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A Twist Too Far?
Shyamalan's The Village
by Roger Keen
SPOILER ALERT!
This article discusses the plots of M. Night Shyamalan's films,
including the twist endings of The Village and The Sixth Sense.

With the huge commercial success he's achieved since The Sixth Sense (1999), M. Night Shyamalan can do pretty much what he wants in films, and what he wants most of all is to be taken seriously on a critical level, to be put up there on a pedestal alongside the greats. With his boyish energy and his revitalisation of popular forms, he's been dubbed 'the new Spielberg'; but how lasting an impression could his films eventually make on the genres they encompass? - That is the question. Will Signs become as remembered as Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977), for example? Or will The Village prove to be as influential as The Blair Witch Project? Behind the entertainment value, where is the real quality?

The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan's third actual film and his first major success, now looks like an early high water mark. A moody ghost story with fine character acting from Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment, it took a simple and sound idea - a boy blessed (or cursed) with mediumistic powers - and produced a moving and meaningful narrative, which undoubtedly went some way in re-defining the ghost story, and contained the best twist ending in recent memory. The revelation that Willis's psychiatrist Malcolm Crowe is himself a ghost was, if you hadn't already guessed it, the final crescendo in an already entrancing piece of plotting, which made us gasp at its ingenuity and overwhelmed us with a sense of catharsis, as everything that had gone before became re-evaluated in its light. That twist ending has become both a blessing and a curse for Shyamalan himself, as, like a gambler who broke the bank at his first try, he struggles vainly to recreate the experience and the buzz it provoked.

Shyamalan's next film, Unbreakable, attempts to do tricksy things with the comic book movie, applying comic book rules to an ostensibly real world scenario, but not in the usual clear-cut way. Unlike the crispness that was achieved in The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable comes over muddied and confused. Okay, David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is a superhero that cannot be harmed, but it takes a train crash in early middle age before it dawns on him? Come on! Surely it would have registered that he is extra-special before now. And the almost-twist ending - that Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) is the villain to Dunn's hero - hardly makes us gasp with a sense of wonder. It is merely another shaky development in an idea that doesn't quite come off because its logic is too full of holes.

Then there was Signs, an edgy new take on the alien invasion subgenre that actually turned out to be a very conventional film about a clergyman losing and then regaining his faith after being significantly tested. It built up an effective atmosphere of foreboding and menace - something nasty lurking in the cornfields - but when they appeared the aliens didn't manage to rise above the level of ciphers, cardboard bogeymen whose only purpose was to supply the scare factor. Despite looking good and being reasonably well acted, Signs amounted to nothing more than an average sci-fi horror flick that would have barely registered but for its A-list cast and Shyamalan's name.

What Unbreakable and Signs demonstrate more than anything is that Shyamalan's greatest weakness as a director is his continually employment of Shyamalan as his sole writer. These two films, and indeed The Village, support the perception that here is a fine director, who can handle actors, cameras, and the overall feel of a film very ably. The problem is the lousy plots. As a writer, he just couldn't follow up the excellence of The Sixth Sense; but then if he'd allowed other writing brains into the game, he might now actually be living up to the tag of 'the new Spielberg'.

But unfortunately with The Village he dug himself even deeper into the hole of misguided ideas and poor writing. Having complained that people now expect a twist ending from him every time, and subsequently fail to appreciate the totality of his films, he designs a film that is all twist, a twist on stilts, and has no real 'totality' beyond the requirement to set up that twist. And that concept might just have worked - if the twist was any good. But as soon as the cat is out of the bag everything collapses under the weight of the dreadful artificiality of the film's premise.

The idea that a community of people should turn their backs on the outside world, for whatever reason, and exactly recreate a period in the 19th century down to the last detail - clothing, architecture, technology, medicine, manners and attitudes - is preposterously unbelievable. Comparisons have been made between the Village community and the Amish, but the Amish's rejection of things modern comes out their Christian fundamentalism and belief in the virtues of frugality; moreover, they never regressed, they simply never went forwards. And sure, other groups do shun the so-called 'rat race' and live out sylvan existences; but they cherry-pick the things that are useful to them - MP3 players, calculators, power tools, antibiotics, contraceptives, gortex, etc - why not? Really, when fully analysed, the only possible basis for having the community masquerade in this way is too fool the audience into thinking they're watching a period film!

It's a cheap conjuring trick that self-destructs on exposure, like a joke with an awful punchline. In fact it has exactly the opposite effect of The Sixth Sense twist, which retrospectively enriches our appreciation; The Village twist devalues it, undermining whatever investment we've made in the story so far. The film's actually ending, where Bryce Dallas Howard's Ivy delivers the medicine to save Lucius' life, is void of all consequence, since by then our minds are no longer concentrating on the action, but are busy driving coaches and horses through the holes we've picked in the plotting.

Even if we accept they started the community along period lines, how do they sustain it whilst remaining hermetically sealed? What happens when they need fabric for clothes, or leather and nails for shoes, or tools and materials to repair buildings and equipment? A crisis caused by the need for medicine must be just one of many such crises cropping up all the time. They might have turned their backs on the world, but would the world have done likewise? What about their duty to report births and deaths, and indeed crimes, such as Noah's stabbing of Lucius? Wouldn't the forces of law and order have been on their case in these respects from the start?

It's inconceivable that the authorities would be unaware of what is happening - especially if they're busy diverting air traffic to help sustain the illusion of past times! Are we really expected to believe that not a single aircraft of any description - helicopter, glider, private light aeroplane, balloon - has ever been sighted, even distantly, in 30-odd years? And if Edward's father's money is sustaining the community through its disguise as a wildlife park, then who is managing the organisation, making the executive decisions? How can the unit possibly function, decade after decade, with out any feedback from the real boss - Edward himself. Realistically there would have to be some contact, and no doubt a panic strategy for unforeseen crises, such as the stabbing. And what about the journalistic profession? Surely someone would discover or guess the truth in all that time and be on the phone, making him or herself richer. And what about the problem of inbreeding as the generations progress with no new blood coming in? And what about..? I could go on and on, and probably every person who's watched the film could add something more to the list.

Of course we accept a degree of implausibility in all films, we forgive the odd rough edge, fudged fact and lapse of logic; but to do so with The Village would require the powers of suspension of disbelief of Hercules! It's a shame because there are many good things about the film - the compelling eerie crepuscular atmosphere of the Village itself, the stunning debut performance from Bryce Dallas Howard as Ivy, and Adrien Brody's effective 'village idiot' Noah - and these things will be mentioned in future in the film's favour, with the twist being sidelined, perhaps out of embarrassment.

The twist in The Sixth Sense was so good because, despite being a ghost story, the film was really about the worldly issues of grief, loss, coming to terms with death and letting go; and the brilliance of the device was that we saw all this through the eyes of the dead person rather than those he'd left behind, and this unusual viewpoint made the material even more telling. So the twist serves the material, augments and strengthens it. With The Village it's the other way around: the material serves the twist, like the tail wagging the dog. The issues explored in The Village - fear, denial, avoidance, taboo, over protectiveness, etc. - are woven into a story with no depth and substance, a mere stillborn trompe d'oeil of 19th century life. When the blind Ivy returns with the medicine, none the wiser about the cruel world of today, what have the elders learned about the ridiculous limitations they've imposed on themselves and the other villagers? Not much, it seems, as there are happy to let things continue in the same old way. So where's the journey, the development? What's the point - beyond the sleight-of-hand of the twist?

Lets hope The Village will be a wake-up call for Shyamalan. Perhaps he can go to a detox centre for those with compulsive needs to put twists in films. There is talk that his next project might be an adaptation of Yann Martel's novel The Life Of Pi. That would be to good therapy indeed, and get him out the rut of having too much authorial control of his own films. That's the heart of the problem: because of his dizzy success no one in the production loop, it seems, will challenge the validity of his ideas, and sometimes - if not all the time - that challenge needs to be made.
The Village on DVD

THE VILLAGE is available
to buy on Region 2 DVD
from 31 January 2005.


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