August 11, 2004
M. Night Shyamalan's The Village
By now, it almost seems too late to comment on M. Night Shyamalan's new movie, The Village. Reviews of the film have been almost universally negative, after all, and if you want a quick summary of what's wrong with the movie, you can always turn to A.O. Scott's New York Times review:
The last thing I want to do is spoil the fun, meager though it is. I will say, though, that while I am generally pretty obtuse about these matters, I had an inkling early on of where ''The Village'' was going, which I then dismissed as too ridiculous to consider. When I turned out to be right I felt less vindicated than cheated...
At times you do sit up in your chair and crane your neck, as if you could see around the next bend of the story and glimpse what's coming. Then you do see it, and you burst out laughing.
Critics have been quick to pounce on The Village
for the lameness of its twist ending, which is quite appropriate. But I think that to dwell on the twist is to give the movie too much credit. The biggest problem with the movie isn't the conclusion--stupid as it is--but the complete lack of any redeeming virtues before the movie's final scenes. Before seeing The Village
, I'd have told you that Shyamalan was a good director and a lousy writer, whose movies were an amusing (and sometimes intriguing) combination of good and bad. Now I'm inclined to say that Shyamalan is a nutjob, and that the parts of his movies that are least impressive are what motivates him as a film-maker.
I had three main problems with The Village. If, for some reason, you're interested in seeing the movie unspoiled, you may want to stop reading now, but otherwise, consider the following:
- The story of The Village is quite simple, as anyone who's seen a preview could tell you. The action takes place in a small Pennsylvania settlement in 1897; the villagers live an idyllic, peaceful existence, free from the cares that plague most communities. There's only one problem, however: in return for living in the ideal community, the townspeople have been forced to come to a truce with the monstrous residents of the forest around them. They cannot enter the forest; they've built a series of watchtowers to monitor the woods; they leave periodic offerings of food for the monsters to eat; they must avoid the "forbidden color" (red) at all costs; they know that they can never leave the village for the towns beyond.
That's fine, as far as it goes: I'm not saying that it's the formula for the greatest movie ever, but it's okay as the plot of a silly horror film. There's one big problem with this set-up, however: once the basic plot conceit is introduced, everyone takes it for granted and no depth or nuance is introduced. (I don't think I learned anything important about the village that I hadn't already picked up from previews.) No one asks why the forest monsters hate the color red; no one wonders what life is like outside, or doubts that "the towns" are sinful and dangerous places; no one asks if past villagers have tried to leave; no one wonders how the village's truce with "those we do not name" came about or how the village was founded. In fact, no one seems interested in who the monsters are, what they look like, or what they want. This completely incurious and accepting attitude struck me as the least realistic part of the movie--and that's saying a lot.
Under these circumstances, it's nearly impossible to care about what's going on, and it's really easy to laugh at the characters' stilted speech and funny mannerisms. Shyamalan introduces a bunch of characters: the solemn village schoolmaster (named Edward Walker and played by William hurt), his blind daughter Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), a village idiot played by Adrien Brody, and a shy young man named Lucius (played by Joaquin Phoenix.) It's hard to care about any of these people, however, and the movie comes across as boring and ponderous. I like William Hurt and think that he has an expressive and interesting voice, but his lines sound so stilted that he just comes across as long-winded when he recites them. In two unfortunate scenes, Joaquin Phoenix's character addresses the village elders by reading--awkwardly--from a speech he's written; Phoenix probably does a good job playing a shy, semi-literate man reading an overly formal speech that he's written himself, but I'm not sure that that's saying much. The only actor to escape unscathed was Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron Howard's daughter), who seemed likeable enough playing the part of Ivy--even so, I sometimes felt a little embarrassed for her, given how trite and silly some of her lines were.
At the same time, Shyamalan really downplays the creepy side of the movie: his Village features no thrills and very few chills. In one scene, a man on the watchtowers catches sight of one of "those we do not name", a revelation which might have been worth a jump if the monster weren't so funny-looking. (It looked like a cross between a satanic priest and a porcupine, with a long red robe and a bunch of pointy quills sticking out of its back.) Then the monsters decided to enter the village, and there was some suspense as the villagers rushed to hide. But I thought these scenes were building toward a climax, and that climax never came.
In short, I think that The Village was a big step down in quality from Shyamalan's previous two films. Each of those movies, I'd argue, was set up in an intriguing way--if, that is, you were willing to accept the movie's questionable premise and to ignore the silliness of its twist ending. Unbreakable, for example, tells the story of the lone survivor of a massive train wreck; in the weeks after the accident, he finds out that he's like the superhero from a comic book, with superhuman strength, an inability to deal with water, and a latent desire to fight crime and help those in need. Some of the movie's revelations seem a little far-fetched: how could a man reach the age of 40 without noticing that he'd never been ill? How could he forget that he'd faked the injuries from the car accident that ended his football career? But if you can suspend your initial disbelief, Unbreakable is an intriguing and likeable film--not a great movie, but a pretty good one, and easily Shyamalan's best.
Signs, meanwhile, tells the story of a farmer (and ex-minister) who discovers a bunch of crop circles in his fields. I found this plot device a little irritating: crop circles are the sort of silly plot conceit that seems most fascinating to 11-year-olds and conspiracy theorists, and Shyamalan treated the subject far too seriously. Even so, I found the actual story of how the farmer and his family dealt with the prospect of an alien invasion really engrossing--until the end, that is, when Shyamalan gave us a pat and simplistic conclusion loaded with cheap religious symbolism.
Neither of those movies was great, but they each provided a compelling picture of people dealing with serious problems and concerns. To really enjoy The Village, however, you have to accept everything that appears before you without giving it any thought--or, in other words, you have to be just like the villagers themselves.
- My second big problem with The Village was, of course, its plot twist. By now, I'm not sure which would shock me more: if Shyamalan made a movie without any plot twist at all, or if he ended some future film with a conclusion that's as clever and surprising as he thinks it is. Either possibility would come as a complete surprise.
Unfortunately, The Village gets worse after its first third is over. Ivy and Lucius decide to get married (yawn!), which makes the village idiot really jealous; he stabs Lucius and nearly kills him, leaving him at the mercy of an infection that requires "medicines" from the outside world. Ivy's father then tells her about the town's secret: there are no monsters, and the year isn't really 1897. The town elders were part of a 20th-century crime victims' support group which decided that the world was so painful that they'd withdraw from it completely; Walker's father had been a millionaire businessman, so they bought a bunch of land, called it a "wildlife preserve," surrounded it with a big fence and lots of guards, bribed a bunch of government officials to reroute airplanes away from the community, and moved inside, concocting the story about "those we do not speak of" to keep anyone from leaving. With her father's blessing, Ivy slips outside, meets a friendly security guard who gives her some medicine, and returns to save her betrothed's life. The end.
No one, as far as I can tell, thinks that this plot twist was clever or interesting; for once I even agree with Roger Ebert, who wrote that "It's a crummy secret, about one step up the ladder of narrative originality from It Was All a Dream." Silly and juvenile as this revelation is, however, the problem runs deeper still: the twist is introduced in a completely inept way. Edward Walker explains the village's secret to his daughter about halfway through the movie, and then she leaves on what's supposed to be a suspense-filled journey to the outside world. But Walker's revelation sucks all the suspense out of the rest of the movie: why should we be worried about Ivy when we know that there's no danger? Things just get weird when a red-cloaked monster confronts her anyway, and we eventually learn--in yet another delightful twist--that the village idiot escaped from the "quiet room" where he was locked up, discovered a hidden monster suit, and decided to stop Ivy, all without the townspeople noticing. Then Ivy tricks him into falling into a pit and he dies.
Many of the problems with The Village, I'd argue, appear in the scene where Walker tells his daughter about the village's secret. Consider:
- Walker reveals the secret by showing Ivy the village elders' secret stash of red monster suits, which was conveniently located in what he calls "The Old Shed That Is Not To Be Used." I burst out laughing when I heard this phrase, since you could tell--from his tone of voice--that every word in the name was meant to be capitalized and that he'd been referring to it this way for years. Shyamalan, I think, equates solemnity with significance, and assumes that if he treats everything really seriously, his audience will too. Instead, he's just made his movie unintentionally funny.
- The title "The Old Shed That Is Not To Be Used" reminds me of a really good Simpsons episode, in which Bart Simpson and Ralph Wiggum poke around in Ralph's father's supply closet. When Chief Wiggum gets home and sees what his son is doing, he's indignantly asks, "What is your fascination with my forbidden closet of mystery?" In any normal village, children would have raided such a forbidden place long before--but, then again, Shyamalan's villagers aren't like that.
- As Walker opens the door to the shed, he gives his daughter a solemn warning: "Do your best not to scream!" But everyone in the theater has figured out the secret long before, so there's no suspense. The Village isn't terribly successful as a horror movie or a suspense film.
- Ivy never questions her father's deception or suggests that he might have been wrong. From what we can tell, she unthinkingly accepts what he has to say and plans to return happily to the village. To be fair, she's probably a little more concerned with saving Lucius's life, but her reaction still seems surprisingly mild.
I've just hinted at my last problem with the plot twist: if you're going to center your movie around a woman who thinks she lives in a nineteenth-century village, but finds herself travelling to a 21st-century town, then there are a couple things you really ought to do. First, show the culture shock the woman experiences when she ends up in the outside world. Second, show us how the woman feels when she learns she's been lied to her whole life. Shyamalan never deals with either of these concerns.
- These problems lead to a lot of obvious questions. What was Shyamalan thinking? Did he realize just how lame his twist ending was? What did he think of Edward Walker's plan for the village? Why didn't he ask any of the moral questions that arise from the story?
The answer, I think, has to do with the film's genre. I could be wrong, but I think that Shyamalan intended The Village to be a serious moral parable with a handful of suspenseful moments, not a creepy horror film. Consider the following:
- All the early scenes of the movie, as I mentioned above, were peaceful, happy, and idyllic: we see children playing, young women happily going about their chores, and the whole community gathering together for wonderfully elaborate feasts. What's not to like?
- When Edward Walker sends his daughter outside to get medicine, he emphasizes that he isn't giving up on his plans: he sees Lucius and Ivy as the village's next leaders, and thinks that it will fail without them. Ivy, in turn, never questions her father on his motives or accuses him of being a manipulative jerk: she seems to accept what he has to say without question.
- Later in the movie, when Ivy enters the outside world, we see a security guard reading a newspaper, all of whose headlines discuss the crime, violence, and heartbreak experienced by people in the real world. That newspaper paints a bleak picture of contemporary life--and the guard who's reading it is played by Shyamalan himself.
- Finally, in the movie's very last scene, Walker explains that he's found a way for the village to survive--if, that is, the elders want to continue keeping secrets from the rest of the town. The elders stand up, one by one, signalling their heroic dedication to the village and their determination to continue life as they know it.
Could it be that no one questions what's happening in the village because, according to Shyamalan, life there is good? Could it be that he thinks that Walker's plan was--in the context of the movie--a good idea? Is one of Shyamalan's main goals to emphasize just how chaotic, violent, and unpleasant the modern world can be? It's hard to say, but I think so.
Compare The Village to Shyamalan's past films. I don't remember The Sixth Sense very well, but here's David Edelstein's assessment of the movie from 1999:
The larger point is that the movie, directed and written by M. Night Shyamalan, belongs to a different genre than Blair Witch, which traffics in the irrational, the unseen, the terror of malevolent nothingness. The Sixth Sense uses the supernatural for reassurance. For all its bogey-man shenanigans, it wants to leave you with faith in a higher order--in the possibility that even after death wrongs may be avenged, innocents protected, and the loose ends of one's life tied up.
The spiritual overtones of Unbreakable are a little less obvious, but I think they're there. Last spring, for example, ABC aired an extended version of Unbreakable with several scenes deleted from the movie's theatrical release; in one of them, the priest who's just led a memorial service for the train wreck's victims tells the movie's central character that there's no such thing as faith or fate and that he survived the accident by pure luck. Shyamalan clearly disagrees with this message: he wants his viewers to see that the modern world is crazy and unpleasant, but that it doesn't have to be. He's setting up his own films as alternatives to those who would deemphasize faith and deny life its meaning.
In Signs, moreover, Shyamalan gives us the simplest (and most simplistic) answer of all. The movie's central character, an ex-minister played by Mel Gibson, eventually realizes that God wanted his wife to die so that the rest of his family could live; before she died, he discovers, the wife gave him some crypic advice that would save their lives when the aliens came. (If I remember correctly, the most important of her instructions amounted to "When the aliens come, encourage your brother to go after them with a baseball bat.") In the end, everything is part of a divine plan: God even gave asthma to Mel Gibson's son so he could survive when an alien breathed toxic fumes down his throat! As the movie closes, we see that Gibson's character has regained his faith and become a minister again--just as audience members are supposed to have a renewed sense of faith.
I could be wrong, but I think that Shyamalan has a low opinion of the contemporary world--and that his movies have become increasingly concerned with showing us alternatives to that world. Seen in that context, The Village isn't a horror movie that went completely off the deep end with a bizarre and amateurish twist; Shyamalan's main goal wasn't to scare us, but to compare the idyllic world of Walker's village with the chaotic world of today. The movie's main revelation, then, still seems obvious and juvenile, but it's not illogical or bizarre. If you want to make a point about the world, however, it really helps if you have an understanding of human nature, and that's where Shyamalan falls short.
A few weeks ago, Michael Agger wrote a blistering critique of Shyamalan's work, complete with the wonderful title "Village Idiot." He barely touched on some of the most obvious characteristics of Shyamalan's work, however: his concern with faith, his desire to reassure viewers, and his dislike for the confusing and unpleasant modern world. Shyamalan has made it clear that he's going to keep adding lame twist endings to his movies, whether the critics like it or not. He's also made it clear that his work is supposed to be deeper, more emotional, and more reassuring than standard Hollywood fare. That's the main problem with his movies, I'd argue: at his worst, he disguises shallow and poorly thought-out moral parables as creepy thrillers. Maybe viewers have begun to catch on.
Posted by Ed at August 11, 2004 03:28 PM
Certainly not a great a movie, but my expectations were so low going in that I actually thought it was fairly decent (c.f. the Onion), and so a little on that:
I, too, found myself laughing at their speech - but then had some fun attributing it adults who had grown up speaking modern english switching - needlessly, except to fool the audience - to their bad 19th century English. Probably unintended, but kinda fun.
I think he makes their village a little less idyllic than you seem to argue - there's the funeral for the small child at the beginning, and I think it's pretty clear (though others have argued with me on this) that we're supposed to imagine that Ivy's blindness could have been prevented by modern medicine, seemingly the only good thing Shyamalan finds in the modern world.
But yeah - I think it would have been better if it either trashed the whole thriller attempt, or actually put some thrills in and didn't start revealing what was going on into the very end, and just leave the moral stuff as a question. Giving up the gig as early as he does ruins any suspense and promises moral depth that he doesn't deliver.
Incidentally, was "nutjob" in your day to day vocabulary before JibJab?
Fair enough: Shyamalan certainly doesn't try to portray life in the village as perfect. Even so, I think that the funeral scene was meant (at least in part) to evoke a happier, earlier time, where people came together in the event of tragedy.
I may, of course, be wrong about what Shyamalan intended to do with this movie. Maybe he didn't primarily see it as a moral story comparing life in the village to life in the present day; that just strikes me as the most plausible interpretation of the movie. The Village would have been far more subtle and convincing if it had addressed the sorts of questions you allude to.
This is pretty funny. Stupid crappy movies.
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Hello folks nice blog youre running
Hello i have seem the film it was interesting
I Believe you have missed one of the main themes of the movie. You comment that accourding to Shyamalan, life in the village is good. I do not believe this to be the case. Walker and the Elders came to this place to get away from the evils of the modern world. In a sence he thought that if he could return to a simpler time he could excape today's problems. This is in fact though, the oposite of what occurs in Walker's "Utopian" world inside the village. When Lucius is stabed, and nearly killed, we see that Walker has not excaped. He has insted just created another world which has no hope but to grow into the one he wished to excape. In fact, by sending Ivy to get medicine for Lucius Walker proves that we have not digressed as a whole, because modern medicine is the only thing that will save Lucius. Shyamalan is disproving Walker's "Village" entirely. Possibly the most telling part of the movie is when the elders decide to continue with the village. Shyamalan is not only telling us that Walker's experiment has failed, but that he and the others are too blind to see so. Shyamalan is really making a comment on human nature with this movie.
"The Village" is being panned by people who take it entirely too seriously. Shyamalan is sending a message with this movie. If people miss it, they should watch it again with alot less seriousness. It is a fair to good rated movie in my book - I did not guess the main secret till it almost happened, but did figure out the monsters deal. It will be interesting to see what this director comes up with next.