In 1999 it looked as though American filmmaking might be on the cusp of an exciting period not unlike the Coppola-Scorsese-Allen 1970s, with several original young directors coming into their own at once. That year, fortyish David O. Russell--the eldest of the group by a decade--followed up his delightfully neurotic Flirting With Disaster with the bravura Three Kings; Paul Thomas Anderson built on his Boogie Nights reputation with flawed masterpiece Magnolia; Wes Anderson offered the sly subversion Rushmore (technically a 1998 film but not released nationally until February 1999); and 29-year-old M. Night Shyamalan hit box-office gold with the surprisingly mature thriller The Sixth Sense. It felt as though any one of these filmmakers (or more than one) might be on the verge of making the Great American Movie.
Half a decade later, we're still waiting. Though Shyamalan, Russell, and the (unrelated) Andersons still have plenty of time to live up to their millennial promise, all have, in their various ways, taken steps backward. Of the group, one could argue that Shyamalan has disappointed the least. He's certainly been the most workmanlike, turning out three feature films post-Sixth Sense, and by far the most commercially successful. But, like Wes Anderson with his succession of ironic takes on overgrown boys, Shyamalan may have settled into a groove that is a little too comfortable.
The hallmarks of Shyamalan's work--the somber, stately mood, the suggestion of menace lurking just offscreen, the twist ending--are all in evidence in his most recent film, The Village, released on video today. But each of these elements already feels tired: the stateliness descends into staginess, the menace is not nearly menacing enough, and the final twist is both forced and unsurprising. The result is a movie that is dull while it is playing and deeply irritating once it's over.
The title of the film refers to a bucolic hamlet surrounded by thick woods. It's not clear where it is located--there are a few references to "towns" beyond the forest --or in what time period, though it's apparently preindustrial. The few dozen kindly souls who live there raise livestock, cavort happily in the fields, and speak an American dialect that will be familiar to anyone who has watched fourth-graders put on a Thanksgiving play. When town patriarch Edward Walker (William Hurt) wonders what a small gathering of children are looking at, for example, he asks, "What manner of spectacle has captured your attention so splendidly I ought to carry it in my pocket to help me teach?" The spectacle in question turns out to be a mutilated lamb; Hurt sensibly opts not to put it in his pocket. The mutilation is assumed to be the work of tall, lupine creatures in scarlet cloaks (yes, in this film it's the Big Bad Wolves who wear red) who live in the forest.
The villagers refer to these monsters as Those We Do Not Speak Of, though of course they speak of little else. For many years an uneasy truce prevailed: The townsfolk stayed out of the woods, and the creatures stayed out of the village. But after a ten-year-old boy dies for want of modern medicines, quiet, earnest Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) asks the village elders for permission to remedy the deficiency by journeying through the woods to the surrounding towns. On a brief, exploratory foray into the forest he is spotted by one of Those We Do Not, etc. In apparent consequence, the creatures begin invading the village at night as its inhabitants cower in their root cellars.
In addition to Walker and Lucius, said inhabitants include Walker's strong-willed daughter Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), who has been blind from an early age (a condition, it's suggested, that could also have been prevented with better medicines); Lucius's widowed mother (Sigourney Weaver); and Ivy's frequent playmate, the childlike, mentally ill Noah (Adrien Brody). This last character is that most annoying of devices, the psycho ex machina. At multiple points throughout the film, Noah's freedom from rationality is used as an excuse for twists that have no underlying logic of their own. It's not too much to say that Shyamalan could not have made The Village without supplying it with an idiot.
Brody does what he can with the role of Noah, which is to say very little: Between performing crucial plot functions, he basically giggles and cries and pantomimes his disability. Phoenix's role, too, is underdeveloped: The script repeatedly informs us that Lucius is brave and taciturn, but Phoenix never manages to add much to this characterization. Hurt and Weaver aren't exactly good in the film, but as two of the more mannered performers working today they are oddly suited to the stilted rhythms of Shyamalan's dialogue. One can almost imagine them talking this way off the set. Howard (daughter of Ron) has gotten a great deal of attention for her performance as Ivy (after all, Hollywood hasn't had a good nepotism beneficiary since Kate Hudson), but while she has a compelling enough screen presence it's difficult to tell whether she can actually act. Like everyone else in the film, Ivy is painted in broad brush strokes (blind! resourceful! loyal!), a character from a fable rather than lived life.
Ivy is in love with Lucius, who is also in love with her (though reluctant, of course, to say so). Unfortunately Noah, in his feeble-minded way, has mistaken Ivy's friendship for something more. This unbalanced love triangle produces unfortunate consequences; one upshot is that when it comes time to make the dangerous journey through the beast-infested woods, it is not Lucius but Ivy who does the journeying. At the outset of her trip we are treated to one of Shyamalan's trademark revelations (he enjoys it so much that he appears to undo it later only so he can redo it again), and at its completion we get another. As I'm about to spoil both of them, I strongly recommend that those who haven't yet seen the movie and would like to be disappointed for themselves stop reading now. Those already in the know or morbidly curious can continue on to the next paragraph.
All set? Shyamalan's first sleight of hand is that Those We Do Not Speak Of do not in fact exist. Rather they are boogie men invented by the elders when they founded the village in order to keep their children from traveling to the corrupt, vice-ridden towns across the forest. Walker tells Ivy this to reassure her before she sets out for medicine, and he shows her a monster costume the elders have used to keep the myth alive (hidden away in, I kid you not, The Old Shed That Is Not to Be Used). But Walker adds that the idea came to him because in history books there had been "rumors" of such creatures living in the woods. On her journey, Ivy is attacked by a red-cloaked monster (see! they really do exist!) but it turns out to be poor, deranged Noah (fooled you again!), who stole a costume that had been hidden, conveniently enough, under the floorboards in his "quiet room."
The second twist comes when Ivy emerges from the woods and encounters a security guard in an SUV. The village, you see, is not some imaginary locale or nineteenth-century settlement--it's in present-day Pennsylvania, hidden in the middle of a wildlife preserve. The "elders" are Philadelphians who, having lost loved ones to violent crime, decided to cut themselves, and their children, forever off from modern society.
Both revelations are of the kind that viewers, anticipating a Shyamalan surprise, might easily guess but dismiss as too ridiculous. The implausibilities are innumerable: the parents (none of them notably religious, mind you) who would let their children go blind and die rather than take a day trip to the City of Brotherly Love; the mass livestock mutilations that halting, perpetually apologetic Noah conducts undiscovered; the inhuman snarls the "creatures" make when they appear in the town and in the woods; and on and on. Shyamalan's previous shock endings involved ghosts, spacemen, superheroes, and divine manifestations. Even though the surprises of The Village require little more than the human capacity for deception, they're still the least realistic of the bunch.
Moreover, Shyamalan's need to set up his twists deforms almost everything else in the film. Why does Hurt mention to Ivy the "rumors" of forest-dwelling monsters at a moment when he's trying to reassure her that she will be safe on her trip? Because he's not speaking to her but to us, planting the idea that she really will meet something diabolical in the woods. Why would modern people bother to speak in the village's peculiar, archaic idiom? Because if they spoke like modern people it would tip us off. Ditto the stories of loss that the elders tell to their children, in which contemporary words and phrases--"dumpster," "East River"--are deleted not for their benefit but for ours. Even the fact that Noah wears the monster costume when he shows up in the woods is necessitated by our presence and not that of Ivy, who after all is blind.
But ultimately the greatest problem with The Village's revelations is that both are demystifications and, as such, letdowns. Like the younger villagers, we succumb to the myth only to discover it's an elaborate con--and one in which the deck was stacked against us. By setting his story up as a fable, Shyamalan gets away with any number of surreal touches: blind Ivy's ability to "see" Lucius and to make her way through dense woods unaccompanied; the comfort and ease that the villagers enjoy without ever seeming to do much work; the idea that everyone there could live in utter peace and innocence until crazy Noah started acting up. When Shyamalan defabulizes his tale, his pulls the rug out not only from under us but from under himself as well. Reexamined in the context of the real-world conclusion, very little in the film stands up.
It's too bad. While it's been widely remarked that Shyamalan adhered too closely to his usual movie formula in The Village, he in fact reversed it. His previous four films (Wide Awake, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs) were all set in a recognizable, everyday reality into which the director then injected otherworldly elements. In The Village, he sets up a strange and magical place full of mystery and peril, and then informs us it's just a bunch of folks from Philly who lie to their kids. In a way it's an admirable attempt to switch gears, to confound our expectations of a fantastical explanation by offering a mundane one instead. Had the twists themselves been less absurd, and handled with less solemnity and pretension, it might have been a neat trick. But they weren't, and it isn't.
The Home Movies List:
Wide Awake (1998). A trite but occasionally amusing film about a young boy who goes in search of God after his beloved grandfather passes away. The twist at the end is both obvious and appalling, but there are pleasures along the way, including a small Rosie O'Donnell role as a sports-obsessed nun.
The Sixth Sense (1999). A film you either adore or admire grudgingly. (I'm in the latter camp.) Whatever one thinks of the premise, the execution is masterful and little Haley Joel Osment a marvel. Pity Duvall and Caine seem to have scared him out of the business in Secondhand Lions.
Unbreakable (2000). Shyamalan's most unusual and most underrated film, a grave, dour superhero saga that eschews the usual spandex accoutrements. It also gets my vote for best (and least anticipated) ending.
Signs (2002). The only movie I can think of that manages to include both alien invasion and divine intervention. Even if the mix doesn't quite work it gets points for nerve. I still can't tell, however, whether Joaquin Phoenix has any purpose in films other than to convey a wholesome (and very un-Hollywood) plainness.
The Village (2004). With apologies to Hillary Clinton and Henny Youngman: Take this village--please.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.