointless shaggy dog story that you're not just unable to watch again, but that you're sort of angry you saw in the first place. Samuel L Jackson isn't the mentor, he's the maniac that made all this happen! All Mel Gibson needs to kill the aliens is a glass of water! It's the actual trees that want to kill us! They're not granny and grandad, they're a pair of escaped maniacs who killed the grandparents and hid the bodies in the house! Bruce Willis is one of the dead people and always was! GOTCHA. 

And I'm playing the game now too, because that little rant carries an all-too predictable twist in itself. Because I was talking about M Night Shyamalan all along!

Cue dramatic music.

We are grateful for the time we have been given.
I can't think of any other director who is, in critical writing, so defined by this one schtick. Never mind that he's got a great eye for a visual, or a strong, conceptual imagination. Or his continual exploration of faith and its consequences. Somehow all of these things get pushed aside because he's the man who makes the films with the godawful twists.

And it's what he does. It is. But nevertheless he's still an interesting director, because a director doesn't have to make good films to be interesting, and for my purposes he's made at least as many films that either flirt with or go full folk horror as, say, Ben Wheatley. Crop circles, the crazy people in the house in the woods, the idea that mythical creatures might live in the spaces around suburbia, a half-world of ghosts; these are all solidly folk horror and urban wyrd ideas, even if the execution is, to be kind, a bit wonky. 

The Village is the one of Shyamalan's films that embraces the folk horror aesthetic most fully from start to finish, and that's what is so frustrating about it. It's beautifully made and well-cast, and it keeps coming up with interesting and lovely images and ideas that it just throws out there and discards in favour of its big, stupid rug-pull. I am going to ruin the rug-pull for you right from the beginning, and so in the spirit of realising that if you really want to see The Village (and feel free, I'm not going to tell you how to live your life) there is literally no point seeing it if you know the twist, you really should stop reading now.

So, it's 1897, and in the town of Covington, Pennsylvania, another child has died. But life goes on. The town's life has a rhythm. The people talk in the solemn cadences of Quakers or Amish; everything is simple and spartan. But it's sort of off because you see how a couple of girls who are sweeping a porch catch sight of a little bunch of red wildflowers and they pick it up and bury it in a panicky sort of a way. And the perimeter of the town is guarded; the young men stand watch wearing mustard-yellow cloaks beneath mustard-yellow flags.
Those We Do Not Speak Of.
In the woods walk Those We Do Not Speak Of, carnivorous ogre-like creatures bedecked in feathers and twigs, who wear red cloaks and who are, so the people in the village believe, drawn to the "bad colour" (bright red). Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix), the bravest young man in the village, frustrated that so many children die, suggests that he be the first person to leave the village in the woods for a generation, to go to "the towns" for "medicines". But chief elder Edward Walker (William Hurt) resists. Lucius persists, eventually bringing an invasion of the creatures on to the town one night. Penance is done, but Lucius' courage and basic decency gain the attentions of Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), Walker's younger daughter, who is blind. The town "idiot", Noah (Adrien Brody, in a performance that is so weird it has to be seen to be really believed) is in love with Ivy, however, and stabs Lucius. Edward has a change of mind and reveals to Ivy that while there has always been a body of folklore about monsters in the woods, Those We Do No Speak Of are in fact costumes and stories, designed by the elders of the village to keep the people of Covington from ever leaving. He sends Ivy to the outside with a note. 

Ivy finds herself on a terrifying trip through the woods, full of literal pitfalls and trip hazards; she is stalked by what seems to be one of Those We Do Not Speak Of, but evades it by luring it into a pit into which she's already fallen. It breaks its neck and dies, and of course what Ivy doesn't see is that it's really poor deluded Noah, who broke out of his confinement and found a monster costume, which was stored under the loose floorboards of the room he was confined in. Of course it was. 

Ivy makes it to the outer bounds of the forest, and comes to another fence. She climbs over it. She is on a road. 
Sometimes we do not do the the things we want to do so that others do not know we want to do them.
Here it comes.

Down the road comes a jeep, with a park ranger in it. A modern jeep, with a modern park ranger, a young guy. On the side of the jeep is written WALKER WILDLIFE PRESERVE. The park ranger at first thinks that Ivy is someone trying to get in to the nature reserve. No one is allowed in, you see. He realises that she's talking really strangely, and she needs help; she says her name is Ivy Walker, and she hands him the note and some money, and he, being kind and basically decent, realises that someone is hurt, and he goes back to the ranger station to get some supplies. While he is there, his boss, a figure only seen from behind, admonishes him that it is important that no one is curious about the "wildlife preserve" and it is hinted that the faceless boss might know the Big Secret. But why is he faceless? Why the mystery? Because the faceless boss is M Night Shyamalan himself. Of course he is.

In fact, Edward Walker and the other elders of the town (who include Sigourney Weaver and Brendan Gleeson, both horribly underused) met in the 70s at an encounter group for those who had been bereaved by violent acts. Walker, the son of a (murdered) billionaire, was also a history professor, so he proposed using his inexhaustible wealth, family connections and unparalleled knowledge to create a walled off area where people could live as they did a hundred years ago. And the trade-off would be that people would still die, because they didn't have modern medicine and that, but that they would escape the violence and hate of the urban sprawl. Of course they did.

And because Ivy is blind, she crucially neither sees that the monster who attacks her is Noah, nor does she see the asphalt on the road, or what the thing making the noise is (i.e. the jeep), or the sign saying WALKER WILDLIFE PRESERVE, or the park ranger's weird futuristic clothes. So even though her dad has told her about the costumes, when she comes back, life still goes on. Because she's fought a real one in the woods, and hasn't seen the truth. Nothing changes. 

And this film is insanely frustrating because there is so much that is good about it amidst all the things that are terrible. The dialogue is lovely, with lovely lilting cadences, a real poetry to it; there are some genuinely great scenes. The visual design is gorgeous. The soundtrack, all violins and fear, is just as nice.

But. First, there's the disability thing. Shyamalan isn't great with disability in films anyway (see Split, Unbreakable) and the framing of Ivy, played by a sighted actor, as the personification of that old trope of the Blind Woman Who Sees Things That Others Don't (and it's always a woman) is really uncomfortable, because on the one hand, her Magic Blindness gives her the ability (she says) to see people's auras, and on the other hand, she's picked to brave the forest and go for help in "the Towns" outside because, as her father surmises, there is a chance she will not see the truth. As for Noah, he capers around like a jester. He talks nonsense. He mugs and prances. Maybe there are developmentally disabled or maybe autistic people who behave like that somewhere... But I'm struggling to imagine it. 
There are secrets in every corner of this village.
The ableism is The Village's ethical problem. And the film's strutural problem is That Twist.

It's a crunching, jarring twist the like of which only the most incompetent of chiropractors might dare to inflict, a painful twist that that does irreversible damage. I felt significantly stupider for having seen it.

Why don't they just live like Amish? I mean, it's not like people don't go and live in isolated communes all the time.

Why come up with the whole thing about monsters?

What is the purpose of the red-yellow colour coding?

Why would you even invent something as complex as the whole monsters in the woods story with its own rituals?

If all the village people are present at the funeral at the start of the film, who's in the forest making the howling noises (I mean, wouldn't they notice if one of the elders was absent)?

What happens when the elders start dying off? Do they pass on the secret?

And how many elders who know the secret are there anyway, because there has to be a critical mass, otherwise the inbreeding will be a real problem?

How much money would it actually have to cost to pay off the Federal Government to make several hundred acres of forest with a secret population a no-fly zone? What government agency would let you do that anyway?

How could you even do that!? 

All the lovely little cultural details, all the intriguing business with the flowers getting buried, all the gentle decency of the people and rhythms of their life, the wedding, the courtships, the communal meals. It all counts for nothing. It's all false. 

And The Village could be pretty compelling! I like the little cultural details. I quite like the subtext that they've withdrawn from the evils of the modern world, and people are still dying all over the place because the trade-off is rubella and typhoid and whatever else. I like this recognition that death still comes suddenly and painfully, and you can't escape from grief. And I think the scene where Kevin the park ranger (Charlie Hofheimer) meets Ivy is lovely, because you really do get the feeling that he's seen an insoluble mystery that will haunt him for the rest of his life, which is, if you think about it, one of the most folk horror parts of the film.
To the Towns.
The Village could be haunting and thought provoking. It's supposed to be haunting and thought provoking. It could be a wonderful meditation on how retreating to the past doesn't really fix anything, or a great examination of how we fool ourselves when we fool each other. How enterprises made for the good can go wrong. It wants to be.

But the average watcher is too busy going whaaaat!? at the extremity, at the sheer stupidity of the twist. The sign of a good twist is that you always had a fighting chance of working it out, so that when it drops, you either slap your forehead and cry "of course! Why didn't I see?" or you feel smug for calling it, and either way it's satisfying and part of the experience. But here, the evidence – and I admit it, there is evidence – is so fleeting and tiny that the chance of the average viewer guessing is frankly negligible. And because it comes from nearly nowhere, the twist has made all the good parts of the film irrelevant, so that the second time you see it (and I watched it a second time, yes) you just find yourself irritated by the fake 19th century town with its fake 19th century ways because it's all fake, a long joke with nothing to it but the punchline.