It may be hard to believe now, but not so long ago, M. Night Shyamalan was blockbuster cinema’s Great Big Hope. In 2002, just three years after his still-astounding The Sixth Sense earned him multiple Oscar nominations, he even appeared on the cover of Newsweek, looking appropriately auteur-serious behind a bold headline that declared him “The Next Spielberg.”
More than a decade later, Shyamalan is the director of unintentional camp like The Happening and After Earth, and a filmmaker so mockworthy that the mere sight of his title card in a trailer has been known to induce hysterical laughter. But his biggest digression began 10 years ago, when he took us to The Village. The movie boasted a big-star cast, and like all Shyamalan projects, was clouded in secrecy. But it’s also the one that proved him to be a one-twist pony — obsessed with harnessing the thrill of the surprise ending, at the expense of plot or coherence. It was a fairly short slide downhill for him from there, and Shyamalan went from the potential big-screen savior to a dude who directs movies based on Nickelodeon cartoons.
But for all its many, many faults, The Village had some excellent raw materials, including a very young Jesse Eisenberg, a post-Oscar Adrien Brody (in his first lead role since The Pianist), legendary Coen Brothers-affiliated cinematography genius Roger Deakins, and a very relevant question animating its plot: What are you willing to do to keep your family safe in an increasingly violent world?
So is there a parallel world, located just past the tree line, where The Village could exist as a powerful, timely commentary on the stress of parenthood — a film that would give Shyamalan a chance to break free of the golden prison of constant twist endings? Let’s find out.
The Plot: In a remote 19th-century rural town, villagers are being plagued by fire-hating monsters called “Those We Don’t Speak Of,” who live in the woods, look like giant wicker warthogs, and are attracted to the color red. Despite the creepiness, love blooms between a blind teen named Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard) and an extremely serious young dude named Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix). Soon, though, a “town idiot” named Noah (Adrien Brody) stabs Lucius out of jealousy; it turns out that he, too, has fallen for Ivy. She’s sent through to the outer edges of the village to get Lucius medicine, at which point we learn that the village is actually located inside a modern-day wildlife preserve owned by the town’s elders. It turns out all of the elders have lost loved ones to violent crimes, causing them to withdraw from society out of fear and pain, and prompting them to dress up in ridiculous monster costumes to keep their kids safe. Unaware that her family has kept her stuck in the past, Ivy returns with her modern-day medicine to her fake old-timey town, never understanding that she actually lives in a world where antibiotics, cell phones, and Wilmer Valderrama are plentifully available.
Yeesh, that was complicated! Now, let’s try to salvage this Shyamalan-strosity:
Fix No. 1: Eliminate the twist ending by leading with it.
Everyone loves a mystery. Even if you don’t catch the clues as they appear, watching them get lined up at a film’s conclusion is one of the most primal pleasures of movie-viewing. Remember how jazzed you got at the end of The Sixth Sense, when you realized frowny-faced Bruce Willis wasn’t just a sour-pussed yuppie, but a sour-pussed yuppie who’d also been dead all along?
Audiences are, however, less fond of being tricked, and The Village's double-twist ending was most definitely a trick. There are no clues scattered through the film that hint at the improbable finale, so there's no pleasure in the film's final revelation — just a feeling of having been had.
So instead of making the fact that the town actually exists in the present day the “big reveal,” why not make it the film’s basic premise? Open by explaining how these heart-broken, PTSD-riddled characters retreated to the forest and lied to their children … and now, their children are beginning to become suspicious. Then show us spunky-yet-rule-abiding Ivy falling for curious Lucius, who is desperate to see what’s on the other side of that forest. Add the ongoing threat of scary monsters, and let it all simmer.
Fix No. 2: Paint the elders as villains, not heroic martyrs.
In Shyamalan’s film, the titular village is run by a group of elders so committed to their belief system, they constantly threaten their children’s lives in the name of protecting them: They deprive the kids of crucial medical and mental health care, allow them to die from preventable diseases, and chase them around while dressed up like Sweetums after a thrift-store binge. There’s a word for people who do stuff like that, and that word is “villains.”
But the kids never call them out on this. In fact, there’s never been a gang of teenagers as well-behaved and unquestioningly obedient as the gang of teenagers in The Village (and I include the Amish and Renaissance-era teens in that statement). If Shyamalan were to portray the elders as the borderline-fascists they are, it would not only raise the kids’ suspicions, but also the film’s stakes. Cruel parents + increasingly insubordinate kids = a potential powder keg.
Fix No. 3: Make Noah a reasonable character.
Though the twist ending gets almost all of this film’s bad press, Adrien Brody’s Noah might be the real source of the film’s woes. Noah is a grating, grade-school caricature of mental illness who is, improbably, the film’s one and only villain (unless you count, you know, society). He’s the one who stabs Lucius, the one who pursues Ivy through the forest while wearing the creature costume, and the one who ruins the wedding of Kitty (Judy Greer) by convincing everyone that a monster raid is going down.
Which makes the movie not the story of the lengths supposedly good people will go to in order to prop up an inherently flawed moral system, but rather the story of a small town terrorized by an unbalanced man in possession of a soiled Halloween costume. What is that even supposed to mean?
The film’s only hope is shifting Noah into a character whose physical body has been negatively affected by the elders’ shunning of modern society, but whose mind remains sharp. Make him into a fully competent young man who’s lost his ability to walk due to a lack of modern medicine. But unlike Shyamalan’s Noah, he’ll have plenty of quiet time to ponder the town’s dynamics and rules, and question the monsters’ weird habit of only coming out when somebody’s displeased the elders.
And he can still have a crush on Ivy, which will allow him to be wounded even more when she chooses physically robust Lucius over him. That rejection can motivate Noah to be an attempted murderer and a rebel —leading him to stab Lucius not just out of rage and envy, but also out of a desire to rile up the village kids and get them hungry for the truth. It’d be much more engaging and entertaining than watching an Oscar winner act like Lenny in a high school’s Of Mice and Men production.
Fix No. 4: Let the elders clash against each other.
Much like those eerily well-behaved teens, there has also never been a group of parents in such perfect agreement about exactly how to raise their children (wholesome food, plenty of exercise, and 5–12 monster threats a week) as those in The Village.
Shyamalan’s united elder front misses a great opportunity to develop some plot friction by letting Lucius’s stabbing create rifts among the grownups. The attack would convince some parents who were dubious about the experiment that they were right all along, while prompting others to double-down on the control and rules. And as the youth of the village come closer to understanding what’s going on, one of the elders (ideally Hurt’s Elder Walker) could go mad with power, terrorizing the other elders into choosing between their beliefs and their safety.
Fix No. 5: Let the monsters be real … maybe.
One of the most disappointing elements of The Village was that it was Shyamalan’s first big film without a supernatural explanation. There were no ghosts or monsters or superpowers, just some stressed-out parents who thought the world was going to hell in a handbasket. The film’s best, most atmospheric moments are those that hinge on the possibility of an attack by Those We Don’t Speak Of. So when Elder Walker reveals to Ivy that the creatures are not real, all of the air goes out of the film.
Like the classic-era Spielberg films that Shyamalan clearly tried to emulate, the most appealing aspect of movies like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable was their “anything is possible, magic is real” vibe. But the bait-and-switch about the monsters in this film then suggests that most sources of wonder and terror in the world are actually just lies created by The Man to keep you in line (possibly true, but still a buzzkill).
The easiest way to fix this film would be to give us more of who we came to see: Those We Don’t Speak Of. Don’t tell us that they’re not real. Show us more near misses, more far-off monster sightings, and at least one good chase scene (Adrien Brody pursuing a blind girl through the woods in broad daylight doesn’t count). Show us how terrifying they are, and how terrifying it is to live among them, while letting at least one clue or two slip out that implies that the monsters may not be as straight-ahead as they seem (taking a page from Washington Irving’s classic of supernatural ambiguity, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow). That mystery would serve us well in the run up to…
Fix No. 6: End on a down note.
With Unbreakable, Shyamalan showed he could craft an effective downbeat ending that hinted at the possibility of darker horrors to come. So why not use that formula here? With the final revelation to the whole town that, yes, they are indeed living in the 21st century, the Village kids would become restless, with some of them departing for the woods (and what they presume is a better, less stabbing-and-lie-filled life on the other side). But what about the ones who remain? Now that they know their parents have been lying to them all along, what will they think when those same fogies insist that the monsters in the woods aren’t part of their master plan — that they really are in danger? In this scenario, the elders and the kids who remain would make up a ticking time bomb of a community.
It’s to this village that a shaken, stone-faced Ivy returns from her perilous journey through the woods, bearing medicine — only to find Lucius already dead. Unlike many of her peers, Ivy has obeyed all the rules, never pushed to know more about life beyond the woods, and survived a harrowing night in the woods. And it’s gotten her nothing but heartbreak — the very heartbreak her father was trying to protect her from.
So Ivy finally cracks. With a teenager’s flair for drama, she decides she’s going to end this chain of lies and suffering for good, no matter what the cost. That night, she gathers all the red-colored items she can find and scatters them across the entire town, in the hopes of attracting the monsters. We pan out on Ivy waiting … until we see the back of a monster’s head. And another. And another. We, like Ivy, can’t see what happens when the elders begin screaming off camera. But we can see a smile grow across Ivy’s face as the monsters presumably descend on the remaining villagers. It would be spooky, depressing, and just the kind of meaty conclusion that The Village deserved — which, in a final twist, might have actually revealed M. Night Shyamalan to be our new blockbuster savior after all.
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