The Village seemed to mark a turning point for M. Night. It's a pretty polarizing film, at least on first viewing. When I first saw, I didn't know what to think at the end, but seeing it again, it's clear that Shyamalan had a purpose that was more Blowup than Jurassic Park. In this I mean that The Village was more to explore an idea than just thrill audiences. If you can distance yourself from some engaging performances to see a big picture, the film makes a lot more sense.
Certainly knowing what's going to happen next makes The Village go down easier. A second viewing allows you to ask why the story is told like it is instead of wondering how some very charming characters are going to come out in the end. This viewing allowed me to see the film more of an exploration of the price of preserving innocence and whether that's even possible. Seeing it in this light, some of the cinematic choices, especially in the second half of the film, made more sense.
Fun fact: this is Jesse Eisenberg of recent Adventureland fame.
The first half of the film quickly establishes and develops the relationship between Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) and Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard). Their story shows us what good can come from the rules of the village. A sweet romance comes out of the institution of fear the Elders keep in place to keep people in the village and out of the towns. The group of Elders is played by an impressive collection of veteren actors, led by the eloquent William Hurt as Edward Walker. By mid-film when Noah Percy (Adrien Brody) stabs Lucius, it's a jarring turn around for the film. We are no longer following a budding romance, the protagonist switches on us from Lucius to Ivy, and most importantly, the innocence of the village is interrupted. Reality hits, and the more we realize what a farce the whole first half of the movie is, the more the film beomces alienating.
Bryce Dallas Howard and Joaquin Phoenix put in some great performances in this film. Their relationship is sweet and often funny. I'm always sad we don't get to see more of it.
It's easy to complain that the movie deliberately manipulates the audience, but except for the date on the grave stone at the beginning of the film that indicates the time period is a century before it really is, the choices make sense for the purpose of exploring the concept of innocence in a society. We learn that this is a utopian village established by heartbroken men and women looking to go back to a time that seems very pure. Agree with the Elders' decision or not, it's an interesting concept. Our experience as audience members for the first part of the film is like that of one of the children who grew up in the village. We accept what is going on at face value.
It's a big deal when Edward Walker decides to let Ivy in on the truth. Because the Elders have been forced to create an almost religion, at least a cultural one, to meet their goals, this interrupts Ivy's whole way of thinking as a daughter of the village. Her indoctrination/innocence is reestablished once she is attacked by Noah in one of the monster suits, but her disillusionment for a portion of the film is similiar to growing up and realizing that real life often flies in the face of what you've been taught as a child. This is a version of loss of innocence that everyone goes through; so by appealing to pathos on that level and banking on the fact that we've experienced life in the village for an hour, Shyamalan seems to hope that we understand what Ivy is going through.
Another version of loss of innocence is through the character Noah who as an embodiment of innocence. His actions early in the film and his obvious mental limitations indicate that he doesn't have a clear concept of right and wrong. That someone who is innocent/oblivious to many things is the vessel of for a terrible crime is just another case when the village's plan falls through. In other words, it's a small scale version of what will inevitably happen to the village in the end.
Justice plays out through, again, oblivious means by Ivy (blind to who she is killing). Because no one had to directly confront punishing a bad deed, even the Elder's innocence is preserved.
But even though the integrity of the Elders' village remains in the end, their idea still has chinks in it. People still die. Adulterous temptation still exists. Deliberate violence can still happen. It's a bit angering that the group of Elders still want to keep the village going at the end, but fascinating. It leaves us wondering when their way of life will end. When the funds to keep the "wildlife reserve" private runs out? When more young adults question their isolation like Lucius did? They've survived this threat to their experiment, but when will the next one happen, and how will they survive that one?
The Village might seem hokey to some, but aren't all metaphors and morality stories on some level hokey? I mean, Fellini-esque mimes playing tennis with an invisible tennis ball are pretty corny if you're not looking at what their actions mean. Maybe M. Night Shyamalan isn't a cinematic genius, but it's hard to fault a writer/director that's so deliberate in the creation of his films.