M. Night Shyamalan reconsidered

There are two common critical lines on Shyamalan. Mainstream critics generally say that he peaked with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable and is now a joke. Deeper down the rabbit hole of blackbelt cinephilia, one finds a lot of hardcore Shyamalan cultists. There are several people I read regularly who think most of his films are masterpieces and many others who revere a subset of his Certified Rotten output. I occupy probably the least populous quadrant of Shyamalan critical opinion: I think The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable are two of his weakest movies and that he didn’t really come into his own until he started tanking on the Tomatometer. I’m not going out of my way to be a contrarian here: these are my honest views, settled only after revisiting Shyamalan’s body of work and reflecting on it a great deal.

Shyamalan is not for everyone. He’s certainly not for The Bookkeeper. The Bookkeeper is the viewer who is preoccupied with continuity and plot rationality. The Bookkeeper hates Bird Box and The Last Jedi. I’m happy to live and let live in matters of taste, but I generally don’t enjoy discussing movies with The Bookkeeper and there’s very little chance we are going to converge at all on this one. Shyamalan is also not for The Irony Skeptic. The Irony Skeptic doubts that Shyamalan knew exactly what he was doing when he cast Mark Wahlberg as a science teacher. The Irony Skeptic laughs derisively at goofy, wonky dialogue and thinks it’s trying and failing to be serious rather than assuming it’s supposed to be funny.

This stuff is more likely to appeal to the viewer who is happy to put style and craft first, who enjoys the ridiculous and goofy, and who isn’t put off by big, dumb (often metafictional) themes delivered with a superlatively heavy hand. I should qualify this characterization by mentioning that there are some very advanced advocates out there who find all sorts of fascinating things to say about Shyamalan’s themes. See, for instance, the writings of Mike Thorn. I have great admiration for this sort of highbrow Shyamalan criticism, but this is not the primary level at which I personally enjoy most of this stuff. I’m more interested in the execution than in what he’s trying to say.

Now, I shall rank and comment on his filmography:

12) Wide Awake (1998) and Praying with Anger (1992)

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These are the two Shyamalan films that predate The Sixth Sense. I tried watching both of them and found both to be unwatchable. Praying with Anger feels like a student film and is only available as a horrendous VHS rip. Wide Awake got destroyed by Harvey Weinstein, but it never had a chance: an annoying kid struggles with his Christian faith and forms a friendship with a kindly nun played by Rosie O’Donnell. You lost me at “kindly nun played by Rosie O’Donnell.” It’s saccharin to the point of being unbearable.

11) The Sixth Sense (1999)

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I never liked this movie. Along with The Usual Suspects, it’s a pinnacle of the late 90’s twist-gimmick cycle that I fundamentally hate. I know some people found it scary back in the day, but I certainly wasn’t one of them. I revisited it recently and my opinion hasn’t changed. I hate the gimmick, the kid is extraordinarily annoying, Bruce Willis is a blank, and the central romance is so underdeveloped that I’m unable to find the Olivia Williams’ grief as moving as it should be (though her performance is the bright spot of the movie).

10) Unbreakable (2000) 

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I like the concept: a superhero origin story that’s set in the “real world,” i.e., the nearest possible world where there are superheroes. I also like the metafictional themes that emerge through making the supervillain a comic book obsessive. Samuel L. Jackson is very good. Where this falls apart for me is in the details. One of the central, driving questions in Bruce Willis’ investigation into whether he may in fact be a superhero is whether he’s ever been sick. I’m no Bookkeeper, but this just makes so little sense that it’s hard for the investigation to sustain interest: how could he possibly be in doubt about whether he’d ever been sick? He wouldn’t even know what it’s like to be sick! Unbreakable is way too front-heavy with this tedious, poorly written investigation material and when we finally get around to the superhero ascendancy it feels rushed. When he goes out into public to be a hero he finds a serial killer *immediately* and dispatches with him in like four minutes, and then we get those godawful anticlimactic closing title cards. It’s so dissatisfying.

9) The Last Airbender (2010)

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I don’t know the source material and I don’t generally like this sort of kids movie but this isn’t all that bad. The narrative is a total mess and there’s some ridiculous dialogue and acting but Shyamalan is way, way better at using CGI than most directors and I thought for the most part this movie looked cool as hell. Don’t go out of your way, but it has its pleasures.

8) After Earth (2013)

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There’s a lot to like here. This is a tight, tense sci-fi survival-adventure movie with one glaring flaw: Jaden Smith. Will Smith is actually pretty good in this but his kid is a train wreck. Recast this with Michael B. Jordan and you’ve got a very solid movie. The action scenes are great.

7) Signs (2002)

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From here on up everything is excellent. Signs is probably Shyamalan’s most conventionally well-executed movie. It works on multiple levels: as a thriller, a parable about faith, a character-driven family drama. The whole cast is great. Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix are standouts, but even the kids are really good in this one. I prefer Shyamalan’s crazier movies, but I’ve got nothing bad to say about Signs. 

6) Glass (2019)

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I went to see Glass and I loved it, but I am going to be conservative with ranking it because I have much less confidence in my appraisal than I do for the ones I’ve seen multiple times. My initial opinion is that it has second act pacing problems but is otherwise thrilling. I love low-budget digital Shyamalan. It’s very evident that he feels freed rather constrained by this mode of filmmaking. Glass’s greatest merits are the seamless, masterful direction and two brilliant complementary performances from James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy. If you couldn’t stand McAvoy in Split, you won’t be able to stand him here, but if you’re like me, there’s no such thing as too much McAvoy (NB, I did not like him until I saw Split). I find Anya Taylor-Joy’s blurring of the line between Stockholm Syndrome and profound Christian compassion deeply moving (more below re: Split). If you haven’t seen Split, see that first. If you like it, definitely see Glass. If you don’t, there’s not much of a chance you’ll like this.

5) The Village (2004)

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The Village is arguably Shyamalan’s greatest accomplishment of mise-en-scène, and it’s probably his most revered film among blackbelt cinephiles. It was widely dismissed in the US when it was first released, though Cahiers du cinema had it on their top ten of the year (Shyamalan usually makes their list). I certainly dismissed it; I was in a very anti-twist mindset and I found the ending to be a real groaner. But I was young and I didn’t know very much and I was wrong to dismiss the film. Revisiting it, I found it worked much better already knowing the twist. Having the big picture in mind helped me appreciate the rich details of Shyamalan’s direction, and also let me understand what the hell Adrien Brody is up to. The acting is wall-to-wall amazing throughout (not to mention the dialogue!). The score is top notch. I plan to revisit The Village again and I think it’s entirely possible that it will grow even more in my esteem. If you skipped it or haven’t seen it since its initial release, I recommend giving it a fresh look. It’s aged well.

4) The Visit (2015)

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Grandparents horror! What glorious subject matter. Watching this, one wonders why more filmmakers haven’t tapped into the vast horror possibilities that grandparents present. Aging, illness, incontinence, mental dissolution: this is the terrifying reality of grandparents. The Visit was Shyamalan’s first low-budget digital movie, and his glee at being able to do whatever he wants shines through. He inverts his usual high polish aesthetic, going for a grimy found-footage approach, but the Shyamalan metafictional wonkery is present in full force, with the young girl as the diegetic filmmaker and the young boy as a freestyle rapper. The rapping is very cringey but I admire how Shyamalan just totally goes for it. The tone is so wildly uneven (in a good way) that I can accept the absurd insistence on giving the 13 year old ample rapping time. Also: the jump scares are far superior to those found in typical found-footage horror.

3) Split (2016)

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Split is not for everyone, but it’s definitely for me. I delayed watching this for a long time because I wasn’t at all interested in yet another horror villain with Dissociative Identity Disorder. I had no idea. This is a giant James McAvoy atomic bomb. I can TOTALLY imagine finding him unbearable in this but for me his performance is an absolute joy. He frickin’ lets it rip. This is low-budget, off-the-leash Shyamalan and it is remarkably insane for a movie that made 280 million dollars. It goes to some extremely dark places, with bold shifts in tone that are even more jarring than those in The Visit. This is not a politically correct movie: the subject matter is volatile and unsanitized. But I think it’s got what it takes to roll with high stakes content. It builds surprising weight by the end and McAvoy and the phenomenal Anya Taylor-Joy absolutely crush oceans of feeling.

2) The Happening (2008) 

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The Happening is a modern day cult classic. Watching Bird Box recently (which I liked), I was struck by how much more mileage Shyamalan got out of the spontaneous suicide premise. This was his first R-rated movie, and it’s a great delight in the age of PG-13 horror. He doesn’t waste any suicides: they are imaginative and often disturbing. He’s said in interviews that he was going for a B-movie in the vein of The Blob, and admitted that he may have punched too high at times and misled the audience about what he was going for. I don’t really see how so many people were misled when the central thematic exposition is delegated to Hotdog Guy, but there is a level of seriousness to the movie’s environmentalism that clashes with the overall ridiculousness of the whole affair (which for me just adds to the ridiculousness). There is camp value throughout, thanks in no small part to the ridiculous casting choices (Wahlberg as a science teacher and Leguizamo as a math teacher), but it’s also genuinely frightening. I’ve watched The Happening lots of times but I had two major new insights on my last viewing. The first is that it’s picked up a new resonance: middle class refugee crisis. The second relates to my own biography. I lived in the northeast until I was 26, when I moved to Montana. I spent five years in NJ, not far from where this movie is set. Part of what generates the horror of The Happening is being trapped in the all-consuming maze of suburban sprawl as the menace strikes smaller and smaller population centers. The path to safety for the protagonists is to stay away from people, but this is impossible in that part of the world. I relate very strongly to the movie’s Northeast claustrophobia. There’s just no way to get to wide open spaces, and anyplace that’s even a little open is bound to be full of people. I’ve lived this shit: once I drove to damn North Carolina and back just to try to find some open space. Once I drove to Ithaca, NY just to go swimming. Endless suburban sprawl messes with your mind, and this movie nails the horror of being trapped in it.

1) Lady in the Water (2006)

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To be forthcoming: I am definitely an outlier on this one, but I feel very strongly about my stance. Lady in the Water is Shyamalan’s masterpiece. I loved it back when I first saw it, and revisiting it more than a decade later I loved it even more. It’s definitely not for people who are on the fence about Shyamalan: it is his most extreme work with respect to metafictional mayhem and he goes right ahead and casts himself as the messiah figure. Lady in the Water announces its primary theme through Bob Balaban’s grumpy film critic, who makes the familiar postmodern complaint that there’s nothing new under the sun and cinema is doomed to rehash its past ad nauseum. Shyamalan is like “Hold my beer, ’cause Uncle M. Night’s gonna tell you a bedtime story.”

The nature of a bedtime story is to make it up as you go along, piecing together an ad hoc mythology that generates continuous conflict while facilitating the desired conclusion. Shyamalan builds this methodology into the structure of the film, as an antidote to the postmodern death of originality. It’s an optimistic film that aims to reveal the boundlessness of the imagination. The meta-fictional material and the first-order narrative work seemlessly together. The result is by turns hilarious, moving, suspenseful, and exhilarating in its unbridled creativity. Giamatti is incredible, as is the rest of the cast. I love Lady in the Water with my whole heart, and I’m not ashamed to shout it from the rooftop.

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