You don’t need a sixth sense to see all the signs here: The Village proves that M. Night Shyamalan is anything but unbreakable.
Ever since Shyamalan became a big noise in the filmmaking world with The Sixth Sense in 1999 — more thanks to that film’s gimmick ending than to anything else — he’s been backing himself further and further into a creative corner by trying to duplicate not the film, but the gimmick. With The Village, however, he hits a new low in gimmickry, creating a movie that’s a shoo-in as one of the worst of the year.
In a way, this can be viewed as a kind of cockeyed progression. Despite Signs‘ heavy-handed moralizing and in-your-face religiosity, Shyamalan’s last film sort of worked while it was onscreen. Its myriad idiotic plot holes — aliens who can build and fly spaceships, but who then can’t break out of a pantry, and who invade a world largely made of the very thing that will destroy them, but attempt to do so minus weapons or even clothing — only became painfully obvious if you thought about the film afterward. And yet The Village unravels like a worn-out sock before your very eyes. If nothing else, this saves the viewer from feeling that he or she has been made a fool of at a later point, and is thus a great time-saver.
It’s nothing new for filmmakers to box themselves in with a formula. When the Val Lewton horror flicks started in the ’40s with Cat People, his using suggestive horror rather than the more blatant “monster movie” approach was fresh. Yet within two years, this tack had become just as much a formula as that of the movies with which it had originally broken tradition. However, the Lewton approach never degenerated to the level of The Village — and his films never indulged in the kind of audience-contemptuous cheating practiced by Shyamalan here.
When The Village gives up its two-fold “surprises” — and it will depend on the viewer just when that happens, though it’s a good bet it’ll be long before the director intended — there’s no getting around that we’ve been deliberately fed misleading information from reel one. Without giving away too much of the plot, the dates and the business of having all the characters speak in a torturous kind of fractured Amish is for no one’s benefit but the viewer’s — to lead us up to the sub-Twilight Zone “shocking” revelation. Even were this not the case, Shyamalan would still be guilty of making a movie that’s by turns laughable, embarrassing and, most of all, boring.
Sure, the aliens in Signs (what little we saw of them) were not very imposing, but they rank among the most terrifying creatures ever to hit the screen when put up against “Those We Do Not Speak Of” (Shyamalan’s quaint appellation for the monsters in The Village, which we finally see far too much of). I don’t think it’s really giving the game away to say that they resemble nothing so much as the illegitimate offspring of Little Red Riding Hood and a very large porcupine.
Of course, Shyamalan has never bothered himself too much about connecting the thrills in his films with the content, relying instead on the cheesy business of having something just pop up out of nowhere so that the viewer will jump. But in The Village, the best he can come up with even by way of this none-too-taxing approach is a hole in the ground with the requisite burst of jarring music on the soundtrack! Talk about watching the gears go ’round.
What’s left — beyond the sense of being had — is mostly just unintentional laughs brought on by a game cast being oh-so-serious while referring to things in improbable terms. Not only are the were-porcupines invariably alluded to only as “Those We Do Not Speak Of,” but the script even boasts an outbuilding called “The Old Shed That Must Not Be Used.” Not even the finest actor on earth is going to get by with that! And there are still more chuckles to be had: Mutilated animal corpses are invariably accompanied by the sound of hundreds of buzzing flies, yet nary an insect is to be seen. Those familiar with Hollywood 101 casting practices will also get some amusement out of the old Big Name Actor in Demeaning and Small Role gambit. No way he could possibly be at the bottom of the trouble, right? Uh-huh.
One other aspect of the movie really lingers as well. There’s a vague and (to my mind) distasteful reactionary message at work here: That it’s just dinky-doo to feed people a line of transparent rubbish to keep them in line and in ignorance — for instance, selling them on a bogeyman that just doesn’t exist — so long as it’s for their own “good.” But that’s just a soupcon uncomfortable as an “admirable” policy, especially in light of recent world events.
The sad thing is that The Village — with its core story of an isolated community living in uneasy truce with monstrous beings just beyond its border — had a lot of potential for genuine creepiness. That this sense of eeriness should only stem from the film’s troubling subtext is not at all what I think was intended. Moreover, Shyamalan remains a masterful director in many respects, at least as concerns his penchant for effective imagery. But he needs to fire his writer — namely, himself.
Perhaps he will take heed of his new film’s one truly on-target line, when William Hurt dramatically announces, “This is farce!”
It certainly is.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke