M. Night Shyamalan‘s The Village (2004) has become a classic, a classic of American cinema. It’s one of these rare films which get better and better over time. The film is not only a masterpiece of the old film school in terms of atmopshere, style and characters, but also thematizes timeless, especially American themes. A catch-up dedication.
Visually and acoustically brilliant
The Village is a perfect film in terms of craftsmanship. Especially the visual style as well as acoustics and soundtrack contribute to this. The result are pictures that ressemble a lot paintings. But one thing at a time.
A film like a painting
The viewer is not connected to the perspective of a certain protagonist in the film, which leads to the viewer perceiving himself as an outsider. He is given an insight into all possible entanglements of the village. In addition, he is shown situations and images that none of the characters in the film can see. In fact, the viewer becomes part of the village, like another villager.
Then, the zoom function is often used in the film. Cameraman Roger Deakins uses a very slow zoom. Instead of concentrating on the protagonists alone, he deductively zooms out several times from a close camera position to a total one, thus embedding the characters in their surroundings – similar to a painting. The painting effect is further enhanced by the naturally illuminated images. The light sources in the interiors are windows or flames. Oil lamps have been used for various outdoor night shots. A lot of work was also done with the prevailing autumn light, which contributed decisively to the atmosphere of the film.
All this shows clearly that Shyamalan was inspired by the works of the American painter Andrew Wyeth. In Shyamalan’s film the same foggy, pale light prevails as in Wyeth’s pictures. The film was shot in Chadds Ford, the birth- and workplace of Wyeth. Shyamalan was thus able to use the same landscapes and motifs that had also served the painter as a model. Shyamalan confirms this: “Andrew was the main inspiration for the look of the movie. The grays and the minimalism, and the light – that’s all from Andrew.”* He describes Wyeth’s work having a “creep” beauty. And this creepy, poetic beauty can also be find in The Village.
Atmosphere through sound
Besides the stunning visual beauty of The Village, the sound plays also a very important role in the film. Every nuance had to help tell the story. Among other things, the roar of the wind (in the scenes in which Ivy has to cross the forest) and the creaking of the woods (for example, when a few young people test their courage on the edge of the forest) were used. Shyamalan creates something quite astonishing: mere noises trigger human primeval fears in the viewer.
In order to strengthen the visual and acoustic atmosphere, Shyamalan decided, together with his composer James Newton Howard, to employ the American violinist Hillary Hahn. That was a stroke of genius: The solo violin keeps the basic tuning in an incredible floating state throughout. The sad, fragile violin sounds were often the only musical accompaniment. They convey the mystical, gloomy and sad mood that prevails in the village. It’s no exaggeration to describe The Village‘s soundtrack as one of the best film soundtracks of all time. The music is sad, surprising, delightful and balanced. It is a often great score, whose complexity profits from the film’s ambitions.
American age-old themes
But not only the realization of the movie is so fascinating. Also the themes Shyamalan addresses are absorbing.
Back to nature, back to innocence
Role models for the nature-oriented and volatile existence of the villagers are the American philosophers of nature and transcendence, Henry David Thoreau (Walden) and Ralph Waldo Emerson (Nature). These philosophers from the 19th century have a disbanded mistrust of society and notice that humans never fully accept nature’s beauty. Humans are distracted by the demands of the world, whereas nature gives but humans fail to reciprocate… Nature is the real thing, something spiritual. You can feel that in Shyamalan’s film: The village eldest Walker creates a monumental painting, romanticize and mystify, and construct as self-definition a chosen being and an innocence in the face of this (modern social) wilderness.
The other thematic inspiration are the Amish. This group of religious traditional people has a significant population in Pennsylvania. They live a life strongly rooted in agriculture and are known for rejecting certain modern techniques and adopting innovations only after careful consideration of their effects. The Amish attach great importance to a family with clearly defined gender roles, community and seclusion from the outside world. The village structure created in Shyamalan’s film is clearly reminiscent of the Amish, a deeply American phenomenon.
Shyamalan shows Christian-American fundamentalism as an ideal, which, however, can only be maintained by isolation, unworldliness and the denial of the catastrophes within. Through out the film this “New Jerusalem” appears less and less as a “natural” order; but as an enclave of hope lost in time.
After September 11, 2001, there was fear in the air everywhere. It’s still in the air, and we’re living in really scary times. I reacted as everyone else would, that is, by putting my emotions on paper. And that gave rise to The Village. (Shyamalan**)
The Village can also be seen as a political parable. The story has somehow been interpreted as a key story to the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism policy, but also to the political Age of Trump: Walker as a “village president” who shamelessly exploits the fear of his community. How the Bush administration reacted to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and played with the fears of the population; every purpose served to declare security the highest good. Indeed, Shyamalan explores the emotions that terror awakens like no other before him, but he is obviously on the side of Walker who would absurdly give up a very trustworthy Bush or Trump in his film… The Village is more a study of fear than a political commentary. It tells about a group of people who want to escape their fear and yet have to learn to live with it. Shyamalan shows how isolation from the outside and repression from the inside go hand in hand. The fear not only corresponds to a real threat from outisde (the monsters, or terrorists), but also ensures the cohesion of the community at the same time.
Shyamalan used the isolated village, a classic American archetype, to interrogate the identity built around it with the help of fear. The American fear of terror is another thematic cornerstone of the film.
With this film Shyamalan trusts wholeheartedly the power of cinema. He succeeds very well in capturing an atmosphere of fear, insecurity and uncertainty in pictures. Combined with the village idyll, this has its own unique poetry that enchants. The Village is not only a showcase of a brilliant made film, but also turns out to be a very American film. Indeed, the film draws his inspiration from very American themes and interprets these further. That is the reason why today Shyamalan’s film can be called an American classic.
*Shyamalan quoted in Conn, Steven: Metropolitan Philadelphia: Living with the Presence of the Past, 2006. P. 230.
**Shyamalan quoted after this interview in French: “Après le 11 septembre 2001, on sentait la peur dans l’air, partout. C’est d’ailleurs toujours dans l’air, et nous vivons des heures vraiment effrayantes. J’ai réagi comme tout un chacun le ferait, c’est à dire en couchant mes émotions sur le papier. Et cela a donné Le Village.”
Photos: flickr.com, curiator.com, commons.wikimedia.org