The turning point for M. Night Shyamalan’s career came with the release of “The Village” in 2004, only it wasn’t the kind of redirection most would desire. As a writer/director, he survived seeing his first film, 1997’s “Wide Awake,” get compromised in the editing room, dumped in theaters and mostly forgotten.
His extraordinary comeback, “The Sixth Sense” in 1999, jolted filmgoers with its sleek, layered storytelling, superb performances and showy but understated filmmaking. It deserved its mammoth success because, removed from its status as “The # 1 Thriller of All Time,” it’s still a brilliantly scary and disarmingly moving film.
With just one movie, Shyamalan demonstrated that, as a storyteller, he had the compassion, ingenuity and ability with a building narrative that closely resembled not Steven Spielberg but Rod Serling. His follow-up, the unexpected, divisive “Unbreakable,” was even better and is one of the most valuable, under-appreciated films in the comic book movie genre (I look forward to writing about it in a later edition of Looking Back ). Then came “Signs” in 2002, which doesn’t hold up as well but, at its best, has a showmanship and ability to scare and intrigue.
The anticipation for “The Village” was enormous, due to Shyamalan’s momentum as a director of reliably twisty hit movies. Ubiquitous trailers made it look like his first horror film since “The Sixth Sense.” The result is far stranger, goofier and better than expectations led audiences to believe, though the mixed response it created was the beginning of Shyamalan’s period of being “off,” which he has yet to recover from.
The story of “The Village” is simple enough to be its own “Twilight Zone” vignette: in the 1800’s, a small village exists where a surrounding woods is said to contain creatures that are not to be dealt with. One of the villagers, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, is blind and determined to enter the forbidden woods when the man she loves requires medicine that the town cannot provide. Her Grim-like journey into the woods reveals the secret of the creatures, referred to as Those We Do Not Speak Of.
After the whopper of a twist ending in “The Sixth Sense,” audiences came, incorrectly, to expect Shyamalan to repeat this hat trick again and again. The big reveal in “The Village,” which I won’t disclose, is quite clever and startling but botched in its execution.
The scene in which the town’s elder takes the protagonist out to the wood shed, to reveal the secret, comes too early. The treacherous journey into the woods should be terrifying. Once we know what’s up, Howard’s brave gesture seems less perilous and the movie overall loses some of it’s suspense. It’s a shame, since the teasing glimpses of the creatures are initially so unsettling and the set up of The Girl in the Woods is so classically fairy tale-like.
Even with a botched third act and a twist that made some audiences groan audibly in theaters, this is still one of Shyamalan’s best films and, if you haven’t seen it in ten years, its far better than you remember.
As a director of actors, Shyamalan, especially in his early films, is vastly under-appreciated. In “The Village,” he cast a then-unknown Howard in the film’s lead and her captivating, deeply touching performance is the heart of the film.
William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver bring tragic dimension to their roles as the holders of the town’s secrets and a quiet, soulful turn by Joaquin Phoenix, likewise, never hits a false note.
Even Adrian Brody’s mannered, odd turn as the town idiot pays off in the end. The ensemble, which includes Brendan Gleason and Judy Greer, bring a haunting quality to their characters, who seem doomed whether Those We Do Not Speak Of show up to devour them or not.
Shyamalan’s subsequent “Lady in the Water” was equally strange, personal and risk-taking but far more diluted in self importance and murky logic. I won’t mention what came next. Instead, let me remind film fans of “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable” and “The Village.” They show us how good Shyamalan once was and, I hope, how great a filmmaker he still can be.