Thursday, January 26, 2017

Theory Thursday: "The Village" is Underrated

Scene from The Village
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Split is currently playing in theaters nationwide.
Theory: The Village is underrated.

There is plenty of fodder to suggest that director M. Night Shyamalan's career had one of the most tragic drop-offs of the past 20 years. Following the phenomenal success of The Sixth Sense, he was sold as the next Hitchcock or Spielberg. While these lofty comparisons are enough to make people weak in the knees, it does suggest that it put a mental block on how his work from there on out would be perceived. Even his most recent film Split seems prone to the spoiler phenomenon, of which has been the biggest discussion point for anyone who has seen it. With that said, how could a man considered to be a visionary in 1999 turn into a laughingstock for merely producing the film Devil (itself an underrated film) only 11 years later?

To be honest, Shyamalan's career trajectory is fascinating to me and it always makes me curious to watch his work. I'm not saying all of it is good, but I do think that his attempt to recover his old flame has been full of interesting stumbling blocks. There's the hilariously inept The Happeniing and The Last Airbender. There's the miserable After Earth - of which was promising solely because he didn't write it and seemed to be going in a different direction. As it stands, returning to lower budget horror with The Visitor was a smart move, and at least would make him seem reputable to the horror audience that found him so addictive in the first place. Split looks to be his biggest redemption narrative in years, even debuting atop the box office over bigger names like Vin Diesel's xXx: The Return of Xander Cage.

The question can simply be: where did the turning point happen for his career? While the idea of the movie twist plagued almost all of his work after The Sixth Sense, it does seem like there was some lenience for some time after. It likely was because he still made movies that were fun and pulpy. While there are a few who suggest that it's Signs, the consensus is The Village: a film whose twist infuriated people by how banal it seemed and how self-satisfying it was down to its Shyamalan cameo. I was part of this camp for the longest time, having seen it while remaining largely unimpressed. Even if I thought that The Lady in the Water is his worst (up until After Earth, anyways), there were the obvious moments that made me think "Yeah, he's running out of ideas."

It wasn't until I revisited the film that it all began to click. Yes, the idea that the village of The Village was actually (for a very mild spoiler) not a period piece made sense as a deeper subtext about beliefs and holding onto outdated ideals. What makes Shyamalan's early run fascinating is how the twist emphasizes the themes that were being built up to that moment. It wasn't the twist itself that drew us in, but the feeling of seeing something anew that we had been looking at for two hours. It recontextualizes the world while making the desire to revisit the universe all the more exciting. You see, Shyamalan wasn't just praised because The Sixth Sense was well written. It was also because he directed it with an assurance that made the audience not pay attention to the craft side of things.

I admit that The Village is not my favorite of his. However, there is something awe-inspiring to the production side of things. The sets alone are gorgeously archaic with the woods scenery adding a certain menace. The cinematography helps to create a mood, especially as the evil lurks within the town and makes everyone afraid for their lives. You buy into the belief that this village isn't just some pseudo-Amish community where society stopped progressing. You buy into their fear and paranoia in ways that would be impossible if the twist was immediately known. It is easy to write "outsider" characters, but it is harder to make them sympathetic first and make the audience understand their viewpoints. Shyamalan does that with gusto here, and thankfully makes it look gorgeous in the process.

Maybe certain parts are a little self-serving. The Shyamalan cameo gag was reaching an obnoxious deus ex machina-level of obviousness by this point, even if it was a clever visual reference. Maybe it still seems weird to have healthy actors playing people with mental and physical impairments. With all of this said, it only adds to the oddity of Shyamalan's world. Everything is disjointed just slightly, and it forces the audience to feel conflicted with their inner beliefs, wondering whether to root for the village or pity them. By the end, they have more empathy than one could imagine - and all because of the twist that manages not to ruin the world of the film. 

It may be dumb for some to feel cheated for a film, but I feel like this was the last one that felt genuinely important to the story. I admit that I am fascinated by his career and his attempt to reinvent and find his drive as a director in the subsequent films. I think it's fascinating that he failed to a degree that many lost faith in him, and that his recent resurgence will inevitably alter how the public sees him yet again. For me, he is a director that is a tad underrated in his own way, if just for the moments that he gets right. When he tries to make a film with passion, it often does look and feel like an above average thriller. Sure, there were hurdles like The Last Airbender and After Earth to overcome, but I feel like he learns enough to keep moving and making movies that matter to him. The Village, if anything, was the last of his winning streak for me, even if at best those four films combined were enjoyable but not always great. Still, it was tough for me not to just do a piece on Unbreakable, even if it would defeat the purpose of having an opinion that differed greatly from the cultural norm. 

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