"Our Silly Lies": Ideological Fictions in M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village"

Article excerpt

Though it was the top-grossing film in the U.S. market for the first several weeks after its release on July 30, 2004, M. Night Shyamalan's The Village got middling reviews and did not have the staying power of any of his previous releases. The film, which tells the story of an isolated, Utopian community, apparently set sometime in the American past and hemmed in by a forest said to be populated with strange, menacing creatures, came in for criticism especially because of its tortuous, twist-laden plot. Claudia Puig of the USA Today, for instance, complained about "the timing of revelations" in the film (n.p.), and Thomas Hibbs, writing in the National Review, said the film "fails because its moods are not woven into a credible plot"; he argued that, late in the film, "audience confusion will have given way to irritation" (58). Several reviewers also noted in passing the film's topical engagement in contemporary debates and anxieties about the conflict between "homeland security" and civil rights. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone jokingly called the monsters rumored to roam the film's woods "creatures of mass destruction" (n.p.) and Anthony Lane of The New Yorker, describing the fictional village's seeming investment in keeping its younger generation afraid of the woods, quipped, "You may scoff at the idea that a community would not just prep itself but define itself by declaring an ever higher level of threat, in which case I would draw your attention to any newspaper of the past month" (90). In this essay, I want to suggest that despite some flaws The Village is worthy of another look, precisely because of the close link between the narratological structure of its much-maligned plot and its revealing, if problematic, political engagement in questions about individual freedom and collective security. The Village, that is, uses a complicated syuzhet in order to place its viewers in the position of citizens who have been deceived by their leaders, then urges viewers to consider whether the deception is justified. And it does so in a narrative that self-consciously foregrounds and exaggerates its own manipulations. The Village, in short, is a film about the withholding of narrative information and the links between narrative and political power. The film thus usefully problematizes questions of narrative and power even while it finally settles (or attempts to settle) on what I see as a dangerously reactionary position.

This thematic link between narrative politics and politics per se is perhaps most obvious in a key scene midway through the film. In the scene Ivy, the film's young, blind protagonist, sets off from the village and enters the woods. Her quest is to bring back medicine from "the towns," wicked and forbidden territories, to help her young fiancé, who may be dying from a stab wound. She is accompanied by two very nervous young men who have been compelled to accompany her and, to their surprise, equipped with a satchel of "magic rocks," guaranteed to ward off the creatures. But one of her guides falters in fear at the woods' edge, raising the quite reasonable question, "Why have we not heard of these rocks before?" With that the guide turns tail and abandons Ivy to her other escort, who the next morning follows his lead and, amid much rationalization, leaves her to her own devices. The guides' cowardice is pointedly contrasted to Ivy's courage and resourcefulness: Ivy's father, played as a preternaturally wise and humane patriarch by William Hurt, describes her as "more capable than most in this village," and she demonstrates her bravery and improvisational brilliance decisively in the ensuing scene. Thus in establishing Ivy as its questing heroine, The Village mocks and rejects the guides who express suspicion of the late-coming narrative detail of the magic rocks. The curious irony here is that the guides are correct in terms of the film's ultimate narrative "reality"-the "probability scheme"1 the film embraces at its conclusion, when it explains all of its events in realistic terms. …