Shyamalan Week: Village Building
With After Earth being released this week it struck me that the timing was good to revisit not only some of M. Night Shyamalan‘s films but also some old pieces I wrote about him or his works that have not yet made their way over to this site.
This piece, however, is new and the thoughts occurred to me upon revisiting The Village.
Note: If you have not seen The Village or Shutter Island you are advised not to read on as there are spoilers.
There are times when I truly wish films could be viewed in a vacuum of information. This is why, aside from ambience and picture size, at times, finding something on television can be one of the purest film-watching experiences on a narrative level. You come around to something, it catches your eye, you watch it; and if it’s in the middle, you figure out what it’s about as you go. Granted, that was far more possible before onscreen program guides and DVRs.
I say this to add a different perspective to my frequently discussed notion of films having a pre-life. You invariably learn what they purport to be about and are influenced in your decision-making process by the synopsis, the trailer and other writings you may see. In a way taking a film-only approach is an exercise in re-training your thinking.
More often than not I too am watching films at the multiplex and I will see the trailers, often many times, so I try not to focus too much on what I see there because it’s marketing. Things will be cut together a certain way to sell it but they have no bearing on the film itself.
That’s a very roundabout introduction to The Village because I will admit I was not an early adopter. I was not one who was immediately upon seeing it going to scribble a comment somewhere saying how much I enjoyed it and cap it off with an emphatic “FIRST!”
What immediately occurred to me was that I likely needed to see it again to see how well it did what it attempted, but for whatever reason I never did. Wanting to re-view something is always a good thing. It doesn’t always make a film better or worse, but it is a boon to that film that it compelled you to do so.
However, perhaps more so than The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, this one needed re-examination because it subverted expectations in a few ways, and when I say expectations I mean those instilled by the way the narrative is constructed rather than those of the advertisements. It’s hard in a trailer to convey the sense of the outre with which the villagers treat the outside, the pain they bear, the fact that you always think there’s something looming. What is tangible is the creature, so that was oversold, but once the credits roll it has no bearing on the film.
The film begins in a slightly unorthodox manner in as much as the opening montage comprised of shots that go around town introduce us to certain characters, but not necessarily who we expect to see first. Typically, you’re hard-pressed to avoid starting with your protagonist as it can be disorienting. However, the film is called The Village and to figure out what’s behind the veil, you have to have an understanding of how this cloistered society works. That actually slowly unravels throughout as needed, but the basics are gotten out of the way as we begin to get a better sense of who the key figures are.
So we as audience members start off not only a little disoriented, but what is key is that throughout the telling of the film (for a great majority of it, in fact) we see the world as they do. We never seem to know something that they do not until the very end. So we view the creature like they do much of the time, as a tangible threat.
Even the way the creature is removed as a threat is done in a slightly unorthodox way. At a few late stages we come across things that don’t make sense to us or to the character confronted with it, we frame around with what lead to said falsity being introduced, and then work our way back to the present.
A few axioms come to mind when thinking of these decisions that do support it as being a bit closer to the norm: first, start your story as late as possible. “A group of people so scarred by traumatic experiences in their life that they decide to form their own secretive utopian society” doesn’t quite gel as a story, unless, in the attempt to form the society something goes awry. That something would likely serve as commentary on society in general. However, pushing that narrative later in the game this film presumes that these people succeeded and then asks instead: “What if such a society was already in place? What would they do to keep themselves isolated, to shield themselves; and assuming they successfully isolated themselves, how would they handle the possibility that they might one day need to leave their safe zone?” The film has interesting and creative answers to all these things. It does require suspension of disbelief, but given that this is the only world their children have ever known I find it easy enough to accept, especially considering the elders are secret-keepers who know the entire truth and for all we know may have surreptitiously left prior, if necessary.
The second axiom is one I actually thought of with regard to chronology. Sometimes when you get close too something a simple question can stump you. I recall my father complained about a film not being in chronological order. He asked something to the extent of “Why would you do that?” With so simply posed a question can be hard to articulate an answer. When you think about it the rule could read: “Narratives should be told in chronological order unless there is an imperative that necessitates the rearranging of chronology.” In other words, the revelations in The Village (this applies mainly to the three biggest ones) are elevated by the fact that when something that doesn’t make sense is seen the film does an about face to demystify what we just saw, and allows it to sink in a bit.
Another instance that can be troubling for some, and it was for me at first also, is the very end. Now, the first time I saw The Sixth Sense I honestly fell for it hook, line and sinker such that it was about midway through the credits before I realized “Yes, it probably did work without any cheats.” It was upon re-viewing it that I noticed things like the lack of responses in supposed conversations between Malcolm and his wife, or the fact that Malcolm and Cole’s mother never looked at each other, and she never reacts to him, even though they are sometimes in the same room. In The Village there is no oomph right at the very end there is a settling in to a new reality and new possibilities; all the reveals are through.
However, what Shyamalan does here is again playing with perception quite well. We accept the reality we are presented with onscreen almost without question such that when we see this film with its wide shots of a rustic village nestled in the woods, peasant attire of a bygone era, kerosene lanterns and torches; we think “period piece,” though nothing ever stated it was. People speak in antiquated fashion, but it seems a bit forced to the elders. When you come back to it you hear more clues than you ever saw and the visual indicators early on, namely the mysterious downward pans, are fairly apparent. In one of the first lines of the film, for example, the very carefully chosen words spoken by William Hurt’s character are “we settled here.” Settling has a colonial invocation, or at the latest hearkens back to the frontier days when new areas of the country really were being settled. Subtle things like that throughout sell you on the fact that the setting is not in modern times, yet just as many things that aren’t as quickly caught, like the way certain stories are told, indicate otherwise.
I cannot take credit for this notion but comparisons started popping up early in this era between Shyamalan and the works of Stephen King, namely the early works. They could be seen as broad: suspense, mystery and fright found in the mundane, but there’s also a world-building deeply entrenched in location. That is why I think the comparison gets made. Many of Stephen King’s stories don’t even happen if he’s not born and raised in Maine. I know in the foreword of one of his books he discusses the genesis of ideas. Sometimes you remember them, sometimes you don’t. It was a vivid one from him from taking walks on a rickety, wooden bridge. Similarly, I’m not sure M. Night Shyamalan ever has an idea about an insular community that shuns the outside world if he’s not from Pennsylavania and riffing on what already exists nearby, namely the Amish and Mennonite communities. Within the framework of the story the state they are in is never mentioned. However, those communities are known the nation over so I connected that fact before I even migrated it to thinking about Shyamalan creating the story.
This location-based storytelling of his early career combined with a propensity for tales that go to darker places, if not necessarily in the horror genre, make the comparison somewhat apt indeed.
The misdirection isn’t completely impeccable and some things need to be taken on faith, but I think the reason Night’s other “twist” films never had the resonance The Sixth Sense did has nothing to do with his ability to cloak what’s really going on. I think quite a bit of it has to do with the nature of the reversal. The twist in The Sixth Sense takes one character from one state of being to another. The power of the reveal in Unbreakable is that that you could either laugh off Elijah’s theory as nonsense or you can agree with it. That is what makes the prospect of a sequel to that film so tantalizing.
While here we went from thinking we were dealing with some kind of period piece with a creature involved to realizing that what we had were deeply hurt people who couldn’t cope with the outside world and created elaborate ruses and arrangements to keep themselves tucked away. We not only discover there is no creature, but the twist (one of them) deals with the setting, with when the story is taking place, which makes it a gutsy move whether you like it or not. It is a very jarring reversal, which is why it left a little ambivalent at first. Regardless of whether you like it or not, it’s gutsy move.
Twists, really big reversals of perception and plot, are hard to deal with consistently. More than most things it seems to go on a case-by-case basis. I’ve argued on some that didn’t work for me about the story hinging on the twist, but that’s a little vague. Twists a dangerous game, but one thing The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs (to an extent) and The Village did was build to them. The shocking thing about The Village is that it does blindside you, Unbreakable does to an extent. So it is one of those that hinges on the twist, however, builds from there and has a series of reveals. So it may seem it has it all riding on one trick like say Shutter Island, but it doesn’t alter reality just the audience’s perception of it. It doesn’t play something like the schizophrenia card, which is hit-or-miss.
Moreover, the fact that this is a cloistered community in modern times, that there is no monster, and how they set this place up (to an extent) are dealt with prior to the last scene. The last scene leaves one question unanswered: Will these people continue living this way? They have their cover story should they choose to, whether they do or not remains to be seen. And whether they do or not marks the beginning of another movie. This one is over. It may feel like an off-balance ending after all the other times the equilibrium of things was messed with, but it does work for the tale that preceded it.