By Hilath Rasheed
Note: This article may need a major overhaul as I haven't seen Shyamalan's critically panned most recent The Happening which led to filmcritic.com's Bill Gibron to declare: "It's official: M. Night Shyamalan is no longer the next Spielberg."
Ever since that great Oscar-nominated film The Sixth Sense, which critics thought would make Shyamalan the next Spielberg, Shyamalan seems to be stuck in one formula: delivering a shock or twisted ending at the end of his every film.
Though Shyamalan is an Indian born and raised in Philadelphia, the United States, it seems odd that he should succumb to that unique South Asian mentality where filmmakers like to attach themselves and be known for a preferred genre or formula (e.g. John Woo identifying himself as a director of action movies).
Western filmmakers like to do diverse things in order to master the art of film-making and audiences naturally don't demand that a certain director do only one kind of movies. Hence, Spielberg is equally good at dealing with the subject of racism (The Color People) as he is good at dealing with science fiction (Minority Report) or historical epics (Schindler's List).
What Shyamalan should now realise is that there is only so much he can deliver with shocking and twisted endings and that audiences have tired of his game. If he wants to continue his film career, he should diversify his movie "formulas."
The below article which was published in The Evening Weekly on 11 April 2005 was written at a time when I had high hopes in Shyamalan and was quite fond of his films, even when he faltered with films with so many loopholes like Signs.
So here it is:
Warning: Major spoilers ahead. Read at your own risk if you haven’t seen Shyamalan’s The Village yet.
Manoj Night Shyamalan, the Indian born but Philadelphia resident Hollywood director, has stamped all his films with a prediction of a “big twist” whether it is “The Sixth Sense” or his most recent “The Village.” “The Sixth Sense” is by far his most critically acclaimed and commercially successful film. But even his not-so-acclaimed film “Unbreakable” has won a cult place alongside the immensely popular but flawed “Signs” among his hard-core fans. So what went wrong with Shyamalan’s most recent outing, “The Village”?
Some commentators claim that the main reason why Shyamalan’s fans failed to take to “The Village” was because the big twist at the end did not have any supernatural connections. The big twist in “The Village” is a perfectly logical, though questionable climax. Or anti-climax, depending on how you as an individual happened to receive the film.
Fans were let down because Shyamalan gives a logical answer, and not a supernatural twist, and this was not acceptable to a hardcore Shyamalan fan.
Every Shyamalan film’s trailer is packaged in a way which increases the anticipation of the viewer toward a big twist. The trailer for “The Village” was not different either. And all Shymalan’s films are packaged in such a way that towards the end, we are led to a big supernatural twist.
“Unlike ‘The Sixth Sense,’ however, ‘The Village’s key revelation might be too mild to jolt audiences. Some may even feel cheated. The temptation is to declare the film's main appeal will be to older audiences,” wrote film critic Kirk Honeycutt in the Hollywood Reporter.
“‘The Village’ emerges as a victim of its own ambitions,” film critic Claudia Puig concluded in USA Today.
But this time, the reason why I immensely liked “The Village” is because Shyamalan once again gives us something different -- a logical conclusion instead of a supernatural one. If that is not a departure for Shyamalan, if that is not a big twist by itself, I don’t know what can be.
Though the film still has references to supernatural creatures, “The Village” deals with a more mature social subject. The moral question here is: in these contemporary times where crime is rampant, is the only way to escape from it by caging ourselves in isolation from the rest of the world?
Film critic Wesley Morris from the Boston Globe called “The Village” “a sociology project disguised as a sylvan horror flick.”
“Every minute of ‘The Village’ is the work of a genius and a fool, as each of Shyamalan's last four movies has been. And this, by the filmmaker's standards, is the bravest, craziest one yet, questioning the meaning of magic and the trauma of loss. It springs from a type of defiant immaturity that seems possible only with him -- or Michael Jackson: a Neverland sprung from hurt and paranoia. Both men's art is so otherworldly, grandiose, and disfigured with naivete that you're forever asking whether you share the same planet with them,” he wrote.
What really surprised me this time is, like Shyamalan’s fans, most US critics blasted this film as well. It baffled me why, unlike audiences, critics failed to see into Shyamalan’s creativity. In “The Village”, Shyamalan creates a stirring thriller through superb acting (especially by Bryce Dallas Howard who deserves nothing less than an Oscar nomination for her electrifying performance), eerie cinematography (by Roger Deakins) accompanied to a wonderfully evocative score by James Newton Howard, particularly the work of violinist Hilary Hahn. Not to mention the creepy sound effects which create a more terrifying environment than sometimes even the visuals.
Roger Ebert, one of the most popular film critics of Hollywood, called “The Village” “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. It's a flimsy excuse for a plot, with characters who move below the one-dimensional and enter Flatland,” he wrote in The Chicago Sun-Times.
Do critics like Ebert go to the movies like us popcorn-eating audiences expecting a big twist? Perhaps.
“Every negative review of ‘The Village’ has been based on the disappointment of the ‘twist’ and the ease of suspecting The Village's true secret so early in the film. These same critics, Ebert included, are so focused on their assumption of Shyamalan's reliance upon a plot twist that they fail to realize that the director purposefully and intelligently chose not to rely solely on a big plot twist like ‘The Sixth Sense’ and the far worse ‘Signs’”, wrote a reviewer identified as Whyz77 on Yahoo movies.
“The surprise is no surprise, but more importantly a purposeful piece to a well crafted puzzle. See ‘The Village’ for a good movie with a thought-provoking message, not for a reinvention of ‘The Sixth Sense.’ The real surprise will be how much you can enjoy a movie if you maintain an open mind,” Whyz77 wrote.
And of course there are those Shyamalan-haters who seem to hate him just because his films, so illogical, are yet so popular. Consider this criticism from Mick LaSalle from the San Francisco Chronicle: “M. Night Shyamalan has nothing to say, but he's going to keep right on saying it until people make him stop.”
Just because people like LaSalle feel cheated, should we make Shyamalan stop making films? I do not think so. People who want to see “logical” films should not spend their money on a Shyamalan film and then complain about it.
In the end, only film critic Peter Travers from Rolling Stone magazine seems to have nailed the reason why “The Village” received a cool reception though it is, in my opinion, Shyamalan’s best film to date.
“It turns out Shyamalan was in on the scam -- a guerrilla marketing campaign gone awry. That would be as butt-stupid as writing off Shyamalan as a trickster to be judged solely on how many rabbits he can pull out of his hat. Know what? Let the film speak for itself. ‘The Village,’ even when its step falters, is on to something more provocative than seeing dead people,” Travers wrote.