As a young nerd in the early 2000s with a tumultuous family life, my internet connection was holy. Sure I had some friends IRL, but I never felt like I was fully authentic. Online, however, I could be myself. In fact I could be more than myself: I could be anyone. I could freely write Harry Potter fanfiction on the Neopets message boards and make my first online friends, whom I solely interacted with through AIM. The identity I chose was not some extravagant fantasy. Instead, my alter ego was Ivy Elizabeth Walker, the protagonist of M. Night Shyamalan’s most empathetic film: 2004’s The Village.
In The Village, Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a member of a secluded colonial village in the middle of the woods. Here, she flourishes as a tomboy who wants to play games with the village boys and get her skirts dirty. But more than her rejection of womanly duties and behavior, she is incredibly kind. She can make even the shyest villager talk to her and smile, including Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix), who eventually becomes her fiance. But when Lucius is gravely injured, Ivy learns the truth about the village: It is a construction of the village founders to escape the real world, and the monsters they say lurk in the woods are made up to keep anyone from leaving. It is also not the 1800s, but the 2000s. Upon this discovery, Ivy must then venture from her sheltered life in the woods to enter the real world to get the medical equipment necessary to save his life.
As a child, Ivy was a beacon of light to me, a pinnacle of strength and kindness. She was a movie character that became a role model, someone I so desperately aspired to be. With a dad whose affection I desperately craved, a mom that I wanted to protect and a mixed family that didn’t always mix so well, I wanted that strength in the face of childhood insecurity. This choice may seem strange because Ivy is not the typical female lead, fighting monsters in the contemporary world. Instead, she’s a young woman growing up in a construction created by a group of traumatized adults who wanted to escape the horrors of reality.
As I’ve grown up and revisited The Village, my love for the film only grew. I saw it as more than a vehicle for a strong female protagonist, but as a story about the cyclical nature of trauma and how its effects spread like toxic tendrils. The village itself was built by members of a trauma-processing group who had each experienced the loss of a loved one through a violent event. William Hurt’s character—Ivy’s father—reveals that his own father was shot in the head by an envious colleague. Lucius’ mother, another founder played by Sigourney Weaver, lost her husband after he was robbed, murdered and his body disposed of in a river. Every founder suffered massive loss, yet in their desire to leave their pain behind, they have now extended their trauma beyond their own experience.
They have made their children, their grandchildren—every member of the village—unknowingly a part of their trauma, and traumatized them in turn with the threat of violence from strange beasts that want to drink their blood. The existence of this settlement is built on trauma and the attitude that running away from your problems is a coping mechanism. It is a constant reminder of the founders’ belief that nowhere else is safe for them. It is a self-care cocoon built from good intentions and ultimately causing harm to those contained by the lie.
As the founders get older, they must confront the reality of their situation: Do they reveal the truth to a select group of successors and continue this cycle of trauma? Shyamalan does not provide a direct answer, which is why his filmmaking is so emotionally effective. His work is always steeped with empathy, never wanting to truly damn his characters no matter their transgressions. The man who murdered Dr. Malcolm (Bruce Willis) in The Sixth Sense is in the wrong, but his actions are explained through his struggle with mental illness and his desperation to feel better. His actions are not excusable, but they are explained through more than just villainy.
This is also seen with the founders in The Village and their questionable decisions. While they could be seen as manipulative villains trying to exert totalitarian control as a way to finally gain control of their lives, they are instead warm, quiet and fair yet firm in their democratic governance of the village. On top of their relationship with the villagers, Shyamalan offers insight into their pasts and wants them to be seen as more complex characters than just selfish adults. That empathy extends to Ivy, who is burdened with the choice of revealing the truth and breaking the cycle of trauma or continuing that cycle by keeping their secret.
That is a massive burden to be placed on one woman’s shoulders, and Shyamalan does not make her face and solve it. Instead, he shows her silently processing the truth through the film’s final act. As she hikes through the woods in the mud and rain, her radiance is dulled not only as she grieves for Lucius, but grieves for the carefree life she knew before. Her warm smile quickly fades from her face and she becomes pallid, stoic and quiet. She turns cold as her innocence is quickly shattered. She is actively trying to process her and her family’s trauma, all while trying to save her fiance’s life. Needless to say, Ivy is going through quite a lot and she doesn’t reach some epic conclusion that changes the world. Instead, she accomplishes her small goal of getting the right medicines needed to save Lucius’ life. She is not shown leading the village or dramatically telling the truth, illustrating that trauma does not just go away—there is no one solution that takes that pain away.
A critical part of Ivy’s character, one that colors her sparkling attitude, is the fact that she is blind. Though she’s a character with a disability triumphing in the face of adversity—a trope often used when portraying disability on screen—Shyamalan tries to make Ivy more than “the blind character.” However, this doesn’t fully apply to Noah Percy (Adrien Brody), who has a developmental disability. The empathy poured into Ivy is not successfully replicated with Noah, which creates an uncomfortable dichotomy in the portrayal of disability as either virtuous or violent. Yet, in Percy’s act of violence, Shyamalan still tries to portray his impulsive and deadly decision as more than an inability to process the consequences of his actions, but as a side effect of his sadness that Ivy’s love belongs to someone else. Even through this hit-and-miss representation of disability, Shyamalan attempts that same empathy—to make Percy more than just a stereotype, but a human with his own complex emotions and motivations, just like the founders and Ivy.
The Village is Shyamalan’s most empathetic film, one that isn’t interested just in the difficulty of breaking the cycle of trauma, but examining its wide-reaching effects past the individual. He doesn’t want the film to have one Villain or Hero. Instead, he explores a different kind of heroism through Ivy—who does save the proverbial day, but also saves those around her on a daily basis with her infectious love—while also having a sympathetic antagonist in Percy, who acts impulsively through heartbreak. But it’s Ivy that becomes Shyamalan’s stand-in, emanating empathy to a fault, persevering no matter the circumstances even while trying to process her own trauma in the face of a life-changing lie. While I may not write using Ivy’s name anymore, I still try everyday to exude what she stands for: Kindness, understanding and strength.
Mary Beth McAndrews is a freelance film journalist with a love of all things horror. She’s written across the Internet about found footage, extreme horror cinema, and more. You can follow her on Twitter to read more of her work, as well as her hot takes about her favorite cryptid, Mothman.