Director M. Night Shyamalan has become known to most film buffs as a joke, an enormously promising director who squandered his talent on an endless string of twist endings and self-aggrandizing projects that suggested he had bought his own hype. He is perhaps best summed up by the joke the TV show Robot Chicken makes about him:
In terms of his public reputation, Shyamalan first began to suffer in 2004. Before that, he was on a hot streak. The Sixth Sense (1999) was a box office sensation and received numerous Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. Unbreakable (2000) is a terrific movie, a gloomy, surprisingly moving take on superhero stories. And Signs (2002) prompted magazine covers touting Shyamalan as "the next Spielberg." (It's not all that great, but it boasts some superbly creepy sequences.)
In 2004, however, Shyamalan released The Village, and a whole bunch of things that had been swirling around his head descended at once. His overreliance on twist endings came to be seen as a weakness, and the hype surrounding him had become deafening. Worse, he seemed to have bought into it, as a contemporary promotional movie suggested. He was primed for a fall. Reviews were weak, but audience response was atrocious. The film dropped 67.5 percent at the box office between its first and second weekends — a sure indication of viewers rejecting the film.
Shyamalan's post-Village output has stumbled, but he's had a minor comeback in recent years, beginning with 2015's The Visit, and continuing with 2017's Split, which received his strongest reviews in years and made lots and lots of money. His latest film, Glass, wasn’t as fondly received by critics, but it’s continued his recent run of solid box office takes.
But conventional wisdom on Shyamalan's career is wrong on at least one count: The Village may be the director's best film, and one of the most interesting looks at the American film industry's early attempts to incorporate the Iraq War into fictional contexts. It's been unjustly derided, and now is as good a time as any to change that.
The "twist" in The Village isn't a twist. It's the whole point.
The biggest complaint about The Village is that its big twist is completely ridiculous. (If you haven't seen the film and somehow want to remain unspoiled, stop reading.)
Late in the film, Shyamalan reveals that the reality the whole film has been based on is a lie. The Village seems to be set in a New England agrarian community in the 1700s or 1800s, whose residents eke out their livelihood based on what they can coax the earth into giving up. The town is haunted by monsters from the woods, which come at night and take away anyone who is not sufficiently hidden away.
The point-of-view characters are older teenagers — played by a young Bryce Dallas Howard and Joaquin Phoenix — raised their whole lives in the town's restrictive environment but increasingly wishing to push the boundaries they've been raised within. That's the setup for a story where those natural desires conflict with what turn out to be the artificial limitations placed on the community. (The monsters, it turns out, aren't real. They're the village's elders in elaborate costumes.)
Late in the film, Howard's character is forced to make a treacherous journey to a nearby community to fetch medicine. Since she's blind, the trip proves even more dangerous, until the reason she was sent is revealed. See, the village in The Village is located within a massive nature preserve in modern times. Those who populated the community saw friends and family killed in moments of dark violence and wished to retreat from society entirely, only to eventually realize how impossible such a thing would be.
On its surface, this is a ridiculous notion, and Shyamalan probably spends too much time explaining how this system works, instead of trusting the audience to go with it. But The Village is a Gothic romance, filled with shadows, fog, and long stretches of earnest yearning. And Gothic romances are not stories that need logical consistency to thrive. Instead, they need thematic coherence, and that's where The Village shines.
The desire to retreat into an imagined past in the wake of trauma is an understandable one, but The Village shows just how empty this idea ultimately is. It’s a story about what happens when you abandon logic in the name of safety.
This movie is about the Iraq War
The summer of 2004 was a weird time to be a movie buff. The Passion of the Christ (released in February) and Fahrenheit 9/11 (released in June) had turned the multiplex into an unlikely culture-war battleground. At the same time, movies like Spider-Man 2 were playing off the superhero genre's instinctive notion of replaying the September 11 terrorist attacks as stories where no one died. (For more on this, see here.)
The Village stands out, then, as an early attempt to talk — granted, in veiled, metaphorical terms — about the psychological impulses that drove the United States into Iraq in early 2003. The impulse extends to a late-film shot in which one mother watches over her son's convalescence while two other parents are informed of the death of their son in the background. The shot calls to mind numerous wartime photographs of families on the home front, receiving bad news.
Once you delve into this side of the film, it becomes much, much richer. The tension at the center of The Village isn't about mystery versus reality, or about the characters versus the twist in the narrative. (Intriguingly, this is the one Shyamalan film where the twist ultimately doesn't matter. The characters continue to live in their delusions, while only the audience is aware of what's going on.) It's about the desire for security versus its impossibility.
The monsters of the film are constructed by those in power to keep the population in check. They're dangerous, sure, but mostly because they've been imbued with that power to create fear by those who came up with them. This isn't so very far off from the then-contemporary criticism of George W. Bush's handling of America’s entry into the Iraq War — that he was distracting from the real issues of the moment in favor of bogeymen propped up by faulty intelligence.
Considering the degree to which the public eventually turned against the war — and largely for the very reasons Shyamalan alludes to in The Village — the film ends up feeling prescient. The "twist," then, isn't a twist. It doesn't change everything in the story. In fact, it doesn't change a thing. It just allows the audience to see how things really are, both for the characters and for ourselves.
This is one beautiful film
Set aside politics, however, and The Village still shines. This is probably the most beautiful film Shyamalan has made, and one of the most technically precise of its era. Its period trappings can feel a bit strange when the characters speak in a kind of forced 1800s patois, but that's overcome by the costume and set design, all of which feel exactly like what you might create if you were using modern technology to create a faux paradise of the past.
The moody, autumnal look of The Village is hugely enhanced by the atmospheric cinematography of the great Roger Deakins, who imbues every single misty roll-in of fog with a kind of supernatural ominousness that adds a creepiness the film never precisely earns. Similarly, Christopher Tellefsen's editing creates a beautifully stately pace, one that never increases but eventually becomes relentless.
It all comes to a head (with James Newton Howard's violin-heavy, ruminative score) in perhaps the greatest sequence Shyamalan has ever filmed. The characters, hiding from the monsters, wait for Phoenix's character to come hide with them. But he doesn't arrive and doesn't arrive. Howard's character, in love with him and unable to see the beast that's creeping closer and closer to her, stands at the threshold of the house, waiting for her would-be lover to arrive.
When he does, everything in the film converges in a glorious mesh of image, music, and movement. It's easily the single best thing Shyamalan has committed to film, and even if it were The Village’s only good moment (it's not), it would recommend the movie almost on its own.
This is a story that longs for an imagined past but understands it's not a place anyone can live for any length of time. Sooner or later, the world finds you. Sooner or later, the danger comes to your door.