A short while ago, my buddy Nicole asked me if Lady in the Water was any good, because, I don't know, she asks me dumb questions all the time. After meditating on the issue in my fortress of solitude (the bathroom), I now think I have a reasonable excuse for why I liked Lady in the Water, and a well-crafted but thinly veiled apology for why I like The Village.
Let me start by saying that what we call "twists" are really a distorted reality. We watch an entire movie thinking that Ed Norton is one way and Brad Pitt is another, but they're not, we only perceive them to be. They were, in fact, only one way throughout the entire movie, but the way we interpreted it led us to believe a certain way.
M. Night (whose last name I can't spell offhand, so you're going to have to deal with me just calling him "M. Night") has something of a reputation regarding twists, and I don't think that it's entirely accurate way of looking at him as a director anymore. Ok, yes, a majority of his movies have a "shocking ending" but I don't think that was his goal. What I think his mind has been focusing on is the issue of "fiction"/reality.
Setting aside The Sixth Sense for a moment, consider Unbreakable. In it, a "regular joe" discovers that he has superpowers, pretty much straight from a comic book. In fact, comic books are a running motif throughout the movie, as his mentor owns a comic book store and is postulating the existence of superheros and supervillians in the real world. We can sum up this plot as fiction overlapping reality.
If you take a look at Signs, there is a more interesting dichotomy going on. The viewpoint of the entire movie is that of a (I assume) Pennsylvanian family experiencing events told on a global level. Since there's no "experts", hardly any "authority", and even barely any people to talk to, their information comes through only two sources -- the book on aliens and the TV news. Both of these sources are readily accepted by the children and quickly denied by the (agnostic?) father. One of the main motifs throughout the movie is the issue of faith vs. evidence, and in the end it asks what kind of information you choose the believe, if at all. One of the things that made this powerful (I think) is because there are many cases where we choose to disbelieve the "conspiracy theorist" and put our complete faith in the news. In fact, it's not even an issue in most people's mind.
I don't want to say that Lady in the Water is writer porn, but that's what it feels like sometimes. Throughout his career, M. Night has been building up to this one idea -- the power of storytelling. Through storytelling, your entire perception of reality can be changed. Not only does the entire thing read like a children's book (or even, as I would argue, a myth), but even argues that art and literature are still the most powerful forces in our world.
In Lady, what is essentially a muse (named "Story") is charged with entering the real world to inspire a young writer living in an apartment building. We eventually learn that this writer's work will end up changing the world, for the better, and someday in the future, he will even be killed for writing it (I'm not ashamed to admit that I teared up a little bit at this part.) We also learn that Story is not just your everyday muse, but is destined to become, I don't know, like the Jesus of the muses. Her ascension to the throne will usher in a new era of inspiration all throughout mankind, and it will be a new golden age and blah bloo blee bla. What the movie basically amounts to is that the power of art is life-changing, and even world-changing in some situations, and that not only does the line between fiction and reality blurred in this movie, but one directly effects the entire world.
I don't think I stand alone when I say that The Sixth Sense is the most entertaining movie of them all, but not the smartest, at least, not in terms of the fiction/reality motif we got going on. Bruce Willis thinks he's people. He's not. That's about the extent of it. Oh, well I guess you could say that the people that walk around in the movie have no idea that they're surrounded by ghosts, and some people have no idea who's a ghost and who's not, so everyone's sense of reality is pretty eff-ed up in this one. But that's about it.
After Signs, M. Night's reputation begins to take some damage with The Village. There are parts of this movie that seem thrown together, I will admit. Entertainment-wise, the second half of the movie ruins the first part, which was amazing. Critique-wise, I think the whole damn thing is brilliant and I'm going to make a poor attempt to explain why. I'm also not even going to make an attempt to speak in riddles, so consider this your spoiler warning.
To summarize the whole damn thing, people living within a small, isolated 18th century community are in constant fear of monsters that reside in the surrounding woods. There's a shaky truce, but the monsters dislike certain things like people actually going into the woods and the color red. The humans dislike certain things like being eaten.
A member of the younger generation regarded as the bravest among them thinks a lot about the surrounding territory and wishes to travel to the next town, but all the members of the older generation advise against it. When it becomes necessary to venture into the next town for medicine, the older generation sends the young blind girl out into the woods, but not before revealing the "truth". The monsters are completely made up.
The older generation has been using the monsters to generate fear amongst their offspring to keep them away from the dangerous outside world, which, we later discover, is not colonial America, but is instead present day. Each founding member of the village had a horrible event happen to them in the outside world, and they decide that they only way to stay safe is to shut themselves off in the woods and use fear to protect their children.
After showing the blind girl the costume they wear to scare the villagers, one of the founding members gives a line that I unfortunately cannot remember ver batim, but will do my best to paraphrase -- the monsters they have been creating and pretending to be were based on legends about the surrounding area. This line could arguably be inserted into the movie just to keep the audience captivated (because it's hard to be afraid of monsters that aren't real), but I tend to believe that it's the core of the thing.
Does any of this sound familiar to you yet? Because it should. It's our government. Yeah, I know literary types have the tendency to see things where they don't exist and draw ridiculous conclusions, but this isn't one of them.
Let's look back: The authority in a territory wishes to protect its citizens by creating a false fear due to its collective bad experiences with the outside world. They have even instituted a "color coded" fear revolving around red things to be something that is feared. They even admit that there might have been a fear in the past, and they themselves are scared that it might still exist. All of this is done for the sake of protecting the citizens of "the other" -- the outside world. The fact that the protagonist is blind member of the younger generation should also not escape your notice. I'm sorry, but if that isn't a post-9/11 America, I don't know what is.
And, what this amounts to in the end, following our "fiction vs. reality" motif, is that the most dangerous fiction in the world today is purported by the ones in power. If we should cast cautious doubt towards news and books, and optimistic idealism towards our childhood fantasies, surely our government and the authority over us are to be the least trusted of all.
Were Lady in the Water and The Village the most entertaining movies M. Night has made? I don't think so, and people might disagree with me, but I doubt it. As I sit here and type this hastily composed article, there are few living directors who are on-par with M. Night in terms of horror, and I think audiences are always looking for him to write another Sixth Sense or Signs, but that's not what he's interested in anymore. So when The Happening comes out this summer, my need for entertainment and horror will be taking a backseat to listening to philosophy, and that my friends, is what the movies should be all bout.