Knowing the “surprise” ending going in, I watched M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village with mouth agape, wondering how a movie could be so badly conceived and still get made — even knowing that box-office-draw writers-directors are given a lot of freedom by studios. Virtually nothing in the movie works, and that should have been readily apparent at all stages of production, because the obvious problem is a shitty script.
Bashing The Village, of course, is easy. But out of Shyamalan’s plodding, over-deliberate bore — neither intellectually stimulating nor marginally entertaining — could have been salvaged a good, serious, potentially wrenching exploration of the concept of the social contract. Shyamalan should have called me in a moment of crisis — as if I were Pulp Fiction’s Winston Wolfe — and I would have fixed everything anon. Alas, I’m left to look at the wreckage after the fact and shake my head.
I’ve already bitched about the cowardly way M. Night critic-proofs his movies, and The Village is no different. To combat this self-defense mechanism — and to discuss the movie without being coy or censoring myself — everything is fair game in this essay. If you’re the sensitive type who gets upset about spoilers ... you’ve been warned.
The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable worked because the final-reel reveal was buried in a narrative that maintained alternative plausibility in the audience’s mind; in the former, Bruce Willis could be reasonably seen as living, and in the latter, he was simply someone who didn’t get sick.
There’s no such plausibility in The Village. It’s evident immediately that the headstone telling the audience it’s 1897 is lying, because the dialogue is so idiosyncratically mannered and stiff, and so clearly a product of neither the past nor contemporary society. Something is up.
What’s up is potentially fascinating. A group of people — presumably intellectuals in the late 1960s or early ’70s — decides that it’s fed up with the violence and greed of urban America and creates a fully insulated village inside a private forest preserve. They essentially divorce the modern world.
This protects them, but it also makes them vulnerable. Diseases in the outside world that are treatable become fatal in the village, and the elders pledge never to go back to the “towns.” Their bargain is that they forego modern amenities and accept preventable death in exchange for their peace, communal meals, and uncluttered lifestyle. (Let’s be generous and ignore the inevitable inbreeding and overcrowding.)
Of course, while the people who founded the village have experienced and withdrawn from the outside world, their children haven’t, and the elders are desperate to shelter them from it. So they create spook stories and monsters draped in red to frighten them.
As premises go, this one is rich. Dismissively, you could claim that Shyamalan is simply making a movie about the Amish and dressing it up in a color-coded puzzle. But the Amish are born into the simple life and choose to maintain it because of heritage and religion. This village, on the other hand, is a reactionary community of choice, and one, apparently, with little use for God. (The deity merits only one mention, if my memory is correct, and that’s an exclamatory.) The commune was built, out of disgust and fear, on ethical and philosophical grounds, not spirituality, so the residents can’t fall back on the “God’s will” rationale for the unexplainable or unfortunate. Everything must be rationalized.
And the red-cloaked monsters are a curious and intriguing synthesis of all that is dangerous in the folk tale of Little Red Cap: the predatory sexual maleness of the wolf and the newly fertile femininity represented by the menstrual-red cloak. (If you’re the kind of person who automatically rejects psychosexual readings, note that the person donning the monster suit in The Village is a spurned, jealous, and aggressive would-be lover. And recognize that after plunging into a hole, he’s rendered impotent ... so to speak. And remember that he stabbed his rival with a phallic knife.)
Beyond that, there is the suspense, tension, and emotion to be mined from natural situations in the village. What happens when a child is sick, and its parents know that the health problem is easily and cheaply cured in the outside world? Do they keep their promise to maintain the integrity of the community, in the process letting a kid die? Or do they save a life while destroying the bonds that keep the village intact?
And what of the woman-child who will inevitably venture into the woods and, finally, the present day? Will she reveal the secret, or understand that the truth is something that should be locked away for the good of the village?
Unfortunately, Shyamalan hasn’t matured as a filmmaker since his Sixth Sense breakthrough. He’s still fixated on the surprise, so he continues to try to repeat the first act of his career instead of moving on to the second. Shyamalan remains an exploiter of conceit rather than an explorer, and an illusionist rather than a storyteller; he’s not interested in drama and humanity, and not genuinely curious about the ethical dilemmas or heartbreak that the village elders face.
The movie is all high-concept bullshit, full of uninteresting, badly performed blather and a grossly inefficient plot that takes forever just to push a brave blind girl into the forest. The triumphantly self-satisfied revelation comes as a relief mostly because it signals that the movie is nearly over.
What a joy it would be if, before the opening credits, the audience hears the climactic vocal montage that ends with William Hurt intoning: “I have an idea.” This aural introduction places the story in modern times at the outset, and creates an immediate, obvious contradiction with the headstone that will serve as a child’s grave marker. With the game given up, Shyamalan would be free to actually tell a story with his considerable talent instead of slyly trying to fool his audience ... yet again.
Most viewers, I think, would appreciate his growth and his intellectual and emotional curiosity. And in an ironic twist, the movie would shock viewers — precisely because of the absence of a surprise ending. We’d be left with only a well-crafted, satisfying movie.