*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'The Village' is not the 'scary monster movie' some reviewers wanted it
to be. It is a subtle mood-piece, a Hardyesque rustic love-tragedy, a
heroic quest, and a fable exploring the use of fear and deceit as tools
for social control and manipulation. The 'twists' are, more accurately,
keys to the mysteries and apparent anomalies. What is truly disturbing
is the conclusion: a chilling 'happy ending' which raises serious moral
The first scene, the funeral of a child, Daniel Nicholson, tells us it is 1897. Covington is an isolated Pennsylvanian village with its own rituals and customs. It is some sort of pacifist commune run by a council of Elders, reminiscent of the Amish, Mennonites and Shakers, or - given the prominence of women - of 19C progressive experiments such as Brook Farm. But the idyll is precarious: in the surrounding forest there are mysterious Creatures which the villagers placate with animal sacrifices and other rituals. Everyone has to stay within the village bounds; the colour red is forbidden, while yellow offers protection. When the truce between the Creatures and the villagers is broken, livestock are found skinned and doors are marked with red.
Against this 'Little House in Sleepy Hollow' folksy/Gothic background, a touching romance develops between shy, hard-working Lucius Hunt and Ivy Walker, a lively and indomitable blind girl. There are complications: Ivy's sister Kitty sets her cap at Lucius; Lucius has to overcome his own emotional reticence; and Noah Percy, a waif-like, mentally handicapped youth has a crush on Ivy. It's Thomas Hardy territory: the spirited young heroine; the quiet, stalwart hero; the rival marked for tragedy. (Imagine Giles Winterbourne or Gabriel Oak competing with Abel Whittle for a visually-impaired Elizabeth-Jane!)
****Spoiler**** This triangle provokes crisis. Seemingly the last to know of Ivy and Lucius's engagement, Noah - distraught, at the mercy of emotions he cannot articulate - stabs Lucius. His wounds become infected, and his only hope is for someone to cross the boundary, to brave the woods and the Creatures, and bring medicine from 'The Towns' beyond.
'The Towns' are forbidden territory, regarded as evil, violent, corrupting. We have already begun to learn that Covington village was founded by people fleeing 'The Towns': the Elders (including the parents of the young protagonists) had all lost family members, and sought to build a peaceful life. They are oath-bound never to return. Earlier, after the death of Daniel Nicholson, Lucius had himself contemplated making the dangerous journey for medical supplies, to prevent other children dying. Now it is Ivy, determined to save her beloved, who sets out on the quest. Her blindness is regarded as an advantage, in that she will not see, and thus not be tempted, by the world beyond the wood - if she can complete the journey.
We are now in the world of folktale: the valiant young girl travelling through the forest in her hooded cape (in this case yellow!), to bring back potions for her lover. But on the way there are several important revelations for us and for Ivy. We learn more of the Elders: of the society which they have fled, and that which they have created. We discover the true nature of the Creatures which manipulate and intimidate the villagers. And when Ivy does reach help, we see what she cannot - what really lies beyond the woods.
Bryce Dallas Howard is splendid as Ivy, a strong-willed and endearing young heroine. Adrien Brody is heartbreaking as the desperately vulnerable Noah: despite the harm he causes (which rebounds on himself), this viewer ended up clinging to a slender thread of hope on his behalf. I was less certain of Joaquin Phoenix's Lucius. He's likable enough, and I was certainly rooting for him to pull through, but 'strong and silent' can veer dangerously close to 'inexpressive and wooden': Joaquin is generally better in more demonstrative roles. Perhaps he and Adrien should have swapped roles? Sigourney Weaver and William Hurt, as Alice Hunt and Edward Walker, sensitively convey a tentative relationship, within the constraints of late 19C rural puritanism (he is married). Brendan Gleeson is also good as the bereaved Nicholson. Both music and photography are superbly atmospheric.
Like most fairytale quests, Ivy's is a success. But to describe the ending as 'happy' would be misleading. It is *disturbing*. The Elders, especially Ivy's father, are still determined to cling to their deceptions. The most frightening moment in the film comes when Walker asks a couple to allow their child's (presumed) death to be co-opted to reinforce the community myth. The real monsters are in the village itself, not the forest: still-traumatised, manipulative adults, who claim to be acting for the good of others - to the cost of the most vulnerable.
Some have interpreted the film as a parable about the US government's use of terror-threats to create a climate of fear in the present, or about its own nationalist mythology. It may also allude to affluent 'white flight' and gated communities (the all-white composition of the village is, I suspect, deliberate). But the deeper themes are international, generically human. Organised religions have used myth and legend as instruments of intimidation and social repression. Yes, urban life is sometimes insecure and haunted by fear of crime, but is a retreat into a simple rural life the answer? Nostalgia for an 'innocent' past can be dangerous (children killed or handicapped by treatable illnesses). But perhaps there is hope for the future, when courage and love such as Ivy's can prevail.
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