(At the request of our readers, please be warned that some discussion in this work of criticism could constitute spoilers.)
It would be easy to mistake M. Night Shyamalan's The Village for a call to a return to simpler times and values. The film's heroes, William Hurt's village-leader Mr. Walker, and Bryce Dallas Howard's knight of faith Ivy, willfully turn away from knowledge in favor of a return to, or perpetuation of, a state of innocence. The only character who exhibits a genuine desire for knowledge, Joaquin Phoenix's Lucius Hunt, is brutally stabbed halfway through the film; Adrien Brody's simple-minded Noah, the only character directly referred to as an innocent, is the one who stabs Lucius and becomes the villain of the picture, highlighting the complex nature of innocence in The Village.
The village itself, in my reading, represents Hollywood cinema. The decision of the elders to press on with their cherished illusion at the close of the story is a ringing endorsement of the Hollywood mode of filmmaking, which is tied closely to American ideals of hope and innocence. This view sees film as a kind of cherished illusion, and the village as film: it is a stage upon which compelling illusions of hope and innocence play out. By making The Village, Shyamalan has in effect posed the question of whether this kind of innocence is worth cultivating, protecting, and celebrating. The box-office and the critical response will supply the answer.
It is worth noting that Shyamalan himself has no place within the artificial Eden he creates because of the color of his skin. In the case of The Village, we can use the metatextual device of director self-insertion to shed light on the self/other dichotomy that drives most innocence narratives. The village is a strict hegemony defined against those beyond the wood, symbolized by Those We Do Not Speak Of. A child of immigrants, Shyamalan may be ideally suited to simultaneously examine American values from both an insider and outsider perspective (or so I believe, based in part on the similarity of my own heritage and experiences).
That M. Night Shyamalan loves film is hardly a point worth arguing. The more fruitful discussion, I believe, lies in asking what value The Village sees in innocence and escape. Ivy's journey seems to follow the pattern of Plato's allegory of the cave. The village is the cave, the younger generation mistaking the shadows on the wall—carefully constructed by the elders—for the true world. In Plato's tale, a prisoner of this false world is set free; he sees the fire and moves past it, eventually emerging in the full light of day—the true world. Ivy does not seek knowledge, but rather has the knowledge handed down to her by her father, and here the very cinematography of The Village echoes the epistemology: most every tracking shot or pull-out works to reveal something of the world as it already exists. (I have only seen the film once, but I recall a pull-back that revealed parents lovingly watching over young ones, as well as Ivy opening her closet to reveal Noah, whom she of course does not see). Truth, in The Village, is in here, not out there (this is probably the aspect of the movie viewers will find most dissatisfying, since the marketing leads one to believe external answers in the shape of mysterious creatures do exist).
Ivy learns of the external world. She reaches "the towns," which may be little more than a guard-post around a nature reserve. Here Shyamalan engages the audience by not spoon-feeding information: the security company is called "Walker," leaving the viewer to figure out that Ivy's father used some of her grandfather's wealth to buy a security force to keep outsiders out of the preserve, and even keep planes from flying overhead. Having penetrated so far into the truth, Ivy gets the medicine she seeks and returns. Initially, this seems to be in opposition to Plato's model—as if our freed cave-dweller balked at the land of the sun and ran back into the comforting darkness (like Cypher in The Matrix).
Plato's story is subtler than is often realized, and the allegory ends with our traveler returning to the cave and trying to educate those still bound within the cave about the true nature of reality. Shyamalan's film ends with Ivy returning to the village with knowledge of the outside world, and it is not immediately clear what she will do with it. The elders seem to feel they've won, meaning they think nothing will come of Ivy's experience, but there is no reason to suppose she wouldn't tell her truth-seeker husband about what she has learned. Perhaps the kind of hope and innocence represented by the village (and applied, by extension, to Hollywood movie-making) is the mode of the older generation, and the new one will find its own way.
What really gums up any definitive conclusions I might offer, and what makes The Village difficult to classify and challenging to watch, is the love its story is built upon. Ivy and Lucius share a sentimental, violin-swelling love that is a risky element to base a film of this type on. In many ways, The Village is a film about taking risks and exploring the unexpected: despite the abundance of proven movie-stars, the main character is played by Bryce Dallas Howard, a relative unknown, and the character she plays is a blind female—not your typical monster-slayer. The film challenges expectations of what an M. Night Shyamalan film can be by not finding its solution in the existence of a supernatural other, but manages to come off feeling conservative and perhaps even willfully ignorant.
The key to one's appraisal of The Village, I suspect, comes down to one's interpretation of the love story at its heart. If the love is mere sentimentality, The Village is a film which fails to deliver the thrills and monsters its audience seeks, and pushes a disturbing moral: hide from your problems and lie to your children, even if it kills them. If the love is something transcending—an ineffable transformation borne of faith—then The Village represents a synthesis of old values derived from a new, informed perspective. True love becomes the ultimate Hollywood monkey wrench because it cannot be commodified (those so inclined might even say the love is so powerful that even things like a coherent plot are sacrificed to better serve it).
The Village is a film that poses a lot of interesting questions, but does not fully explore them. Whether this unfinished quality provides an opportunity for the viewer to ponder the film's themes, or is merely symptomatic of beginning the film in the wrong place, is up to each individual viewer. Personally, I think The Village might turn out to be one of those films I have more fun talking about than I did actually watching it. I went looking for thrills and chills and came away with love, allegory, and epistemology—not a bad deal on the whole, but one a mass audience may struggle to accept.