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Working Title Presents: Good, Actually: The Village
Let's Talk About M. Night Shyamalan.
It’s a commonly held opinion that M. Night Shyamalan’s first 3 wide-release movies range from good to great. THE SIXTH SENSE was a legit cultural phenomenon, UNBREAKABLE was an interesting and original spin on the superhero genre, and SIGNS has some of his scarier imagery.
It is ALSO a commonly held opinion that M. Night Shyamalan has made some absolute stinkers. LADY IN THE WATER was a big misstep. THE HAPPENING (which I think is a good time if you turn your brain off, but can’t in good conscience defend) was almost universally panned. His adaptation of THE LAST AIRBENDER was just awful and actually makes me mad to think about.
Shyamalan has enjoyed a small renaissance as he’s moved into the later phase of his career. Your mileage may vary on his more recent offerings but I have enjoyed movies like DEVIL, THE VISIT, SPLIT, and 2021’s OLD (which I believe will be exonerated by history).
The movie I want to talk about today, though, is a bit of a pivot point for Shyamalan. The film that comes after SIGNS and before LADY IN THE WATER — that bridges his best films and his worst tendencies.
Welcome back to Working Title’s Good, Actually — the series where I go to the mat for movies that I think are good, actually. In the spirit of Halloween, today’s movie is 2004’s THE VILLAGE. I am going to be discussing this movie in a good amount of detail, including the twist at the end so, as always, a friendly spoiler warning for anyone who still hasn’t checked this one off the list.
As previously mentioned, Shyamalan was on an absolute heater leading up to THE VILLAGE. THE SIXTH SENSE, UNBREAKABLE, and SIGNS had all been critically well received and done good business at the box office. Shymalan was gaining a reputation as a leading voice in the thriller genre and his trademark of having a twist ending was on its way to being well-established. Bookmark all of this because I will circle back to it in just a little bit.
There’s a lot to like about THE VILLAGE. For whatever shortcomings he may possess, Shyamalan can orchestrate tension, mood, and horror with the best of them, even if he can’t always land the plane. There are several moments in THE VILLAGE that are some of his best work. The first appearance of the monsters (“Those We Don’t Speak Of”) moving through the village is effective and scary. The sequence where Noah Percy (Adrien Brody) stabs Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) is still shocking and hypnotically shot. And the sequence where Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) encounters one of the monsters alone in the woods, despite the fact that there shouldn’t be one there is remarkably chilling. The shot as the camera pans around to reveal that she’s not alone is one of my favorite moments in Shymalan’s entire filmography.
These sequences are so effective because THE VILLAGE is an extremely well-shot film all around. This is some of the best cinematography in Shyamalan’s portfolio. The Pennsylvania village of Covington is gorgeously constructed and the woods surrounding it are both beautiful and foreboding. There’s a real sense of place here and it’s part of what makes the movie so affecting.
As with any movie that’s pushing 20(!!), it’s easy to forget some of the details, but THE VILLAGE has an absolutely stacked cast. The previously mentioned Phoenix, Howard, and Brody are all great and, on top of that, you have some very strong performances from William Hurt (RIP), Sigourney Weaver, and Brandon Gleeson (More like Brandon Glumson in this one. Cheer up dude)! You also get the reliable solid work of Judy Greer and Jayne Atkinson, plus a super early career appearance from Jesse Eisenberg.
Remember that bookmark I asked you to place? It’s time we circle back to it because we need to talk about a few things and why I consider this film a bit of a sliding door. THE VILLAGE was the first of Shyamalan’s major films to receive a fair amount of poor reviews and receive a low Rotten Tomatoes score (43%). Now, I think Rotten Tomatoes is a TERRIBLE way to gauge if a movie is good or not and I think people certainly lean too much on it when judging a movie’s reputation and merits, but it can be useful in its own ways. The biggest issue that critics had with this movie was its twist ending which reveals that this seemingly 19th-century village was actually an isolated group of people living a 19th-century lifestyle in the 21st century. All of these people had suffered some sort of trauma and were looking to escape by isolating themselves with others who understood their pain. This twist was largely viewed as disappointing, unoriginal, and easy to spot. It was one of the first times people called out Shyamalan’s movies for not holding up to any sort of logical arguments or dissections (which is the case with a lot of horror movies).
I think, ultimately, it wasn’t the twist at the end of the movie that disappointed critics or viewers — it was that they had built this movie up to be something it wasn’t before it had even come out. You’re talking about a guy whose first big studio movie has what is considered to be one of the GREATEST TWISTS OF ALL TIME. A twist so good that people actively tried to not spoil it for those who hadn’t seen it in a theater. A movie that has a line of dialogue that became so ubiquitous that it was essentially a meme before memes were a thing. He then followed that up with two movies that were widely praised and celebrated. There was an enormous amount of hype and expectation around this movie, so much so that a year before the film was released the script was stolen and sent around to several internet movie sites of the time.
Instead of embracing the twist, people turned on Shymalan, saying his reliance on the “twist ending” was now a weakness, when just a couple of years prior, it had been his biggest strength. The movie the public was expecting wasn’t the one they got and that was somehow Shymalan’s fault.
For what it’s worth, I like the twist, even if it isn’t particularly shocking, but I don’t think it needs to be shocking to work. Maybe I’m giving him too much credit, but the whole point of THE VILLAGE seems to be no matter how much you want to run from and hide from your trauma, it’s impossible to do so. Nothing reflects the futility of that more than trying to pretend society isn’t right outside your door. I also think the twist has aged pretty well. There are more and more weirdos out there that seem intent on dragging us back to the 19th century and would live this agrarian lifestyle at the drop of a hat if it meant ignoring the problems of the world writ large.
There were certainly ways Shylamalan didn’t help his own cause. In conjunction with the SyFy channel, he created a faux documentary entitled THE BURIED SECRET OF M.NIGHT SHYAMALAN that purported Shyamalan had been dead for nearly a half hour while drowned in a frozen pond in an accident and that upon being rescued he had experienced communications with spirits, fueling an obsession with the supernatural. It turned out to be just an aspect of a guerilla marketing campaign for the film a lá THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, which did not go over well with the press or anybody involved in the marketing teams at Disney or NBC Universal.
Shymalan also did that weird thing he tends to do where he casts himself in his own movie. That is not necessarily uncommon among directors, but I wouldn’t say that M. Night Shyamalan is a guy who lights up a screen. It seemed very self-indulgent — as if he was buying into his own hype.
This movie also marks the beginning of a huge slide for Shyamalan, which is why I have referred to it as a pivot point. After THE VILLAGE comes: THE LADY IN THE WATER, THE HAPPENING, THE LAST AIRBENDER, and AFTER EARTH. All of these movies sit at 25% or lower on Rotten Tomatoes with AIRBENDER (5%) and AFTER EARTH (12%) ranking lowest.
It’s unfair that THE VILLAGE was held to a standard it couldn’t possibly meet. It’s beautifully shot, well acted, and a pretty sharp allegory about a lot of things. It’s aged well and continues to do so. It’s a smart piece of filmmaking that was sunk by the hype machine around it and the expectations of the director at its helm. When you’re looking for a fun, spooky movie to instill a little Halloween spirit this month, I encourage you to add it to your rotation.
THE VILLAGE. It’s good, actually.
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