Critics argue as to when the quality of M. Night Shyamalan’s films began to decline. While there’s general agreement that The Sixth Sense is his strongest film, there’s an array of opinions regarding everything that came after. Unbreakable shares the same complexity of character and world-building as The Sixth Sense, but not the heart. Signs improves on this, but still can’t quite capture the same magic (though, I would still argue, it comes awfully close). With The Village, the old tricks really have lost a lot of their charm.
It’s 1897. The people of a small Pennsylvania village live in fear of creatures that lurk in the woods beyond. Apparently, there’s an agreement in place—no one from the village enters the woods; the creatures stay away from the village. But the untimely passing of one of the village’s young people inspires another young man, Lucius Hunt, to break with convention. He wishes to enter the woods and travel to one of the neighboring towns to buy medicines in the hope of preventing future loss of life. The village elders forbid it, prompting Lucius to breach the village boundaries to test his hope that the creatures will recognize his righteous intent. This one brave act arouses a curious response from the creatures, and the village finds itself under the grip of a pending siege.
On the surface, it looks like it might be something different for Shyamalan. Take away James Newton Howard’s moody score and the film even sounds like it wants to be something different. Characters speak slowly and use archaic words to sell the period. But make no mistake, all the typical Shyamalan puzzle pieces are present. This time, though, they don’t all fit together like they should. Too many pieces look jammed into place, and the picture they create is a badly misshapen caricature of something that could have been quite terrifying and beautiful.
The fractures of broken families reach across an entire community this time. The cast delineates itself between the elder leadership of the village, and the young people that have grown up under their care. The elders each carry a story filled with tragedy and pain. Each has a box they keep in their home that they say reminds them of their troubles, why they left the towns. Their kids, however, are just starting to grow up. They’re ready to leave the nest. The elders’ efforts to inculcate themselves and their village from the sins of the outside world have left unforeseeable cracks in each of their souls. Sin finds its way in anyway, and it threatens to tear down all their invisible walls.
This is also Shyamalan’s first attempt at a traditional love story. (The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable have their love story elements, but The Village was his first to explore a budding romance.) Lucius finds himself the object of two women’s affections. Everything you’d expect to develop from that kind of problem happens right on cue, except that Shyamalan flips it all on its ear. His ability to surprise has always been the greatest weapon in his arsenal of tricks, and he takes this relationship to the film’s most shocking and tragic turn. Suddenly, the heroic arc of the story shifts to someone else. At the same time, however, the mythological bent driving the plot feels the need to assert itself. It soon gets real clear that all those carefully laid puzzle pieces aren’t going to add up, and by then you just feel manipulated.
Let me stay on point with one of the movie’s strengths for a minute before I get into the weaknesses. Ivy Walker steps up as the most fully-formed thing in the film. Her love for Lucius comes from a place of devout commitment to his strength of character. When she’s forced to take the reins of the film, she doesn’t back down, both in her character and as a participant in the story. Shyamalan lays all the necessary groundwork to make us ready for her to assume the role. If anything betrays her, or makes her weaker, it’s the story itself. She’s so constrained by the plot’s need to pull its weight that she’s never allowed to flourish.
The same could be said for other plot threads left to hang without a knot, like the forbidden attraction between Alice Hunt and Edward Walker. Or the animals that were skinned and left around the village for others to find. At first, both of these elements add a level of intrigue to the tale, and seem to have been crafted with the same care and nuance similar elements received in previous films. Neither however receive the treatment they deserve. The skinned animals, we’re led to assume, were killed by Noah. When his parents find that he’s escaped, we hear his mother mutter something about the animals. Alice and Edward receive one real scene to pay lip service to what their characters demand. It’s like the story wants to go someplace interesting, but Shyamalan keeps pulling back on the reigns. He never leads us to catharsis. Instead, the story turns and runs away from it.
By the time the film starts giving up its secrets, it’s just going through the motions. One extended sequence draws out a previously solved riddle as though the film just can’t resist trying to play with us a little bit more. And when that trademark twist arrives, discerning viewers can see it all coming. We’ve followed Shyamalan through this circus three times already, and we’re wise to what he likes to keep up his sleeve. Hitchcock learned that audiences had gotten wise to his playful cameos, so he started showing up early in his pictures so audiences would quit looking for him and pay attention. Shyamalan took too long to learn that lesson. The village is a small settlement–it only takes an hour for the film to introduce us to just about everyone. When Shyamalan failed to appear, it only left one possibility: we would meet him outside the village. Outside the village, we figured, waited his surprise. Then we wondered what that might be–wouldn’t it be funny if…–and then Shyamalan took us right where we expected to go.
The film achieves about half of what it wants. It has something important to say, but what it says doesn’t ever lead anywhere. Magicians don’t survive for very long when they keep running the same routine. Shyamalan played Lucy to our Charlie Brown long enough, and we were ready this time when he pulled the football away. If he wanted to keep us engaged, he should have let us kick the ball. Who knows what would have happened then. The possibilities would have been endless. There was a time when they were when we went to a Shyamalan movie. Those days, sadly, may be long gone.
Bryce Dallas Howard
Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan