The films of M. Night Shyamalan are difficult creatures to critique, if only because their sums are so often greater than the value of their individual parts. The Sixth Sense, for all its taught suspense and truly original “twist” ending, kicked off a career as much about expectation as execution, as each film that follows bears the weight of that singular great success. In many ways, this is perhaps comparable to Quentin Tarantino in a post-Pulp Fiction universe, having delivered his masterpiece at such an early stage that, with each successive film, the hope for its equal only continued to grow. Moviegoers are lucky then that Tarantino was able to prove himself with the cinematic siblings of Kill Bill, despite a well-intentioned misstep with the 70’s noir film, Jackie Brown. And while their technical bravado only evolves with each outing, echoing their smart ideas and cleverly penned scripts, for Shyamalan, the pieces have yet to fall in such a pattern as they had with that initial masterstroke.
The Village is a movie that almost everybody will see differently. Already, a handful of reviews have referred to the film as a metaphor for modern day fear mongering. Another handful has pegged the film as a sluggishly told love story with scant elements of horror. And yet another handful has claimed the inverse – that the film is a sluggishly told horror story with scant elements of love.
None of these, really, are in any way correct, as the film, for all its various matters of subject, is as meandering as a woodland stream, though every bit as effective in direction, mood, performance, scares and heart as any cinephile or Shyamalan fan might dare to hope.
The story, which involves the equivalent of a 19th century village surrounded by a forest filled with crimson-cloaked creatures, seems at once both sure of itself and horribly misguided, oftentimes switching its focus between the shadows beyond and the scattered love stories within. And while the lovers serve as the tie that binds these two intriguing ideas together, the crossover toward the film’s finale is nearly hobbled by one of the two concluding twists.
What makes the film is interesting, however, is that despite the issues that arise from its closing moments, it never once falls so far down that it cannot save itself, and for every troubled moment in the story, there is a sequence or a moment or a statement or a word of poetry that lifts the viewer back into this otherwise engaging tale.
Shyamalan, as a director, is improving by leaps and bounds with this film, earning himself, directorially speaking, a place next to such visual greats as Hitchcock himself. Every shot, edit and camera movement is remarkably well-crafted and places the audience directly into the middle of any given moment. There is both a grace and a restraint to Shyamalan’s style that proves remarkably refreshing in these days of character-void, quick-cut horror schlock. Never once does he place his characters second to the anticipated action, always moving his stories along at the pace of the people who populate them.
And while the screenplay struggles, in part, by building up a reality that is ultimately challenged in the film’s closing moments, only one of the two concluding twists ever does any actual harm.
(Please note a SPOILER for those of you who have yet to see the film: The discovery that the creatures are not real – only a means of control established by the village elders – is, in itself, a fine discovery. The failing is in the appearance of one of these “creatures” later on in the woods. It would have been preferable, actually, to have posited that the myth from which the elders based their designs actually held some truth, rather than opting for the crazy-man-in-suit conclusion that is, essentially, devoid of any real suspense.)
Otherwise, the film’s final moments are a passable conclusion, there for those whose eyes are open enough to see it, and certainly not worthy of the critical damnation dished out by fellow reviewers.
The Village is a finely-made film worth seeing and only establishes Shyamalan’s reputation as a technically masterful director. If, and when, he should succeed in crafting a script as finely tuned as The Sixth Sense, we, as an audience, should certainly ready ourselves for an instant cinematic classic.