The Village M. Night Shyamalan
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Credit: Buena Vista / courtesy Everett Collection

This Week in Genre History: The backlash to 'The Village' was the twist we should've seen coming

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Jul 28, 2021, 1:07 PM EDT

Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world's greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.

It can be easy to forget that The Village was a hit at the time. Not to the level of M. Night Shyamalan's biggest smashes, The Sixth Sense and Signs, but nonetheless a fairly sizable commercial success. I bring that up because, in retrospect, that widely disparaged horror-thriller is often thought of as The Beginning of the End for Shyamalan, who up to that point seemed bulletproof in turning out exciting, thought-provoking studio movies. But The Village changed that impression, perhaps permanently. And it's all because of the film's twist.

The Village opened on July 30, 2004, telling the story of a 19th-century community out in the middle of nowhere in rural Pennsylvania, led by wise elder Edward Walker (William Hurt). The younger generation — including his daughter Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard) and the shy, awkward man in love with her, Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) — enjoy this tranquil, close-to-the-Earth existence, although they live in fear of the mysterious, dangerous creatures that reside in the forest, threatening to strike at any moment. But they're not too worried: Edward will keep them safe.

The problem with movies containing twist endings is that they get simplified in the culture into being just that twist. Shutter Island is "that movie where Leo's actually a patient on the island," and The Sixth Sense is "that movie where Bruce Willis was dead the whole time." Consequently, The Village is "that movie where they're living in modern times but don't know it," which is technically accurate but doesn't even scratch the surface of all the ideas and themes rattling around Shyamalan's ambitious, uneven film. "It isn't the story twists that actually grab you," Hurt said at the time. "What grabs you is something a lot deeper. It says a lot about community, it says a lot about fear, it says a lot about how parents want to keep their children loved and safe. How we are valiantly trying to find lesser fears with which to prevent greater ones, and how we carry those scars with us and they reinvent themselves."

But because audiences had become so conditioned to expect a twist from Shyamalan, it was inevitable that there would eventually be a backlash to his clever showmanship — it created a pressure to keep topping himself in terms of the rugs he pulled out from under us. The Village suggested the limitation of that approach, ushering in his critical and commercial decline, which went on for about a decade. I'm not going to argue that The Village is some misunderstood masterpiece. But it's important to go back to 2004 — both in terms of Shyamalan's career and the world at large — to understand the perfect storm that led to the film's public drubbing. It was the twist Shyamalan never saw coming.

Why was it a big deal at the time? In 1999, an unknown young writer-director named M. Night Shyamalan shocked the world with his emotional, engrossing horror film The Sixth Sense, one of the year's highest-grossing movies and a Best Picture nominee. His follow-up, Unbreakable, wasn't quite as huge or beloved, but it suggested he still had his finger on the pulse of a certain kind of high-concept genre movie. Then came Signs, which was a massive hit. Constantly compared to Spielberg and Hitchcock, Shyamalan really did feel like the next big thing, so expectations were high for whatever he'd do next.

When The Village came out, Shyamalan reflected back on what inspired the screenplay. "People left the towns in the 1880s and 1890s because of industrialization, and were fed up with the corruption and the filth and everything starting to happen in the cities and went to go do their own thing and moved to areas that weren't inhabited," he explained. "But what if something bad happened? ... There's just no real way to completely protect someone. There's just no way. You always are at risk. It's a scary thing to admit. You can do everything you can, but your loved ones will always be in jeopardy."

Probably without realizing it, the filmmaker was actually delving into subject matter that was popping up in both mainstream and arthouse movies at the time. The previous year's Finding Nemo was all about an overprotective father discovering that he can't guard his adorable son from the horrors of the world. Provocateur Lars von Trier made Dogville, a divisive excoriation of small-town America that suggested the heartland wasn't necessarily a haven for decency and morality. It was hard not to see these movies (intentionally or not) as a response to 9/11: In the face of such trauma and anxiety, retreating into the safety of a closed-off community seemed awfully appealing. The Village argued that there were real dangers in such an attitude.

Such was Shyamalan's power at the time that he was able to put together a cast that didn't feature A-list stars. There was no Bruce Willis or Samuel L. Jackson in The Village: Hurt was an Oscar winner, and Phoenix and Sigourney Weaver (playing Phoenix's mother) were Oscar nominees, but they were hardly guaranteed box office. The film's lead, Bryce Dallas Howard, was the daughter of director Ron Howard, but she'd never been in a film before. Shyamalan cast her after seeing her on stage in As You Like It. "I don't know if it was something about [her As You Like It character] Rosalind or more about me and the stage that I was at in my life," she admitted later. "He said that if he had brought me in to audition, I wouldn't have gotten the part. There was a quality that he saw that wouldn't have survived an audition." Really, though, it almost didn't matter who he cast. The star of The Village was M. Night Shyamalan. That's who people went to see the movie for.

Perhaps that's why, as part of the strategy to build buzz for the film, Shyamalan engaged in a little online trickery, teaming up with SYFY (which was the Sci-Fi Channel at the time) to craft a fake controversy in which the channel would produce a documentary, called The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan, which would supposedly expose the filmmaker's dark side — and, in turn, Shyamalan would publicly denounce the project. The faux-expose ended up backfiring — then-network president Bonnie Hammer later acknowledged, "We created a fictional special that was part fact and part fiction, and Night was part of the creation from the beginning" — but even so, the Blair Witch-esque stunt suggested what a big deal Shyamalan was. No wonder some people might be gunning for him to fall off his pedestal.

Credit: Buena Vista / courtesy Everett Collection

What was the impact? In its opening weekend, The Village knocked The Bourne Supremacy out of the top spot, collecting more than $50 million. But the film didn't prove to have the staying power of Signs: The Village grossed $114 million domestically, a steep drop from his previous film's $228 million. Still, The Village pulled in approximately $257 million worldwide, which considering it only cost about $60 million ensured it would turn a considerable profit. For most filmmakers, that would be a success.

But after The Sixth Sense and Signs, those numbers weren't very exciting. In his 2006 biography of the director, The Man Who Heard Voices, Michael Bamberger noted that Shyamalan's studio, Disney, "had spectacular financial expectations for Night's movies. The profits of The Village showed him going in the wrong direction." (Additionally, Bamberger wrote Shyamalan "felt the Disney executives had never embraced The Village, never gotten its darkness or why it had no movie stars, though they had let Night make it.") Suddenly, it seemed possible that the writer-director didn't have a perpetual golden touch.

The Village was also the first time during this period that he received substantially negative reviews, with many critics outright hating the film, especially its twist. Roger Ebert declared, "The Village is a colossal miscalculation, a movie based on a premise that cannot support it, a premise so transparent it would be laughable were the movie not so deadly solemn. ... Eventually the secret of [the film] is revealed. To call it an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes. It's a crummy secret, about one step up the ladder of narrative originality from It Was All A Dream." The public thought the reveal was either obvious or terribly far-fetched — or both. Even worse, it suggested that Shyamalan's trick of hitting us with a third-act switcheroo was growing stale. Maybe he wasn't the next Spielberg or Hitchcock.

As a result, The Village began a downward spiral for the filmmaker, who became regarded as gimmicky. His next few movies, Lady in the Water and The Happening, were critically derided, and when he responded by doing more calculatedly commercial material with The Last Airbender and After Earth, it felt like a betrayal of his artistic integrity to be slumming in work-for-hire projects. (That made it especially ironic, in 2019, when Shyamalan talked about the dangers of the corporate Hollywood studio system, saying, "There are certain people with such heavy accents that they don't work easily in the system. I don't want Quentin Tarantino making studio movies. I don't want Wes Anderson making studio movies. I want them being them." Asked if he considered himself part of that group, he responded, "I'm still one of those accent people. It's not even me if you take away the accent.")

But permanent damage had been done. To this day, whenever Shyamalan has a new film, cynics wonder what the twist will be this time. (In fact, before Old came out, the staff of The Ringer did a roundtable where they tried to predict the film's twist.) In a lot of eyes, he was dismissed as a one-trick pony, which wasn't entirely fair. Probably more accurately, he'd become a victim of his own success. People came to expect mind-bending twists from the man, and he struggled to come up with ones as stellar as the one in The Sixth Sense.

Has it held up? In the last couple years, The Village has received its share of reconsideration pieces, especially as Shyamalan has rebounded commercially thanks to The Visit, Split, Glass, and now Old. Where once he was a laughingstock, now viewers are willing to acknowledge they might have been too harsh on the movie that kick-started his decline.

Watched now, The Village is a fascinating film for what it says about American life circa 2004. Truly, you could teach it in a class designed to highlight the most significant mainstream entertainment of the George W. Bush era: Here's a movie that shows what happens when domineering leaders try to scare their community by introducing frightening boogeymen out to destroy them. The parallels to the War on Terror are obvious, but The Village isn't any less relevant today. In fact, you can see Edward Walker's self-contained world as just another bubble in which people are trapped holding onto their sheltered viewpoints. (It's almost as if Shyamalan anticipated what far-right Facebook groups would look like.)

But disparaged as The Village was, its themes and plot have been recycled in subsequent films. The Favourite director Yorgos Lanthimos first came to the world's attention with his dark comedy Dogtooth, about parents who trick their children into thinking that the world outside their house is filled with monsters. And last year's Antebellum swiped The Village's twist for a story meant to indicate that modern-day racism is more closely connected to our history of slavery than we'd like to think.

As a mood piece, the film is still fairly strong. Desolate forests have always scared viewers — whether it's The Blair Witch Project or The Witch — and Shyamalan does an excellent job of infusing every scene with invisible menace. Some of his choices are hokey, such as casting another Oscar winner, Adrien Brody, as the cliched developmentally disabled character. And one wishes up-and-coming star Jesse Eisenberg could have had more to do.

But even though the twist is a logistical headache — wait, Edward paid the U.S. government not to fly planes over his town? — there's a thematic weight that resonates. No matter how imperfectly, The Village addresses the scourge of fear, how it's passed along from one generation to the next like a virus. While there's no point in debating how realistic it would be for a group of traumatized adults to decide to start a community from scratch, the idea that these elders built this town to try to get away from the pain of the real world is both unnerving and poignant. Shyamalan paints a nightmare scenario of what a lot of people might have fantasized about, which is opting out of society because you think you can craft something better. At the end of The Village, order is essentially restored in Edward's little world. But as anyone who watches the movie knows, he's actually just constructed a hell on earth.

Tim Grierson is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Will Leitch review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site. His new book, This Is How You Make a Movie, is out now.