From seismic shifts to cute little “a-ha” moments, a good plot twist can rearrange a story’s dynamics for a juicier conclusion. In Clever or Contrived, I’ll take a look at the moments in books, TV and movies that need a SPOILER ALERT label.
The gist: It’s the 1890s and the townsfolk in a secluded village are trying their darndest to live in harmony, shunning the money and vices of life in “the towns.” But all their utopian aspirations are threatened by enormous, red-cloaked, porcupined “the things we do not speak of” who come out of the woods to skin dogs and paint menacing red stripes on doors. The Elders of the community (William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Mad-Eye Moody and Cherry Jones) warn everyone that the monsters wouldn’t bother them as long as everyone stays out of the woods.
Meanwhile, Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) has a major crush on Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), the daughter of William Hurt’s character. She’s blind but is still probably the most emotionally perceptive person in the whole town and is friends with everyone, including the twisted, mentally stunted Noah (Adrien Brody).
When Lucius and Ivy finally get over their awkward phase and get
engaged, Noah is super jealous and goes and stabs Lucius a lot. The only way to save Lucius is to venture through the woods and into “the towns” for medicines. Though Ivy is blind, she convinces her father she’s the only who can make it safely through the woods, because her pureness of intent won’t anger the creatures.
The twist: It’s actually 2004, and the village is just a Little-House-on-the-Prairie commune tucked away in a heavily guarded nature preserve. Ivy’s father and all the other Elders built the retreat as a shield from the vulgarities of modern life, then raised their children in the world’s most elaborate role playing game, making all the young folks think it really was the 1800s. To keep up the pretense, the Elders are the ones who run around in the red robes skinning livestock. They use scary bedtime stories to keep the towns’ younger, oblivious residents within its borders — ostensibly to protect them from muggings and rapists and drugs and the corruption of money. Ivy’s father lets her go to get the medicine from the outside world because 1) he swore an oath never to leave the village and 2) Ivy’s not going to figure out what’s really beyond the woods because she can’t see.
The reveal: Ivy’s dad has already told her that the red-robed creatures are really the Elders in costume, but she’s still freaking blind, so getting through the woods is a harrowing ordeal. She makes it to the boundary, and as she’s scrambling over a shrubbery-covered fence a dozen feet high, James Newton Howard’s score drops out and the quiet whir of a distant car engine filters in. Yep. It’s a Range Rover being driven by a security guard for the Walker Nature Preserve. It’s 2004.
This coincides with a montage of the Ivy’s father opening a lockbox and sorting through newspaper clippings from the 1980s and voiceovers of the adults in a long-ago support group, where they hatched the idea to give the modern world the finger.
Clues: The Elders each own greenish little lockboxes they talk about cryptically, they give each other cryptic glares when anything goes awry, they make cryptic allusions to loved ones lost to violence. The speech is so stilted and old-fashioned, but for a few choice wobbles into modern vernacular. It all has the look and feel of a high-quality theater production. While this atmosphere seems fitting at the time, the staged quality of the manufactured utopia really jars when Ivy pleads “Please, sir, we must make haste,” to a bewildered park ranger named Kevin.
So what does it do? M. Night Shyamalan, the director of The Village, The Sixth Sense, Signs, etc., is notorious for being a one-trick pony. He makes movies with twists. (Though he’s since moved into his “incomprehensible WTF” phase with Lady in the Water, The Happening and Avatar: The Last Airbender).
For a while there in the 2000s, you went to Shyamalan movie because you were expecting a twist. That was part of the deal. So the whole time you’re watching one of his movies, you’re looking for things that can come to fruition later. Is this the twist? Wait, no, is THIS the twist?
The Village has two twists, really: One, that the Elders are really the porcupined red riding hoods. Two, the Elders have been holding their children hostage in a make-believe time warp.
I’d been spoiled to this twist for this movie. No, not by an over-informative movie review. In fact, it was ruined for me about eight years before this film came out, when I was in the second grade and read Margaret Peterson Haddix’s Running Out of Time, a popular young adult novel with basically the same hook: People weary of the modern world’s ills decide to out-Amish the Amish and start a 19th century commune, but then one of their own has to embark on a quest to find modern medicine to save the townsfolk.
I doubt Shyamalan ripped off the Haddix book, though Simon & Schuster flirted with filing a lawsuit against Disney when the studio released The Village in 2004.
While the Haddix book has much the same structure as The Village, the movie has something the 1995 book couldn’t have: pervasive symbolism about a post-9/11 America. Color-coded danger — The Village’s red-cloaked creatures and the yellow flags used to warn them off — parallel pretty cleanly with those terror threat level charts SNL used to lampoon.
More tricky, though, is how the Elders use childish fear of the unknown to hem in the community. The allure of returning to America’s idyllic roots in small, quiet pioneer towns can easily be contrasted to the horrific scenes of dust billowing through the canyons of Manhattan after the towers fell.
But the film’s ending, after the reveal to the audience, is ambiguous about whether living out that nostalgia would actually be a good thing.
The Village’s final scene, where the elders decide to keep up the charade even after Noah’s death and Ivy’s ordeal, was pronounced an endorsement of conservative isolationism by some reviewers upon the film’s release. But now, a decade out from 2001, I felt an earned sense of anger at those characters who reaffirm their intention to bring up future generations cut off from the truth about the world outside the woods.
Judging by her interactions with her father and Lucius, Ivy is someone who longs to determine her own destiny despite her disability. We scrambled along with Ivy through the harrowing woods, but though she completes her task and saves her fiancé, she is still in the dark. Even she, the most emotionally perceptive of the villagers, cannot fathom that she is basically living in an alternate dimension. She’ll never be able to overcome her blindness, physical or psychological. She is trapped, unknowingly, in this living history experiment because those in power have cut off all contact with everything else. Yeah, she’s happy and her fiancé won’t die now, but she’s not really free.
If that’s not a tragic and unflinching allegory for the dangers of gung-ho isolationism, then I don’t really know what Shyamalan was going for. I guess he could have been less culturally on-point and was really only talking about how the real world is scary and some people want to throw it all away for a permanent trip to Colonial Williamsburg. Or maybe he just wanted to make a cool twisty movie with a bad-ass heroine.
Clever or Contrived?: I mean, looking at this now, I wish I could go back in time so I could do a thesis on this shit. Talk about a twist on the American Dream.
But as for the plot twist’s impact on my movie enjoyment? It was about half clever and half contrived, even if Shyamalan didn’t lift the plot from a Scholastic book order form. When the credits roll, you do feel kind of used. All that build-up, character struggle and suspense dissolves when you find out the whole world in which you became invested was make-believe, even to the characters themselves.
For the record: Even if this movie is a total rip-off of my favorite book when I was 8, I still think the movie is better.
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