The Village of Covington Woods in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village emerges as a victim of its own ambitions. It presents a compelling premise about people's inability to shield themselves from loss, pain or crime.
Philip Horne describes The Village as an, ‘’exquisitely crafted allegory of American soul-searching seems to have been widely misunderstood, so it seems worth trying to intimate just why it's so richly suggestive – about innocence and denial, about fear and forests and the creation of bogeymen, about America's historical sense of its own unique mission, and indeed about the American present of gated communities and Homeland Security.’’
I think there are certain characters in this film that are often overlooked, shadowed by the main characters: Ivy Walker, Noah Percy, and Lucius Hunt. But I want to focus attention on ‘’those we don’t speak of’’. No, not the creatures in the woods lured by the color red, but the minor characters on the sidelines. In this case, the Elders.
The Elders in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village are the key characters- more like symbols than characters; archetypes, in a sense. Especially the characters of Edward Walker, Alice Hunt, Mrs. Clack, and August Nicholson.
I want to start with August first.
The character of August Nicholson- the grim, stout widower- a character I wished Night developed a bit more on, as he was a very drawn out character in the screenplay, is one of the more fascinating village elders. He appealed to me because he was such a key character that basically drove Lucius Hunt to become what he did.
Through the character of August, Night presents a certain sort of awareness to the audience as well as to the residents of Covington Woods. He provokes a sense in us that grief is a part of our everyday lives and, fundamentally everyone is going to end up like August, eventually: alone, without family, a survivor- but a lonesome survivor, nonetheless. This intense, serious film opens with the funeral of a seven year old child, Daniel Nicholson, who passed away from an unknown illness- probably a disease that urban medicine might have saved, leading its father (Brendan Gleeson) to declare that though "You may run from sorrow, as we have, sorrow will find you".
The early script of The Village, then titled ‘’The Woods’’, did not refer to him by name at first. To us, in the first couple of pages, he was only known as the ‘’wilting man’’- and indeed, that’s what August became. His name, August, was just who he was before malaise, in which Edward Walker put it as, ‘’he brought so much sunshine and laughter into the hearts and minds of people who knew him,’’ but then gradually, he began to dwindle away like a wilting flower- he might as well have been a weed. But who could blame him? Losing a child is the worst incubus of any parent, especially a widower.
This is the last bloodline of the Nicholsons, and August has just survived his offspring, meaning that every part of him has died along with the corpse of his adolescent son- no one can now carry on the family line. He is the only elder, by far, who has essentially lost everyone. Every elder, of course, suffered a loss, but August is the only sole survivor of his clan. Inherently, from this point forward, he just wants to lie down, fall asleep and never awaken again. He has relinquished all hope and cannot make haste with himself to continue the foundation of principles for the village, despite what all the elders had ever worked for. He begins to ignore his duties as village elder, and is subsequently driven by grief into a vow of silence.
In what we can only assume is a day after the funeral, or at least initially after the funeral, August is made Chair of the Council by his best friend, the Chief Elder, Edward Walker. We are not clear why this came about, but it may be an act of charity on Edward’s part for his dear friend who has suffered so much already in such a short-lived lifetime. However, in what appears to be a wasteful scene of Edward’s wife, Tabitha and the other female village elders- Mrs. Clack, Alice Hunt and Vivien Percy discussing the Flight of the Birds, it is an important scene indeed. While the women are engaged in the meeting and knitting to pass the time, August- who is supposed to be organizing the meeting- stares off into space, his mind beyond doubt clouded with the memory of his late son. The women, of course, notice this, but pretend to fail to acknowledge it. When they turn to Edward on whether they should have the Flight of the Birds this year, Edward shakes his head and replies calmly, ‘’I do not have a say in this matter. August Nicholson is Chair of today’s meeting.’’ All eyes turn to August. He appears exhausted, his eyes red from crying, undeniably. August, instead of answering, hangs his head and nods as he shuffles papers in his hand. Of course, the village elders change the subject quickly to food, as they can plainly see he is still upset, and perhaps would never be the same again.
This is the first scene in the aftermath of the funeral where August plainly not only abandons the will to live, but even the simple effort of speech. His eulogy at the start of the film (and generically the first lines spoken): ‘’Who will plague me with questions now?... Who will pinch me to wake me up? Who will laugh at me when I fall? Whose breath will I listen for so that I may sleep? Whose hand will I hold so that I may walk?’’ are not only the first lines in the film, but the first lines he speaks. But after that, they might as well have been his last. Thereafter, he retreats inside the darkness of his empty home (and in a deleted scene, there is a heartbreaking moment when he is curled up in his son‘s small bed), never emerging unless called to a meeting at the town hall, and never speaking in public. During the remainder of the film, he is often silent and when the other elders look to him for advice, he only shrugs and hangs his head. When he does get up to speak, it comes as a great shock to everyone. During the wedding of Kitty, Edward’s eldest daughter and Ivy Walker’s older sister, August stands up to speak which surprises everyone. It is unexpected. As everyone watches him, he speaks composedly for the first time since the funeral, ‘’These are experiences we came here to have. This is good. This is pure.’’
In one of the last scenes of the film, he stands with Edward, his good friend, and speaks about hope for the first time: ‘’Let her go. If it ends, it ends. We can move towards hope, that's what's beautiful about this place. We cannot run from heartache. My brother was slain in the towns, the rest of my family died here. Heartache is a part of life, we know that now. Ivy is running toward hope, let her run. If this place is worthy, she'll be successful in her quest. ‘’
It is an important scene for the elders and for August especially, to regain his strength and rediscover hope within the village. It leads to his ultimate decision in the elders’ vote to continue Covington Woods.
Before August compassed his newfound hope in the face of tragedy, he took a vow of silence in public as discussed above. And what I mean by ‘’first time he speaks composedly since the funeral’’ is that, yes, he did speak after the funeral before Kitty’s wedding, but only seemingly to Lucius who, he himself, had been close to his son and in which August remarks, ‘’I wondered if you bonded with my son because neither of you were fond of speaking,’’ and it’s true. Lucius is a reserved but intelligent boy and being without a father, seems to bond with August and his family quite easily. After Daniel Nicholson’s death, August becomes like Lucius: silent. Lucius convoys great concern for him and constantly comes by his house to take care of the despondent August by lighting his hearth and bringing in firewood to keep him warm. There is an almost tender, yet foreboding scene when August does, in fact, speak. However, his words are never clear, constantly lapsing into mindless rants in delusional, partially conscious states. It is during this state that August absentmindedly reveals a secret: he and his wife worked at a pastry shop and liked to throw dinner parties in the towns. ‘’There were pastries with cream in them,’’ he says reverently. ‘’We served pastries with cream in them.’’
This is the anti-turning point in The Village when Lucius first sees the black box in an elder’s home. He will see another black box in the house of his mother later on. And in that box is all the village’s secrets. It comes to pass that Lucius is finally beginning to see the truth and through the elders’ lies- - which drives the story, on his part.
We are gradually reminded of the opening of the film with young Daniel Nicholson’s funeral, which brings us to a certain and newfound awareness that even the peaceful life of the 19th century village can be disrupted and that despite the non-existence of man-made evils associated with ‘’the towns’’ (with the exception of the farce creatures who live in the woods), grief and loss are still apart of reality in the village, and no one- not even the elders- can escape it. It’s just like what August said, ‘’Like a dog can smell you… You may run from sorrow. As we have. Sorrow will find you. It can smell you.’’
This is also a big change for not only August to accept, but for Lucius Hunt as well. The death of someone so young and obviously close to him sparks a question in his young, intelligent mind- a question that drives the whole core of the story: ‘’Can the village continue to survive?’’
And with this new revelation, Lucius makes the most important decision that he’s probably ever had to make in his life. He thinks, ‘’Well, young Daniel Nicholson died of some terrible, unknown disease that could have been prevented had we had the proper knowledge. Now, being what we are in our time and our peaceful, simplistic community, we do not have access to the so-called ‘evil’ knowledge and technology the elders so often speak of, but what would happen if we did? Would there have been a chance for Daniel? Could we have saved him if we had the proper medicine? If I were to go into the towns and acquire the medicines that we needed for diseases that took the life of Daniel, then there would probably be less of those like August Nicholson. We can prevent another epidemic. We have that power to do so, but in order to do so, we need to take one extra step.’’
Moved, one shy conformist but fearless young man, Lucius Hunt, volunteers to brave the woods and fetch life-saving drugs – which precipitates a crisis. The death of the son of village elder August Nicholson, which prompts this young man to petition the elders to let him go into the forest to obtain emergency medicine for future use, tells us immediately that August was already a major factor in the key-turning point of Lucius’ transformation. It is the character of August- and seeing his great and terrible, unspeakable adversity- that prompts Lucius to dare and question the unthinkable, to journey into the unknown. Without the character of August, neither Lucius, Noah, or Ivy would have been able to see the truth.