For a long time, it was very uncool to like M. Night Shyamalan. For a few years before the backlash hit, he was heralded as a bright new voice of genre cinema, the natural heir to Rod Serling, Alfred Hitchcock, and Steven Spielberg. Then, after several years in the wilderness as a walking punchline, Shyamalan suddenly became cool again. Well, it wasn’t that simple, of course. He went from prestigious to shlocky, and audiences seemed to like the latter far more than his often portentous attempts at moral and creative exploration. Watching him go full gonzo with Split was refreshing, a reminder that taking a break from your own self-seriousness can work wonders for your movies.
The Lady in the Water was seen as a major tipping point where Shyamalan started to get just a bit too pretentious for the masses, and then The Happening was its own punchline. But before that, there was The Village, a movie that was warmly received at the time but mostly seems to inspire sniggers of derision today. 15 years on, Shyamalan’s fourth film still seems to inspire fervent debate.
Here’s the thing: I love The Village. No joke, I watched it endlessly on DVD when it was released during my adolescence. There was a point in time where it was basically all I watched (alongside Moulin Rouge, Amelie, and vampire stuff). As is typically the case with nostalgia, the pop culture we ravenously consumed during our formative years doesn’t always hold up in hindsight. But The Village? It’s still wonderful. Hell, it may be even better than it was at the time, now that we have some distance from the Shyamalan Discourse.
The Village is M. Night Shyamalan’s sixth film as a director, although it’s not uncommon to see it referred to as his fourth. His first two movies, Praying with Anger and Wide Awake, either didn't receive wide distribution or sank without a trace. The legend of Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan didn't truly kick off until 1999 with a little film called The Sixth Sense. It’s easy to overlook just how big a deal that movie was upon release, and how gargantuan a mark it left on the pop culture narrative of the time. It was the second highest-grossing movie of 1999 and remained the highest-grossing horror film of all time for 18 years until it was surpassed by It. Shyamalan remains the only director of Indian descent to be nominated for the Best Director Oscar. And audiences loved it, too. Do you remember how impossible it was to escape “I see dead people” references in 1999? The Sixth Sense was lightning in a bottle, a film firing on all cylinders that seemingly came out of nowhere and was brought to the world by a relatively unknown talent who beguiled everyone.
What followed was a whole lot of expectations, most of which Shyamalan met with aplomb. Unbreakable, which might be his true masterpiece, didn’t do as well financially, but critics loved it and it still made a comfortable profit. Signs did too, and then came The Village. Once again, it made money and reviews were solid, but there was backlash in the air.
But then there’s that ending. That twist.
It’s impossible to talk about Shyamalan without talking about The Twist. It came to define his work more than anything else in his career, for better or worse. In the beginning, the twist was all anyone talked about. The Sixth Sense collectively shook us to our core and the unexpected thrill of that third act reveal felt like the ultimate solving of the game, one that you couldn’t help but want to experience over and over again. It’s not just that the movie shocks us by revealing Bruce Willis has been dead this entire time; it’s that this surprise is so seamlessly integrated into the narrative that we can’t wait to spot all the clues, to dissect the intricately created puzzle box and see its machinations.
Unfortunately, the twist became the entire movie in many people’s eyes, including, it seems, Shyamalan himself. It wasn’t enough to have a wonderful film that did its job properly; it had to have a big last-reel shock that nobody saw coming. This works well in Unbreakable, a beautiful drama that’s essentially a superhero movie in its themes and structural payoff. With Signs, the rest of the movie is so tense (it’s easily his scariest movie) and the hero’s arc so satisfying that the “reveal”, such as it is, doesn’t sink the story. The Village is a harder balance to maintain because that twist is both depressingly predictable and utterly ridiculous in how it’s revealed. It’s made even sadder by how thematically consistent it is. In a story of manufactured hostility and maintaining a smothering sense of fear about “the others”, of course it makes sense that the outside world would be that of a completely different time, place, and fear. That doesn’t make it any less underwhelming, alas, especially since the build-up works so damn well, but unlike The Sixth Sense, the landing is clumsy.
Shyamalan’s reputation changed from that of a suspense master to a one-trick pony who had emptied his bag of tricks. He seemed too serious for his work, too enamored with prestige when what people really wanted was proud trash. His adaptation of the beloved series Avatar: The Last Airbender was unforgivably bad to the fans, and it took until Split, where he descended into full-on B-movie madness, to get back that goodwill. He’s never truly deviated from genre work, which may be a driving reason why the hype died out as quickly as it did. But The Village is a step away for him: It’s a romance that just happens to have some good scares in it. The beating heart of that movie is a love story, and it’s a bloody good one too. At his beat, Shyamalan is a deeply humane film-maker, one who can penetrate his characters’ deepest unease. It’s the main reason I found Split — the film widely celebrated as his comeback — to be something of a let-down. There, people are just things or monsters.
If you haven’t seen The Village, or it’s been a while since you last visited, check it out and enjoy this achingly beautiful romantic drama with some true chills for what it truly is. If that ending hadn’t happened, I’m sure the general consensus around the movie would be far more positive, but as it is, it stands as one of the strongest representations of Shyamalan’s ethos, for better or worse.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.