The Aberrations #2: The Village

The Village

The Aberrations aren’t likely to spawn sequels or inspire remakes. No one will mistake them for classics; their supporters are a silent minority. Yet there’s something interesting about them, something odd or provocative enough to warrant a bit of consideration.

At this point in time, it’s just too easy to bash M. Night Shyamalan. His career trajectory is well-known to anyone who has followed movies closely since the 1990s. After making two small, little-seen films, he scored a phenomenal smash with The Sixth Sense in 1999. He followed it up with the hits Unbreakable (2000) and Signs (2002), which established him as bankable and doomed him to hype no one could fulfill. The Village (2004) turned a profit but generated negative rumblings from critics and audiences alike. Lady in the Water (2006) was an outright disaster that came with its own notorious behind-the-scenes book. The Happening (2008), his first foray into R-rated horror, was unintentionally hilarious. By 2010, the mere sight of his name in a trailer for Devil (a movie he didn’t even direct) was enough to draw laughter from moviegoers.

So far, this decade hasn’t been kinder to Shyamalan. The Last Airbender (2010) was one of the worst-reviewed movies of its year. After Earth (2013) was another critically drubbed flop. Shyamalan’s reputation has been so battered for so long, the lukewarm reception of The Visit (2015) almost felt like a comeback.

I’m not writing this to revel in Shyamalan’s fall. I haven’t braved his alleged worst movies, and I liked The Sixth Sense and Signs well enough. I’d long been curious about The Village because I remember it angering many people when it was released, and so I finally checked it out.

However, I can’t write about The Village without mentioning its companion piece of sorts. The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan was a Sci Fi Channel documentary that premiered twelve days before The Village opened. Leading up to Buried Secret’s premiere, Sci Fi issued press releases claiming that Shyamalan had cut himself off from the project and wanted to shut it down because it delved too deeply into his personal life.

Then, just two days before Buried Secret aired, Sci Fi’s network president Bonnie Hammer admitted the conflict with Shyamalan was a hoax and those press releases had been fraudulent. The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan wasn’t the documentary Shyamalan didn’t want you to see; it was the mockumentary he fully participated in and hoped you would see before you paid to see The Village.

The stunt’s backfiring would be embarrassing enough, but you have to watch Buried Secret to know the full depth of that embarrassment. Or maybe you shouldn’t. It’s over two hours long (commercial breaks stretched it to three when it aired), longer than The Village itself, and it’s a painful thing to witness.

The concept is that Sci Fi has commissioned filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn to shoot a documentary about Shyamalan, who’s working on The Village. Shyamalan proves to be elusive and unwilling to answer personal questions. Kahn resorts to interviewing fans, childhood friends, an old schoolteacher, a neighbor, and Johnny Depp, who supposedly quit Signs under mysterious circumstances. All of which leads Kahn to discover that Shyamalan drowned in a pond when he was a child, was dead for several minutes, but somehow returned to life. During his death and resurrection, Shyamalan gained the power to perceive ghosts. In other words, he sees dead people.

Hokey content aside, it’s impossible to mistake Buried Secret for anything genuine. Kahn’s interview subjects are obviously actors trying to act. The guy who delivers a pizza to Kahn’s hotel room becomes a recurring character for no apparent reason. People who may or may not be Sci Fi executives and Shyamalan’s publicist pitch unconvincing fits at Kahn, who comes off as whiny and ineffectual. Seeing as how Shyamalan had never been known to dodge publicity before, it’s hard to buy him as enigmatic here.

Even if you take Buried Secret as tongue-in-cheek, it’s still an infomercial for M. Night Shyamalan, Visionary Artiste. It may poke fun at the idea of Shyamalan being a ghost-seer, but it also spends much of its time fawning over how accomplished he is and how well-made his movies are. Shyamalan may jokingly portray himself as chilly and distant, but the entire enterprise feels like the work of a guy who desperately wants people to think he’s cool.

To be fair, Shyamalan may have been emulating his idols, who weren’t above self-mythologizing. Hitchcock famously turned his very silhouette into a brand logo and starred in his movies’ trailers. Spielberg infamously invited a TV crew to film him watching the announcement of the 1976 Academy Award nominations, assuming he would receive a Best Director nod for Jaws. He didn’t, and the resulting footage is amusing if you want to see the humbling of a cinematic titan.

However, there are crucial differences that set Buried Secret apart. Hitchcock’s clever Psycho trailer was about six minutes long; Buried Secret is, again, over two hours long. By the time he was selling Psycho – a landmark movie that revolutionized the horror and thriller genres – Hitchcock had a legendary forty-year career behind him. Spielberg was basking in the afterglow of Jaws, then the biggest box-office hit ever, with several more classic blockbusters ahead of him. Buried Secret is supposedly selling The Village but focuses on Shyamalan himself, overinflating his stature and canonizing his previous three movies. It doesn’t lure viewers toward The Village so much as it invites an anti-M. Night backlash. The Village could have been Jaws plus Psycho multiplied by The Godfather, and it wouldn’t have justified Buried Secret’s douchebaggery.

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The Village takes place in Covington, a small, tight-knit rural Pennsylvania community surrounded by woods. The time period is never specified, but the town has no electric lights, telephones, or cars, so we’re led to assume it’s sometime in the late 1800s. The film opens shortly after a child has died from an unspecified illness. The villagers recognize that other towns beyond the woods may have the medicine necessary to prevent more deaths.

Unfortunately, monsters (“those we don’t speak of”) live in those woods, and the villagers live in fear of them. The monsters wear red cloaks and occasionally wander into Covington, chasing the villagers to their basements. For their part, the villagers patrol the edge of the woods and carefully avoid any further encroachment.

Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) believes that obtaining the medicine is more important than maintaining the uneasy truce with the monsters. He also believes they will understand his peaceful intentions and not harm him if crosses through their woods. The village elders, led by Edward Walker (William Hurt), deny Lucius’ offers to make the trek.

Meanwhile, Walker’s blind daughter Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard) is in love with Lucius. They agree to marry, which provokes the mentally disabled Noah (Adrien Brody) to stab Lucius. With her betrothed slowly dying, it’s now up to Ivy to venture through the woods and locate medicine from another town. Her father reluctantly agrees to let her go, and Ivy soon learns a secret about the monsters that only the village elders know. Likewise, we (but not Ivy) also learn an even-more-elaborate secret about Covington.

Here are those secrets: 1) There are no monsters. The village elders take turns dressing up in monster costumes to keep up the appearance of an external threat, thereby preserving the status quo. 2) Covington exists in current-day Pennsylvania. The elders had all suffered devastating personal tragedies years ago. After meeting in a support group, they chose to withdraw from society by founding their own commune. Walker was wealthy enough to buy the land, employ a security force to keep outsiders from entering, and ensure that no planes fly overhead. Covington is essentially a gated community bent on pretending that the outside world is too dangerous to engage, denying modernity to shelter its children.

This premise has a few self-evident problems. In fact, it crumbles to dust if you think about it for a minute. For starters, how long did the village elders think they could pull off such a scam? At some point, their children must realize that the monsters are as real as Santa Claus, and then what? What happens if an elder changes his/her mind, decides to leave the commune, and spills the secret on his/her way out? Can one rich guy really dictate air traffic over one of the most criss-crossed states in the U.S.? What if a hobbyist in a little Cessna buzzes by under the radar? And so on and so forth.

The Village opens itself to mockery beyond its groan-worthy revelations. Lame contrivances lend a crutch to the gimpy plot: of course Ivy’s two companions bail out of the journey before they can see anything that might reveal Covington’s secrets; and of course Ivy stumbles into a kind, helpful security guard who also doesn’t give away Covington’s secret even as he lifts the sought-after medicine from his station. The villagers speak in a stilted, overly formal dialect. The tone is dour, and I still don’t know what to make of Brody’s performance.

Yet for all its flaws, I can’t totally dismiss The Village. Visually it’s often beautiful, and I even liked its stuffy dialogue and humorless mood. There’s something to be said for a movie that commits to its world and has the conviction to take itself seriously regardless of how ridiculous it may come off. The cast is fine, too; along with Hurt, Phoenix, and Howard, Sigourney Weaver is solid as always. If you’re looking for subtext, The Village can be read as a commentary on 9/11, with Covington standing in for the isolationist, traumatized U.S., and the elders standing in for the lockdown-minded government. Maybe that’s a pretentious thing for this movie to attempt, but one viewer’s “pretentious” is another’s “ambitious.”

It’s the double twist that ultimately guts this movie. Shyamalan stakes everything on those two bombshells blowing our minds, but they turn out to be duds. I can see why many fans abandoned him after this, and especially after Buried Secret. Those fans may never return, and Shyamalan’s reputation may never recover. Even so, with The Village, at least, he deserves credit for making the movie he wanted to make, risking the wrath of his audience, and failing on his own terms. Personally, I’ll gravitate to that kind of failure over a bland, pandering crowd-pleaser any day.

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