The ghosts of The Sixth Sense continue to haunt writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, years after Haley Joel Osment’s young protagonist made his peace with them. Three films later, Shyamalan still wants to hide the truth in plain sight, then open our eyes and our minds in a stunning last-reel revelation. Unfortunately, each time he tries it, the trick loses something.
In Unbreakable, Shyamalan’s unconventional super hero film, the final twist came as a genuine surprise, but lacked the vital explanatory force of the last moments of The Sixth Sense, still his best film. In Signs, the pieces came together in a way that was meant to suggest cosmic design, but wound up too obviously betraying the filmmaker’s hand to effectively evoke the hand of God.
With The Village, Shyamalan has gone to the well once too often. Whether or not you see the anti-climactic twists coming is almost beside the point. For the first time, Shyamalan has created a puzzle movie populated by characters we can’t identify with, living in a world we can’t relate to. The viewer has no stake in this story; he comes to the Village a stranger in a strange land, and remains so through the course of the film.
On a purely visceral level, there is still anxiety in Shyamalan’s images: an outstretched hand tremblingly extended through an open doorway into a night occupied by unknown terrors; a terrified figure running blind through nightmare-infested forests.
But the characters’ terrors are not our terrors. Their earthshaking discoveries don’t rock our world. Above all, their deep-rooted, underlying motivations never become real to us. By the end of The Sixth Sense and Signs, I grasped on an emotional level why Malcolm Crowe and Graham Hess had to go through what, in a sense, they put themselves through. In The Village, Shyamalan merely gestures at the history that led his peculiar community to make the novel choices they have, but he never fleshes out the psychology behind those choices.
And they are such stunning choices. If we can’t believe in them, the movie falls apart. But Shyamalan seems never to have realized that he had to persuade us of anything — he seems to have thought that we would simply accept whatever he tells us.
To his credit, Shyamalan always has more on his mind than delivering thrills and a twist ending. The Village is also meant as a reflection on fear, authority, corruption and innocence, and the tradeoffs societies make. Yet this, too, eventually relies for its persuasive power on the underlying emotional logic that Shyamalan never gives us. Without that, the parable falls flat, more a "Twilight Zone" conceit than a compelling alternate-reality premise.
The place is rural Pennsylvania; the year, established by an inscription on a new gravestone in an opening graveside scene, 1897. The village, a tiny, seemingly idyllic farming community, is deliberately isolated by a daunting forest from neighboring towns, which the plain-dressing, plain-living villagers regard as "wicked places where wicked people live."
The older residents, who first settled the village, have clearly suffered tragedies and losses in the outside world, and have made their village an insular refuge from outside evils — evils of which the younger generation have little or no experience. Among these younger residents are Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard), a spirited young woman who is blind but seems to have a kind of second sight; Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix), a taciturn, doggedly idealistic young man; and Noah Percy (Adrien Brody), who in this setting might without awkwardness be called the village idiot. The elders include village leader Edward Walker (William Hurt), widow Alice Hunt (Sigourney Weaver), and newly bereaved father August Nicholson (Brendan Gleeson).
Even in this utopian community, fear looms on every side. The very forest that protects the village from the world echoes with the eerie cries of a literally nameless terror — fearsome creatures that the villagers refer to, with great frequency, with the self-refuting circumlocution "those of whom we do not speak." (A more accurate turn of phrase would have been "those whom we do not name"; in a more colloquial setting, we might have settled for a Rowlingesque "You Know What.")
In the past, we gather, the creatures have been known to be man-killers, but currently there seems to be a fragile truce. To guard their boundaries, the villagers have orchestrated a web of defenses, including watchfires, guard towers, bells, and a scrupulous avoidance of anything that bears the creatures’ favorite color ("the bad color"), which Shyamalan enthusiasts will have no trouble guessing in advance. Another color seems to repel the creatures ("the safe color"), and the watchmen accordingly go clad in hooded cloaks of that hue, creating a somewhat fairytale-like ambiance. (Political interpretations of Shyamalan’s color coding in connection with the government terror alert color scheme seem questionable in light of Shyamalan’s established history with color.)
Some of the young men, like boys on the tracks playing chicken with an oncoming train, compete by night at the forest’s edge, standing on a stump with their back to the trees, arms outstretched, listening to the unnerving bellows behind them until fear overwhelms them.
One young man, though, is different. Lucius, intense and awkward, is convinced that the creatures are drawn to fear, and believes that one might pass through the forest unharmed if his heart were unafraid and his intentions noble — for example, to fetch needed supplies from the remote towns. Lucius’s conviction is compelling, and blind Ivy, though she has no particular belief in the power of positive thinking, trusts implicitly in Lucius, and in one nerve-racking scene refuses to seek safety until he comes for her.
Shyamalan has gathered an enviable ensemble cast, and as always elicits stellar performances from them, most strikingly from relative newcomer Bryce Howard, daughter of Ron Howard. Only William Hurt, using the same choppy inflection he employed as Jairus in The Miracle Maker, seems unconnected with his character’s emotions.
Yet the people of this village behave and even speak so oddly that there’s almost always something a bit off-putting about them. Presumably this is meant to reflect the cultural milieu, yet I have a hard time believing that any girl, in any century, would ever express interest in a boy in anything like the way that Ivy’s older sister Kitty (Judy Greer) does — or that it was necessary to force characters to use such stilted constructions as "You are my cherished one as well."
I was also struck by the remarkably secular character of life in this supposedly 19th-century rural community. The villagers dress and behave vaguely like Mennonites or Puritans, I guess, but there is no sign that their lifestyle is religious in any way. Their village has a schoolhouse, meeting hall, smithy, bakery, even a greenhouse, but no church or chapel. Even at communal festal meals, the closest anyone comes to saying grace is Edward Walker intoning "We are grateful for the time we have been given."
At one point there is a wedding, but the film skips the ceremony and goes right to the reception. There are a couple of references to praying, and a stray "God bless you" or so, but nothing more. Superficially, it might seem that a late-breaking plot point offers a plausible explanation for this, but it doesn’t really. At the very least, we would need to know more about the villagers’ fundamental choices in order to understand why they would reject the religious component of their otherwise traditional way of life. And that’s precisely what the film never gives us.
Technically, the film is masterfully put together. In addition to the first-rate acting, Shyamalan’s directorial skills are as assured as ever, and the production design regarding the village and costumes is splendid. No period detail has been overlooked — which only makes the storytelling issues seem sloppier. (What is the plot significance of Ivy having psychic powers and being able to "see" people’s auras, and even differentiate individuals by color? There are a couple of times where that talent might have come in handy, but it never pays off that I can remember.)
What, in the end, does Shyamalan think of his strange little society, or mean us to think of it? Obviously there are deep flaws in their way of life, and those so inclined may argue that Shyamalan is offering an allegorical critique of America today. Others, though, may feel that Shyamalan is actually sympathetic to his villagers, despite their flaws, and that the film represents a social critique of a quite different sort. Alas, that ambiguity regarding Shyamalan’s village is far more intriguing than the story he has to tell about it.
Why, I haven’t come across a fairy-tale premise calling for such childlike wonder and acceptance since the taxation of trade routes was in dispute and the greedy Trade Federation set up a blockade around the planet Naboo.
A ubiquitous tagline and a mind-bending climactic twist made M. Night Shyamalan’s breakout hit The Sixth Sense a monster sensation — yet this deliberately paced, psychologically sensitive paranormal thriller is much more than a one-trick puzzle movie, and holds up well to multiple viewings.
Signs has the
heart that was lacking in Unbreakable, but stumbles badly
in its treatment of the paranormal, in this case the world of
"X-Files" / "Twilight Zone"
Such “hope” as Shyamalan has to offer is less persuasive and less memorable than the fears and horrors he conjures; the overall impression created by his film is an ultimately dehumanizing, depressing one.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.