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The Great Cue: "The Gravel Road"

From: The Village (2004) by James Newton Howard

By Cary Wong

A few years back, I wrote my first Great Cue article on "Building the Crate," the wonderful and whimsical cue from Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell's score to Chicken Run (2000)  and I've been on the lookout for another one ever since. Sure, there have been great moments of film music since then, but the marriage of the music to the image on screen is a crucial element of making a cue great.

Some very good moments over the past few years include the opening sequence of the women waking up in The Hours (Philip Glass), the beacons being lit in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Howard Shore), the revelation in the tent in Dragonfly (John Debney), any number of memorable drugged out moments of Requiem for a Dream (Cliff Martinez), and the perfect day in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (John Williams). Yes, these are all worthy choices and if I had the energy and passion, I could write an article for each of those moments as well as countless others.

But the perfect cue is a cue that sticks to your psyche. It forces you take a careful listen whenever it comes on, and always produces an emotional response as "Building the Crate" (laughter) and "The Heart Asks for Pleasure First" from The Piano (passion) do. It hits you in the gut every time, and it makes you want to share your enthusiasm with others.

What will probably be the most controversial part of my latest choice is that most critics and viewers were disappointed with or downright hated director M. Night Shyamalan's The Village. The movie is about an isolated rural village of simple folks, the woods which surround the village which are inhabited by creatures, and their shaky symbiotic relationship. The problem most people had was the fact that the "twist" was so far-fetched and (to some) so easy to spot, that they felt manipulated artificially. I was not a huge fan of the film, but what I did appreciate is the fact was the skill that Shyamalan and his collaborators created this village and its atmosphere, that when the rug is pulled out, the disconcerting feeling is multiplied by the duplicity.

I will try to talk about the "The Gravel Road" without too many plot spoilers, but since this cue is the penultimate musical cue of the movie and is the actual point when the big secret is revealed overtly, I might not do such a good job at keeping the big Shyamalan secret. The actions I will speak about will spoil the scenes, but the big "secret" will not be revealed. However, if you really want to be kept in the dark about any part of the movie, read no further.

James Newton Howard has scored all of Shyamalan's three previous thrillers. His score for The Sixth Sense was serviceable yet not memorable to me. Unbreakable has a lovely, atmospheric score which is one of Howard's most haunting, while Signs has an in-your-face Bernard Herrmann tribute that perks up the movie during its most murky sections. For The Village, Howard evokes the 19th Century era mostly through the violin, which is played superlatively by the young violinist, Hillary Hahn. Howard received an Oscar nomination for his score, the only nomination the movie received.

Now, before I talk about the great cue, I have to talk about the second-best cue in the movie. This one is called "Those We Don't Speak Of." The moment happens during the last minute of the CD cue and is probably the most memorable and the most effective in the movie, and yet I still pick "The Gravel Road" to be the more emotionally satisfying.

In "Those We Don't Speak Of," the town's warning bells sound as one of the wood creatures enters the village perimeter. The bulk of the cue has the village scrambling to get to their homes and into their cellars. The exception is Ivy, the blind ingénue who waits with the door open, sure that Lucius, the town stud will show up to be by her side. As she keeps her hand out for Lucius, the creature approaches Ivy with her family yelling for her to come inside. At that moment, in slow motion, as the creature is approaching Ivy, Lucius does appear, grabs Ivy's hand, pulls her into the house, locks the door, and runs with her in the cellar.

Howard scores this particular moment beautifully. The horror and action section as the village is all aflutter comes to a screeching halt and incorporates a few seconds of silence as we see Ivy's outstretched hand in the open with the creature, blurry in the background. The minute that Lucius's grabs her hand, violinist Hahn starts a circular musical solo before launching into Howard's main theme for the movie. The beauty of the cue continues as the camera passes across the many cellars and ends with two small children huddled together in fear and awe (maybe more like "awwwww").

The moment is important in talking about "The Gravel Road" because it is almost a mirror image of that earlier moment. Before the music cue begins, there is also a moment of silence as the camera, above a wounded Lucius, tightens into his face as we hear Ivy's father say "The will to live is strong in him." Then, the circular violin solo (with piano accompaniment) similar to the previous cue begins, but whereas the first cue's solo felt improvisational, the music for "The Gravel Road" is very tight and focused.

The scene then cuts to Ivy, who is in the woods, after facing many terrors, her yellow cloak is muddied and she is out of breath, but she continues on, for she is now the hero of the scene, since she is the one who is saving Lucius's life (as opposed to "Those We Don't Speak of" where is she saved by Lucius). As she uses a stick to guide her through the woods, her stick hits a gravel road, the landmark her father told her to look out for. This is when Howard enters with the main theme of the movie (as he did previously), and we feel Ivy's emotional triumph that her journey has not been in vain. As she throws off her muddied cloak and her bag, she starts to follow the gravel road.

Intercut with this is a scene where Ivy's parents open their secret box, a box filled with possessions from the past. When Ivy encounters a fence of some sort, she starts to climb as her parents take artifacts out of the box. That's when the violin solo ends, and more haunting, dissonant music is played. As voiceovers and objects from the box intertwine on the screen, Howard's music almost disappears, but on the CD, it is a patient, hypnotic pattern. Then, as the camera focuses on one particular photograph, the circular violin music re-enters as the secret is finally revealed and the cue ends as we see Ivy on the other side of the fence.

The overall emotional response I get from this cue is sadness. The bravery and plight of this young girl juxtaposed with the motives of her parents and the other elders is very powerful, especially the way Shyamalan edits this scene as well as the repetition of the music used earlier in the film. It is a breathtaking and highly effective moment. Regardless of the mechanics of the plot, if you just watch the emotional weight of the scene and Howard's perfect scoring of the moment, "The Gravel Road" will remain one of the most musically satisfying cues of recent years.

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