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Somewhere outside Philadelphia, in a shadow-rich manse where the kitchen cabinets have a way of creaking open on their own, buried beneath piles of dusty Super-8 canisters, there lies a tattered Trapper Keeper responsible for more than a billion box-office dollars. The yellowed pages within are scrawled with ideas: “A boy like me starts seeing dead people,” “My DAD becomes a SUPERHERO,” “Aliens invade Bucks County!” Underneath those scribblings are notes from a field trip: “Went to Lancaster, Amish country. Kinda boring. Mostly read my Creepshow comic.” On the front of the Trapper Keeper is a Dymo label-maker sticker: “MANOJ N. SHYAMALAN.”
OK, so maybe there really is no crusty old binder containing the formulas for M. Night Shyamalan’s prodigious streak of blockbuster twisteroos. And maybe the 34-year-old writer-director-producer, whose new movie, The Village, is about a 19th-century town besieged by secrets and the supernatural, didn’t concoct his spooky, childlike scenarios on the hairless side of puberty. But for better or worse—and we’re about to get to the worse—there remains an excitable preteen film buff fidgeting inside Shyamalan’s prized skull, and that young rapscallion is the No. 1 reason why there are as many people pooh-poohing the split-persona’d auteur’s flicks as praising them.
Little Night comes up with both the simplistic love-conquers-evil allegories—which always feature pivotal young people dealing with soul-troubled adults and, like, bad guys—as well as the inevitable O. Henry–on–’roids twists, made sillier by the often audience-insulting explanations that follow. Big Night, on the other hand, is the guy responsible for all the technical stuff—not to mention the subtle, Hitchcockian manipulation of goose flesh. Unbreakable’s final-scene shocker was a geekfest, but an early sequence in a hospital when a tormented Bruce Willis found out the bittersweet news that he wasn’t gonna die hard—remember the slow spread of blood on the vague lump in the foreground?—is easily the director’s most chilling sleight of hand. And though the alien in Signs looked like a shitty carnival prize—and that “Swing away” bit was lame-o-rama—the movie’s first half is nothing short of a film-school primer on the art of the heebie-jeebies. Shyamalan did for swaying cornfields what Spielberg did for sunny beaches, subtly manipulating the mundane by patiently teasing the horror.
That is, until he let Little Night get his way.
The Village, filmed in Chadds Ford, Pa., the bucolic locale Andrew Wyeth brush-stroked in his landscapes, certainly has the makings of another crowd-pleasing and utterly creepy collaboration. The residents of the unnamed settlement of the title, surrounded every which way by the thick, dark, don’t-even-think-about-going-in-there Covington Woods, lead a puritan existence, knitting in circles, lighting their lamps, and big-feasting together amid their modest stone houses and grassy swales. The only time their lives are disrupted is when the vaguely sinister and unseen Those We Don’t Speak Of let out horrific moans from the brush. As long as the villagers never allow the color red to show (the beasties don’t like red)—and keep within the torch-lit perimeters of the town (the beasties don’t like trespassers even more)—everything will be fine.
But everything won’t be fine, of course. When a young man dies of vague causes, soft-spoken friend Lucius Hunt (an extremely dopey Joaquin Phoenix) asks the stern, scolding Elders if he can journey to “the Towns” for “new medicines.” The whispery, huddled leaders say no, of course—no one has ever left the village—but that doesn’t stop Lucius (and, in one of the movie’s rare fun-scary scenes, some school kids daring each other to stand on a stump at the foot of the woods, their backs to the shadows) from breaking the rules. Soon enough, slaughtered animals start showing up on the village grounds and attracting really loud flies. And then the monsters themselves, red-cloaked, long-clawed beasties with the ominous foot speed of Michael Myers, pay a visit.
For the very first time, however, Big Night and Little Night ultimately let each other down from start to finish, and if The Village isn’t a steaming pile of failure, it’s pretty ripe nonetheless. With the help of the Coen brothers’ preferred cinematographer, Roger Deakins, Shyamalan does make a few pretty pictures, especially at night, when the torches surrounding tall rickety watchtowers cast long shadows into the darkness. But for the most part, the inherent beauty of the rolling landscape is never crisply captured; hell, the clunky old football stadium in Unbreakable looked prettier. Even more disappointing, Shyamalan’s usual scene-building brilliance—the camera moving teasingly slow, then maddeningly fast; a character revelation to keep you off guard; the subtle shift in vantage point causing popcorn-spilling jolts—has vanished.
Nowhere is that more obvious than in what should have been the film’s powder-keg scene, a ’round-midnight rendezvous between young lovers, monsters be damned. See, Lucius pines for sightless seer Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard, doing the worst blind act since Fonzie in that very special episode of Happy Days), the redheaded—symbolism!—beauty who is also adored by the ADD’d village idiot, Noah Percy (Adrien Brody, cackling and drooling—you know, basically recreating his mad-dog Oscar speech). Shyamalan frames the paramours’ faces so that their lips, finally uttering once-closeted affections, are separated only by a glowing, growing bank of fog in the distance. Surely there’s a kiss coming, right? Or maybe a secret? Or maybe a monster? Sigh…
With the exception of Toni Collette’s crumbling-mom turn in The Sixth Sense, actors in Shyamalan’s movies have never had to do much besides look forlorn and puzzled. The man behind the camera was always the star, and he deserved the above-the-title status. But here, without the surgically precise storytelling and heartbeat-altering rhythm, everyone suffers—most notably a typically overacting William Hurt and a why-bother Sigourney Weaver as two of the town’s Elders, stuck with trying to sell such flimsy ye-olde-speak as “I am but scared for my only son’s life” and “Thou art not to put that color by anyone.”
Critic’s credo and all that, it would be unfair to give much more. Suffice it to say that when one of the main characters is sent barely breathing to his deathbed, someone does eventually confront the forest and Those We Don’t Speak Of to fetch those new medicines. But not before his/her dad, himself wracked by secret longing, allows him/her into the mysterious Shed That Shant Be Breached or Some Such Nonsense. This kicks off Shyamalan’s trademark big-twist cha-cha- cha, a dance that has grown tiresome and predictable. The director cuts to a scene of the Elders opening the ominous black boxes they keep locked in their homes. Then to the shed. Then to the forest. Repeat, repeat, repeat. For the folks who didn’t guess the big surprise at the 10-minutes-in mark, the director even replays some of the dialogue, straining for “Ahhh!”s but getting only “Eh?”s.
As in his previous movies, Shyamalan gives himself a pivotal chunk of screen time. (Little Night always did like to star in his own productions.) Perhaps it’s an appropriate penance that here he’s responsible for explaining—and explaining and explaining…—the Twist himself. Good lord: The Little Dutch Boy didn’t do this much desperate hole-plugging.
The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs were all given small doses of deeper meaning—the importance of forgiveness, the importance of love, the importance of baseball bats—but who knows what the man is trying to say here. Is The Village a statement on our current all-encompassing paranoia? A slap at industrialization? Could be both. Or neither. Doesn’t matter, really: Little Night has finally shown his true age, and Big Night has finally failed to gloss over the mess with movie-making wizardry, parodying themselves into a corner far from emotional resonance.
Maybe it’s time for the big guy to put the little one to bed for good. Who knows? That Trapper Keeper just might get opened again, and “The Liberty Bell starts EATING people!!!” just ain’t gonna play in the future.CP