M. Night Shyamalan Spotlight
July 30, 2004 is when the cracks began to show for M. Night Shyamalan. The reaction to the release of The Village was a combination of pause, confusion, and outright venom. “The Village is a colossal miscalculation, a movie based on a premise that cannot support it, a premise so transparent it would be laughable were the movie not so deadly solemn,” wrote Roger Ebert. He wasn’t wrong. As if overnight, every film critic and filmgoer had awoken from a fugue state; after five years of a Shyamalan high, the crash came, and it came hard.
You have to remember how white-hot Shyamalan was at the time. Only two years before, Time magazine had dubbed him “the next Spielberg.” Sure, filmmakers had survived anointings as “the next Kubrick” or “the next Hitchcock,” but Spielberg was and is the platonic ideal of a filmmaker. Blockbusters, awards fare, action, drama, comedy — nobody has the range of Spielberg and comes out on the other side of a movie with the vision intact like he does. It was as glorious a comparison as any filmmaker could hope to have, and for a short while, Shyamalan actually seemed like he could pick up the mantle. We were hungry for it, damn near salivating. And when he failed, he went into as dark a creative period as any popular filmmaker had before him.
The Village was the pivot point, the ‘put up or shut up’ moment for a filmmaker. He or she either passes the test and secures future blank checks, or falls on their ass and sullies their good name. The public has asked for another taste, as if to say, “what else ya got?” — it’s a beast that has no true proclivities. The filmmaker can sate it with something salty or sweet, or even bitter; there’s no telling what it will eat up. You want it to lick the plate clean. Sometimes it throws it at the wall in disgust.
The Village is divisive because it represents the best and worst of Shyamalan. It’s an impressive piece of work that is at once frustrating and invigorating. All of who he is and who he wants to be as a filmmaker is in this film. Let’s dig in!
M. Night’s Twisting Priorities
Long before Christopher Nolan perfected the art of the rug pull and JJ Abrams turned it into a cottage industry, Shyamalan was the king of the twist. His Sixth Sense ending became so legendary right out of the gate that he only really had two career options: double down or pivot in a way least expected. In a way, he did both.
Unbreakable was as strange a follow-up as anyone could have predicted. A patient, solemn, grounded take on the superhero origin story after a megahit supernatural thriller? A single cryptic trailer did very little to present this idea, but it was provocative enough to get butts in seats. Shyamalan provided another twist, yet not so earth-shattering that it rewrote the entire film. The result earned mixed reactions but furthered the hype around his undeniable skill.
Signs is where Shyamalan blinked, coming under pressure to deliver something more palatable after Unbreakable’s short-lived box office. The spooky tale of an alien invasion promised scares, suspense, and star power, and it delivered all three in a crowd-pleasing (if goofy) fashion. Many balked at the final reveal, but most had been too wrapped up in ninety minutes of popcorn-munching to care.
However, therein lay the problem. Signs was his third straight film with a built-in marketing hook and a hype train around what the mystery all meant. It was not just a pattern that had been formed, but a Shyamalan formula. Start with a broken man, have him confront something otherworldly, then tie up that mystery in a neat little twist. It’s a formula to print money for sure, but an unsustainable one. And it’s one that The Village would fall prey to.
The trailers for The Village were stunning for their time, offering glimpses of something truly chilling (red-hooded creatures out of focus, a terrifying shape lurking in the lamplight, a high-stakes game of survival for an entire community) and promising an all-time horror experience. Usually, trailers shouldn’t mean a damned thing in regards to judging a final product, but here they were just one piece of a vainglorious marketing puzzle. Concurrent with the film’s release was a cross-promotional piece in the form of the Sci-Fi Channel’s The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan.
Secret wasn’t just a promotion for a movie — it was an attempt at myth-making. Presented as a true documentary, this faux biography fashioned an eerie backstory for Shyamalan, painting him as an ominous figure whose penchant for the supernatural came from dark forces in his past. Not even Hitchcock would have slapped his name on a ploy this masturbatory.
Shyamalan had bought into his own hype. A downfall had begun.
Taking Too Many Forms
So what of The Village itself? For one thing, it’s an amazingly assured piece of filmmaking. From Roger Deakins’ photography to James Newton Howard’s score, very few films look and sound as great as The Village did in 2004. Shyamalan pulls you into a lost world of bygone America through period detail, careful framing, and a delicate pace. There’s more than meets the eye in every frame, and it makes the movie instantly compelling.
That is to say, when Shyamalan doesn’t indulge his formalism. Like the story itself, surface idyll conceals uglier attributes. Shyamalan’s frames are often stifling, restricting actors like dolls in a diorama. The awkward opening zoom of a grieving Brendon Gleeson is an example where the form detracts from the emotional intent. Characters don’t exist in the frame, so much as pose. This should be forgivable given the artificiality of the story, but it’s not a delicate dance that every actor can perform. Joaquin Phoenix is so malleable an actor that he moves through his blocking effortlessly. Gleeson, Sigourney Weaver, and others fare far worse. Adrien Brody, playing literal village idiot named Noah, has zero character, and doesn’t have a subplot so much as he moves around the plot, popping up like a wild card when the narrative dulls. In this case, he turns covetous and stabs Lucius (Phoenix).
It is those plot mechanics, coupled with deliberately stilted dialogue, that makes for something not even resembling formalist theatre; it’s almost alien. William Hurt, an actor who can be hamstrung by his idiosyncrasies, is smothered by the ‘period’ dialogue, forced to swallow some baffling lines. Shyamalan’s ear isn’t for the real world, but for reality filtered through movies. He writes ‘movie’ dialogue built for dramatic pauses, anguished declarations, and super-serious whispers. It can make for truly absorbing moments, like Unbreakable’s confrontations with the supernatural, and genuinely funny ones like with Signs’ pre-invasion anxiety.
None of this would be noticeable if the story construction for The Village was theme-based, but it’s painfully apparent that the plot was reverse-engineered from the twist, and not from a story Shyamalan felt compelled to tell. Make no mistake — this is exactly the type of film Shyamalan wanted to make, a big-scale Twilight Zone episode. It is in no way what it should have been — an allegory.
The Mystery Giveth and the Mystery Taketh Away
The Village poses the same mystery box trap that JJ Abrams has fallen in throughout his career: how can a reveal ever live up to the hype preceding it? The answer is to craft a story irrespective of any reveal. Shyamalan made The Village at the height of the invasion of Iraq and on the cusp of the contentious 2004 election. Questions of hidden threats, clear and present fears, and the means to protecting a community were all prevalent at the time. The idea of shrouding a town in a lie to protect it is a potent metaphor, but the only subtextual level the ending operates on is the limits of grief. Were the film attempting to cloak its examination of fear and loss in a broader context, its flaws might be more forgiven.
However, the love story at its center between the sight-impaired Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard) and the shy Lucius is sweet, and some of Shyamalan’s most affecting work. Before we know that the creatures are bunk, their ghostly appearances register damn near like the shark in Jaws. Both story strands come to a head during the film’s big action set-piece, where a community dance is interrupted by a creature attack. As villagers flee to their cellars, Ivy stands in confidence, outstretching her hand in wait for Lucius. Just as the creature is about to strike, Lucius enters the frame, taking her hand and escorting her to the cellar. Hillary Hahn’s aching strings glide on the soundtrack as the pair runs in slow motion. It’s visual storytelling of the highest Hollywood caliber and rapturous filmmaking that is underdone because the story ultimately has very little point.
The Village collapses under the weight of Shyamalan’s twist factory. Later, Ivy reaches the “towns” to procure medicine for Lucius’ stabbings, which we find out is actually contemporary 2004 Pennsylvania. The village has been protected on a nature preserve, run like some giant experiment in grief therapy and led by William Hurt’s character, a former history professor. It’s silly for sure, and opens a gigantic can of worms when we should be concluding the emotional journey of the characters. The journey does indeed end with another affecting scene: the town elders choose to maintain their facade in spite of some casualties along the way, Ivy returns to her beloved, and we cut to black.
The sense of closure, however, clashes with Shymalan’s filmmaking power. The movie lands even though we know it doesn’t. Something is just so off, and it’s this ‘off-ness’ that renders character motivations impenetrable, and their underlying emotions downright goofy. When the Hurt character exposes the big lie to Ivy — that there are no creatures — the moment is intercut with Ivy’s climactic forest journey, where she runs into another creature…which we know is not real! This editing is confounding when juxtaposed against the film’s overtly blunt final reveal. Shyamalan never met a revelatory montage he didn’t like cutting away to, nor a bow big enough he didn’t like tying with expository dialogue. It’s the ending’s explicitness that betrays Ivy and Lucius’ struggle; they basically end the film as rubes. And while this would work as a greater commentary on the lies we tell, the ending is supposed to feel triumphant. Tragedy is averted by Dues Ex Shyamalan.
This is the gamble with the mystery box form of storytelling. A film becomes beholden to a reveal, and risks undercutting all the work it has done to build up to it. It’s a backwards form of storytelling; the best magic tricks work when we don’t see the strings. Here, we not only see the strings, but we see the lady hiding her torso under the table, and the trick lock for the water tank, and the trap door.
After the Fall
If Shyamalan’s status as a wunderkind and Hollywood savior took a hit with The Village, it took a pounding with his followup, Lady in the Water, an attempt at an adult fairy tale that proved even more tone deaf and preposterous. 2008’s The Happening was being mostly marketed on its B-movie level gore, as “M. Night Shyamalan’s First R-Rated Movie,” a few ads said. The Happening seemed like a career low…until The Last Airbender, that is. Lower and lower Shyamalan went until 2015’s The Visit brought him back to basics.
It’s easy to declare what went wrong — it’s the classic tale of hubris. Shyamalan flew too close to the sun and crashed back to the ground. He had the Spielbergian potential for sure, a lofty goal that can be achieved. Look no further than Christopher Nolan, who wowed audiences with Memento, then decided to play studio ball with a meat-and-potatoes thriller called Insomnia. He then leveraged taking over the Batman franchise to make passion projects small (The Prestige), large (Inception) and gargantuan (Interstellar). The trick for any filmmaker is balance and range. Show the studios what you can do, then show the studios what you can do for them.
As far as we know, Shyamalan has dug himself out of his hole. Split was a home run, and Glass could be a trilogy closer for the ages that cement his comeback. The Village stands in the middle of his filmography as devastatingly flawed, but also too well made to be tossed off. It can anger you one minute then hypnotize you the next. I’ve used countless metaphors (food, magic, Greek mythology) to describe a movie that foolishly ignores the metaphorical, but it can only best be described with something that describes both Shyamalan’s arrogance and his brilliance. Something crasser.
The Village is a mystery box where the gift inside is M. Night Shyamalan’s cock.