THE VILLAGE (2004)

The Village engenders mixed feelings. It’s the first Shyamalan film where I left the theater disappointed, but in hindsight, I can appreciate what he was trying to do, thematically. The crux of my disappointment — and that of other filmgoers, I imagine — lay in how the movie undercuts its own magic with one of its twists. This is something that /Film’s Chris Evangelista picked up on his Unpopular Opinion defense of the movie. As he put it:

“Up until The Village, the twists in Shyamalan’s films were in service of supernatural elements. They confirmed that there was some sort of otherworldly force working within the universe – something beyond our comprehension. The Village is the inverse of this, a film that blatantly says the supernatural is, in fact, a farce – that everything we thought we could believe in was a lie.”

Trailers peddled The Village as a monster movie, teasing our imagination with the idea of a gothic New England tale where creatures in the woods stalked the perimeter of a 19th-century community. With cinematography by Roger Deakins, the film’s striking imagery showed us figures in yellow hoods and a perimeter ringed with watchtowers, where oil lanterns burned in the night.

However, like a certain long-bearded terrorist leader in a well-known comic book sequel, it turned out that the film’s monsters, the dreaded “Those We Don’t Speak Of,” were merely a costumed fear-mongering tool. While this might make for an interesting allegorical statement — especially when your movie about grief and isolationism is released into the immediate post-9/11 world like The Village was — it doesn’t necessarily make for the most satisfying dramatic payoff to the mystery-box fantasies drummed up by the film and its marketing.

As for the movie’s other twists, The Village is the film that introduced Bryce Dallas Howard to the world, and I was fine with the bait-and-switch of having her character emerge as the true protagonist after Joaquin Phoenix’s character was unexpectedly sidelined. More assailable is the twist whereby we learn that the supposed 19th-century village exists on a protected wildlife preserve in modern-day America. What really killed that revelation for me is how Shyamalan, in this instance, uses his obligatory cameo to explain how “government guys had been paid off to keep plane routes from flying over this place.”

He’s unloading a whole stream of expository dialogue as he says this, and the park ranger he’s talking to shows himself to be fidgety and uncomfortable. The ranger’s eager to get the medicine he needs in the office and then leave, but Shyamalan keeps talking; he’s inserted himself in his own movie to explain everything for the viewer. It’s a clumsy bit of apologism that smacks of insecurity and hubris on the part of the filmmaker, and as Shyamalan’s next movie showed, it wouldn’t be the last time we saw him write and act himself into a defensive corner.

LADY IN THE WATER (2006)

Narfs and Scrunts? I smell bullshit. Lady in the Water was perhaps the first unfiltered whiff of it in Shyamalan’s feature filmography. This is a movie in need of some serious tough love. It’s the film that caused Shyamalan to divorce himself from his longtime studio partner, Disney, when executives there like Nina Jacobson failed to give him “a truthful reading” of the script. Or was it just that their misgivings were very much truthful and he refused to accept the deficiencies of his own material? Either way, Shyamalan’s airing of grievances in a tell-all book broke the Hollywood code of silence and can perhaps be seen as the impetus for a major downward turn in his career. He would never be the same after Lady in the Water.

The plot of the movie revolves around a water nymph who lives in the swimming pool at an apartment complex. Even as a nominal “bedtime story,” it craps the cot. I won’t try to rehash the overcooked mythology because it’s pure gobbledygook, full of many pretentious capitalizations. All you need to know is: Narfs and Scrunts. Let that phrase roll over your tongue and see if it doesn’t taste make-believe.

A lot of people probably never saw The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan, and those that did could maybe forgive it as a Star Wars Holiday Special-like curio that had no bearing on the big screen. Dutiful DVD buyers like yours truly were even willing to giving The Village a second chance, overlooking its muddled execution in favor of it as a fear allegory (one with a great deal more artistry to it than After Earth would later prove capable of mustering).

Lady in the Water is the precise dot on the timeline where fans like me started to fall away from Shyamalan in droves. It’s there in the box office numbers: this remains his lowest grossing film since The Sixth Sense. Critics took against it for obvious reasons: there’s a character in this movie, one Harry Farber, played by Bob Balaban, who is a know-it-all film critic. His bad advice and outright pedantry ultimately get him killed by a grass wolf. Score one for the scrunt.

That’s actually the most interesting aspect of the movie: how it functions as a knowing discourse from Shyamalan to his critics. Whether or not they’d be willing to admit bias because of it, Farber could only be regarded as a personal effrontery to movie reviewers of the day. While I doubt he meant to willfully antagonize anyone, Shyamalan was — in a playful, or perhaps petulant, move — flubbing his nose at them, while biting the studio hand that fed him, to boot. If there was a grudge there, he was fanning the flames of it while displaying ignorance of his own shortcomings.

Other films, like Brad Bird’s Ratatouille, have memorably toyed with the figure of the critic, showing us a cartoon effigy of intellectual pride with the fitting name of Anton Ego. The problem with Lady in the Water is that it also showed us Shyamalan himself playing a kind of divinely inspired Author whose next monumental book will inspire presidents and change the world.

At this point, the writer-director had lost all restraint with his cameos, as if he didn’t have enough objectivity to recognize that there was a significant conflict of interest between telling a good story and giving himself a plum role that would massage his own ego. As self-aware as the fatal hallway encounter with that grass wolf is — with the critic blinking stupidly at the camera — Shyamalan was unable to reign in his own wayward self-indulgence in Lady in the Water.

Continue Reading M. Night Shyamalan Revisited >>

Cool Posts From Around the Web: