by Simon Ong
Catch up on Part One of the retrospective: The Good
The Village (2004)
In this installment of the retrospective, which features the traditionally-labeled “Bad” M. Night Shyamalan films, I’ll start with my hottest Shyamalan take: The Village is Good. I include it here because it was the first of Shyamalan’s films to receive a decidedly negative response from critics, earning just a 43% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But The Village is good; better than Signs, even. The filmfocuses on a small community in colonial-era Pennsylvania that’s plagued by mysterious creatures that live in the woods all around them. As these beasts creep closer and closer to the village, the town’s denizens struggle to keep themselves together. I’m happy to play devil’s advocate on this one: despite its flaws, The Village is Shyamalan’s most underrated work.
Shyamalan assembled his most impressive cast to date for The Village. Joaquin Phoenix returned, after appearing in Signs, and was joined by a talented group of co-stars: Bryce Dallas Howard, Adrian Brody, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, and Brendan Gleeson. With the help of this strong ensemble, Shyamalan turned up the moody, eerie atmosphere of his previous films to a new level. The film carries an intense feeling of underlying menace from the start, which builds momentum all the way to the end. This tone is bolstered by one element that had been present in all of Shyamalan’s films up to this point, which I’ve neglected to mention so far: the amazing orchestral score of James Newton Howard. Among all his Shyamalan scores, The Village’s stands out with some fantastic tracks, and it earned Howard an Academy Award nomination for his work on the film (any readers who were lucky enough to see me and fellow Short Loop staff members Trevor Levin and Mitch Pollock in the 2012 production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile will recognize this track).
Shyamalan learned from the creature design mistakes of Signs, and in The Village he delivered a boogeyman design that’s way more effective. It’s so effective that it’s shame he couldn’t put it to better use in the story. Despite my admiration for it, I can admit that The Village has its fair share of flaws. The film’s third act bungles the reveal of “those we don’t speak of,” such that their impact is deflated when their biggest scene in the film comes up. While the final twist of the film was criticized upon release for being disappointing, it’s the mishandling of the film’s boogeymen that’s more disappointing for me. In fact, I like the final twist. While it’s not completely water-tight or immune to intense scrutiny, it’s a cool idea! Looking at things through a contextual lens, it almost certainly did not help that the script for the film leaked online over a year before its eventual release, or that there were accusations of plagiarism surrounding it. However, The Village is much better on a contemporary viewing, and it’s practically Citizen Kane compared to Shyamalan’s next two films.
Lady in the Water (2006)
Now begins the first true downturn of Shyamalan’s career, with the first of his movies that pretty much everyone hated. Lady in the Water tells the story of Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), the superintendent of an apartment building who finds a water nymph (Bryce Dallas Howard) in the building pool. He tries to help her return to her world as hostile forces close in around them. This movie really frustrates me. It could have been good, there was a lot of potential! It can picture a wonderful Guillermo Del Toro-esque fairy tale that mixes fantasy with a modern setting and infuses it all with elements of Lovecraftian horror. That’s the movie the trailers presented, and that’s how it starts out, but somewhere along the way, it devolves into a completely unsalvageable mess.
There’s just too much going on here. Shyamalan created a world that’s so complex, he had to devote multiple scenes to characters explaining the rules. Nymphs, or Narfs, come to the Green World from the Blue World in order to be “seen” by specific individuals. Only then can they return home. Why? Doesn’t matter. Shyamalan throws this mythology at the viewer without pausing to provide any meaning. When returning home, Scrunts can’t attack Narfs or they’ll be punished by the Tartutic, unless that Narf is the Madame Narf. In that case, they’ll need to find the Symbolist, the Guardian, the Guild, and sometimes the Healer so that the Great Eatlon can find them and return them to Blue World.
It’s all exactly as stupid as it sounds. Hearing “Narf” or “Scrunt” spoken with such sincerity over and over made me want to punch a hole in my screen. None of it makes any sense, none of it matters, and yet, most frustratingly, the characters in the movie accept everything without skepticism. In previous Shyamalan films, characters approached the supernatural with a healthy dose of skepticism and wariness. But in Lady in the Water, everything I recounted above is explained to character after character, and everyone accepts it without a second thought. It’s baffling, lazy, and the first truly bad writing from Shyamalan in a career that was about to become full of it.
Shyamalan came under fire after Lady in the Water, with many critics laying the failures of the film at the feet of Shyamalan’s inflated ego. Not only does it feature Shyamalan in his most significant acting role, but he plays a writer whose words are destined to change the world. On top of that, there’s a film critic character who the script has a clear distaste for, and who ultimately dies in a gruesome manner. His fate suggests that Shyamalan got a perverse kick out of watching the guy suffer. This line of criticism is appropriate, as Lady in the Water’s production was plagued by Shyamalan’s ego standing in the way. The film was his first not produced by Touchstone Pictures, because an executive for the company didn’t fully understand the idea. Despite Touchstone and its parent company, Disney, still being willing to produce the movie, the hesitation made Shyamalan angry, and he took the film to Warner Bros. instead. It’s possible the director was quick to anger because he was being pushed into his artificially-manufactured role as “the twist guy,” as I touched on in Part One. But it was troubling that Shyamalan was convinced he knew better than everyone around him, when it was becoming increasingly clear that he didn’t.
The Happening (2008)
Shyamalan was likely eager to redeem himself after the disaster that was Lady in the Water. He began to work on a new script titled The Green Effect. When nobody wanted to purchase the idea, Shyamalan evidently learned from the mistakes of his last film and went back to the drawing board. He reworked the script into what would eventually become The Happening. Despite learning this lesson, Shyamalan reached new lows with The Happening. This one is bad. Really bad. The Happening follows Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) and Alma Moore (Zooey Deschanel) whose strained marriage will be tested when they must go on the run while facing a crisis: a mysterious airborne neurotoxin that forces people to commit suicide begins making its way across northeastern United States.
In the years since it was released, The Happening has found something of a cult following, with even the likes of Stephen King and Roger Ebert praising it. Personally, I can’t find anything to love here. The acting is truly awful with both Wahlberg and Deschanel giving career-low performances, dragging poor John Leguizamo down with them. Even the talented Betty Buckley gives a performance so stilted and bizarre, it seems like she found out she was in the movie seconds before they started filming. The awful script doesn’t help. It’s not even enjoyable in a “so bad it’s good” way. The story is so dire and bleak that laughing feels distasteful. It would be one thing if the deaths were cartoonish, a la the Final Destination franchise. There are rare moments when the suicides approach this territory, but for the most part they’re too realistic to be amusing: people shooting themselves, hanging from trees, slitting their wrists, jumping off buildings, or crashing their cars. It’s a crushingly grim 90-minute suicide-fest with no appreciation for the weight of its subject matter and is, therefore, utterly devoid of fun.
Shyamalan might have been aware of the evisceration that awaited his film upon release, as he attempted to get out ahead of the reviews a few days before the premiere. He said in an interview, “We’re making an excellent B-movie, that’s our goal.” I’ve already explained why The Happening fails at being an excellent anything, but what’s more disappointing is Shyamalan’s aspirations at this point in his career. The Academy Award nominated director was now merely hoping to make an “excellent B-movie.” How much of a bummer is that? Unfortunately, I must end this installment of the retrospective the same way I ended the last one: Things were about to get worse. Much worse.