M Night Shyamalan is the one they love to hate at the moment, as though his surname were some painful combination of the words shaman, charlatan and shyster. Due to the general bad buzz, Signs was the last Shyamalan film I caught on theatrical release, back in 2002, and I only just got around to The Village last week. What took me so long? On the basis of this, I might even dip my toe in Lady in the Water and The Happening.
I’m with Michael Koresky – The Village is seriously under-rated. Taken with The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs, The Village concludes a four-part study of grief at its most oppressive and mind-bending. The regular comparison is with Spielberg, but there’s no convincing sense of closure or uplift or resolution in these four stories, even if the nominal threat (aliens in Signs, ghosts in Sense, werewolves in The Village) disappears, because these films aren’t about the nominal threat. The sci-fi and horror scenarios are simply windowdressing – the films are about what grief does and how it can never be fully shaken off. These movies – especially the first, second and fourth -- are sustained downers, a paranoid and depressive worldview polished up into metaphysical mood pieces. And the two moods that come easiest to him are sadness and dread.
The twist in The Village is that a 19th century rural community – an isolated puritan sect of barn-raisers and folk-dancers – is living within a wilderness reserve in the early 21st century. The community’s “elders” left the crime-ridden New York City of, presumably, the 1970s behind to restart life within their own fantasy of pre-modern America. All have experienced some traumatic personal grief that drove them to this decision. It’s a deeply conservative view, building on the law-and-order bogey of middle-class suburbia, but it's not new territory for Shyamalan. In Sense, Bruce Willis’s Dr Malcolm Crowe is shot by a former patient. In Unbreakable, urban crime is everywhere, but visible only to the morose superhero David Dunn (Willis again). In Signs, a driver who fell asleep at the wheel kills the wife of Mel Gibson’s Graham Hess. There are gun killings in the back story of The Village. These are quick, cruel modern deaths -- and, in The Village at least, they are not presented as the inexplicable movements of fate; they are presented as the very real consequences of living in a contemporary American city. The newspapers we see in this film are packed with crime stories. The modern city is a kind of hell, populated by the shuffling dead.
As Koresky says, The Village is effective partly because of the way that the horror-movie unknown is revealed as “farce”, in the words of its lead character (William Hurt). This is Shyamalan’s critique of his own strategy, reasserting that point that the horror business doesn’t really matter. We see all the ropey stage mechanics of the supernatural film, the costumes and props – when Ivy Walker (a superb Bryce Dallas Howard) walks through the woods, over the wall and onto the road, she is effectively walking off the set of the movie. It’s the hoary joke you see in films like Blazing Saddles – the actors stepping out of the film – so it’s a neat trick to have Shyamalan himself there at the end of the story, as the God-like, or maybe Oz-like, architect of it all.