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THE KILLER TWISTS OF M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN

RANKING THE MEDITATIVE AND MENACING FILMS OF A BLOCKBUSTER AUTEUR

FEATURE ARTICLE
LATEST REVIEWS
By Jake Watt
22nd July 2021

Unless there is a sudden reconstruction of the cultural concept of cinema, M. Night Shyamalan will never be as widely appreciated as he was in 1999, when he was hyped as the next Hitchcock or Spielberg of American cinema on the strength of 'The Sixth Sense', his very popular third feature. But his blossoming reputation began to wilt with every subsequent film and 'The Happening' was the point of no return. When it was released in the summer of 2008, it was a commercial success, but was met with tidal waves of negative reviews.

Wanky endeavours such as 'The Man Who Heard Voices', Michael Bamberger's slobbery retelling of the making of 'Lady in The Water', and the navel-gazing 'The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan' didn't help his public image. By the time I went to see Edgar Wright's 'Scott Pilgrim vs. The World' at a cinema in 2010, they played the trailer for 'Devil'. As soon as "From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan" popped up on the screen, groans and laughter erupted from the hipster audience surrounding me.

But let's be real here: for all the shit thrown his way over the years, Shyamalan is a fine filmmaker and a seductive storyteller, so in control of his craft that it's hard not to be swept up in his latest yarn. He became a "name above the title" filmmaker purely on the strength of his non-franchise/non-sequel/non-adapted films. He might even be the last consistently interesting blockbuster auteur to build his brand on original tales and still be hustling within Hollywood in this age of Disney supremacy.

Sure, all of Shyamalan's films skirt the edge of trippy mood crystal silliness - sometimes they tumble over, sometimes they waver on the precipice. At his best, M. Night knows that what makes for a lousy study of the intangible can make for powerful allegory, and he can create a strikingly emotional film out of a little bit of light and shade.

M. Night's latest film, 'Old', is based on the graphic novel 'Sandcastle' by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters. Unfortunately, with Sydney and Melbourne under COVID-19 lockdown, none of SWITCH's reviewers have had a chance to take a look at it before its release. So, here's my personal ranking, from my least liked to most enjoyable, of his filmography instead.

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13
The Last Airbender (2010)

Shyamalan's lone pre-established property adaptation was based on 'Avatar: The Last Airbender', the popular children's cartoon. Retitled 'The Last Airbender', it doesn't even seem like it was directed by M. Night. It feels like a studio could have hired an unknown journeyman and gotten the same results, since it bears so few of his trademark flourishes. Another filmmaker might have massaged the material's themes - which reference Buddhism and Christianity - into a thoughtful film, but Shyamalan lets unimpressive CGI-effects sequences, kids doing tai chi and some endangered magical fish do the heavy-lifting for him.

12
After Earth (2013)

In 'After Earth', Will Smith plays high-ranking space general Cypher Raige, who crash lands on a post-apocalyptic Earth. Injured and crippled, he must remotely guide his son (Will's actual son Jaden Smith) as he traverses an unforgiving landscape populated with savage predators. That description is also a pretty apt metaphor for how the film was received by critics, and why Smith came to regret putting his son in their firing line.

Acting more or less as a mercenary, Shyamalan brings a lot of style to this film, which seems to be an expensive gift from the elder Smith to his seemingly disinterested heir. His visuals - a little avant-garde, a sprinkling of Spielberg - compliment the material, and his talent for framing comes in handy during the movie's many dialogue-free scenes, including an effective post-crash sequence. The most striking moments feature epic, widescreen compositions - courtesy of Peter Suschitzky, the long-time David Cronenberg cinematographer who also shot 'Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back' - that frame Jaden Smith's character against imposing backdrops of dense foliage.

Alas, there was only so much that M. Night could do working off somebody else's screenplay and without his usual creative control over the project. I'm not even getting into Jaden Smith's acting. Jesus fucking Christ, just no.

11
Praying with Anger (1992)

This is a super-low-budget indie he made when he was 21, starring himself as an Indian-American who goes on a trip to India. His lead performance is exactly what you'd expect, but it's an interesting portent of things to come. You can watch the entire movie below on YouTube.

10
Glass (2019)

Inelegantly tying together the mythos of two of Shymalan's earlier films, his script for 'Glass' struggles to balance its cast of characters, including James McAvoy as the multiple-personality villain, Samuel L. Jackson as the comic book collector who was his mentor and secret arch-nemesis, Anya Taylor-Joy as teenage 'Split' survivor Casey and Spencer Treat Clark (reprising a role he played 20 years ago) as Joseph, the now-grown son of 'Unbreakable' hero David Dunn (Bruce Willis).

Most critically, Shyamalan can't seem to figure out what to do with David - and by extension, with the increasingly grizzled Willis, whose drowsiness here compares unfavourably to his deliberate underplaying in the first film. That's true in general of 'Glass', which keeps reminding us how great 'Unbreakable' was without approaching its impact. It's all capped off with an unsatisfying retcon and a bizarre, almost offhand climax.

9
Lady in the Water (2006)

Paul Giamatti stars as a depressed superintendent who stumbles upon a magical sea nymph (Bryce Dallas Howard) and, with the help of his weirdo neighbours, tries to help her realise her own potential. This process involves a magical flying creature, tree monsters, and hiding from a wolfish beastie. Or something like that.

'Lady in the Water' is Shyamalan at his most chatty and self-indulgent - he makes a film and book reviewer (Bob Balaban) a total wanker and casts himself as a brilliant writer whose mind-blowing ideas have world-changing consequences. But it also lures you in with a lovely animated sequence artfully spelling out the film's complex mythology about ferocious "Scrunts", Korean folklore and a giant eagle. The movie, which began life as a bedtime yarn for Night's children, never stops unpacking its story. Even as deeply flawed as it is, the way it melds the supernatural with the everyday is quite charming.

8
The Visit (2015)

After a couple of back-to-back flops, Shyamalan rebooted his career with 'The Visit', told from the perspective of a 15-year-old wannabe director as she tries to make a documentary about her creepy grandparents. Self-reflexive and laced with dark humour, this found-footage flick is ground in classical storytelling, resulting in an enjoyable genre piece. Though it never matches the atmosphere of Shyamalan's best films - partly because the writer/director intentionally tempers the scares with kid-friendly wisecracks and freestyle rapping until the third act - the movie's chaotic approach to domestic horror still creates plenty of haunting images, framed so that the viewer thinks they've seen something sinister, but can't quite make out what's going on.

7
Wide Awake (1998)

M. Night casts a very young Joseph Cross as protagonist Joshua A. Beal, a Philadelphia kid who just lost his beloved grandfather (Robert Loggia) to bone marrow cancer. He spends most of his fifth-grade year of Catholic school trying to touch base with God to see if his grandpa is alright, experimenting with other religions along the way. Of course, this freaks out his family (which includes Dana Delany and Denis Leary as his parents and Julia Stiles as his bratty sister) as well as the school faculty, which includes Rosie O'Donnell as a baseball-loving nun.

This was a Miramax release, which meant that Harvey Weinstein poked his nose all through the production of this film. When it was done, there was a screening that ended with Weinstein verbally berating Shyamalan, prompting the young director to break down into tears. Later, O'Donnell called Weinstein to defend Shyamalan, but she too was slammed by Weinstein, who hit her with the b- and c-words.

In any event, this was the first time that Shyamalan got to show off his gift for coaxing winning performances out of charismatic kids. It's a cute film.

6
The Village (2004)

The titular Pennsylvania settlement is led by a council of Elders who mutter gloomily about the "wicked" towns outside its borders. The villagers are isolated by the surrounding woods and encouraged to ignore the outside world. The Elders have formed an uneasy truce with "Those We Don't Speak Of" - unseen goblins that are ready to butcher anyone who venture into the forest. After a child dies from lack of medical care, intrepid loner Joaquin Phoenix volunteers to cross the woods in search of help, but his actions have repercussions for his fellow citizens. Council head William Hurt tries to dissuade him from leaving, but Hurt's blind daughter (Bryce Dallas Howard) inspires Phoenix with her love, as they are watched by the psychologically imbalanced Adrien Brody.

Working with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, Shyamalan relies on classic techniques - careful framing, tension-building sound design, space outside the field of view - for a film that is part Grimm fairy tale-inspired horror, part social critique.

5
Unbreakable (2000)

Shyamalan's follow-up to 'The Sixth Sense' was a comic book deconstruction arriving just before Marvel movies became the next great Hollywood fad. With 'Unbreakable', the years have been kind to its blue-collar tale about the need for purpose and meaning, in the standard discovering-your-powers arc of an origin story.

Rewatching the film this week in preparation for this article, I was struck by how great Bruce Willis is in it. It's a subdued, sad performance but also one where you feel the bond between him and his son and the basic decency of this guy who really doesn't understand himself. I wish we still got more of that Willis nowadays and less of 'Cosmic Sin' Willis.

4
Signs (2002)

M. Night made a hybrid of an alien and home invasion flick by imagining extra-terrestrials as burglars scoping out a farm in 'Signs'. The Hess family - a former Episcopalian priest (Mel Gibson), his two kids, and his washout brother (Joaquin Phoenix) - are terrorised by some old school B movie terrors: a picture of a flying saucer vaporising the residents of house just like theirs, an alarmist army recruiter character, noseless trolls, and so on. John Krasinsinksi would later borrow the critters crawling through cornfields, a stupidly simple vulnerability for the aliens, and the whole remedial bent of Shymalan's melodrama for 'A Quiet Place'.

3
The Happening (2008)

Trees become rather upset with mankind, poisoning our cities with airborne neurotoxins that make people smash their heads through glass or throw themselves under lawnmowers, sending survivors scampering into the countryside and leading a whole lot of viewers to wonder whether they're supposed to take any of this seriously. The movie in question is 'The Happening', a homage to goofy drive-in sci-fi played inconsistently straight, often cited as the downfall of M. Night Shyamalan. It's actually a campy (but very deliberate) B movie pastiche.

'The Happening' indicated Shyamalan might have actually become aware of his biggest fault - the ease with which his own writing becomes rigid and predictable - and realised his work benefited from just being bugfuck nonsense without the self-seriousness.

How else do you explain Mark Wahlberg being cast as a Philadelphia science teacher? It's an absolute hoot to watch his puzzled face (which, coincidentally, is also Wahlberg's resting face, as well as his serious face) as he runs from a gust of wind and encounters such colourful characters as a plant-lover obsessed with hot dogs and a crabby old lady who doesn't much cotton to city slickers coveting her "lemon drink".

What's supposed to be scary - and scarily doesn't seem to be for some people - is the idea that human beings are just fleshy organisms responding to environmental stimuli and that free will is merely an illusion. The trees aren't important; the key takeaway is that people do whatever chemicals tell them.

2
Split (2017)

Three teenagers Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are kidnapped from a mall parking lot and locked inside a cavernous basement by Kevin (McAvoy) - a man with an expansive case of dissociative identity disorder. More specifically, two of his normally benign alternate personas have staged an internal coup to prepare for the arrival of a monsterous entity known only as "The Beast."

Made on a low budget, 'Split' is reminiscent of Brian De Palma films like 'The Fury' and 'Raising Cain' in its refusal to be a dull psychodrama. He pulls out one clever camera trick after another with the help of Michael Gioulakis, the cinematographer of 'It Follows'. The audience is dragged underground with the three girls via a stifling maze of fixed perspectives, POV and overhead shots, and rapid changes in visual focus.

1
The Sixth Sense (1999)

Bruce Willis stars as a Philadelphia psychologist who specialises in working with children. He is confronted in his home by a disturbed former patient (Donnie Wahlberg), who feels Willis failed him. A year later, he comes into contact with a child (Haley Joel Osment) who reminds him of Wahlberg. The kid reveals that his problems are rooted in the supernatural. Though not without some genuinely spooky scenes, 'The Sixth Sense' is less a horror film than an evocative piece of magic realism. 29-year-old writer/director Shyamalan's approach, which uses long, Kubrickian takes, has a sense of confidence and respects both its story and its audience. It's a style that brings out the best in its cast; Willis is at his peak, and both Olivia Williams (as Willis' wife) and Toni Collette (as Osment's overworked, freaked out mother) turn in powerful performances. Also great (critically for the film) is Osment, who brings a level of solemnity far beyond his years that has been unmatched by all child actors since.

The big twist of 'The Sixth Sense' caught audiences off-guard, and helped (along with movies like 'Fight Club' and 'Memento' and earlier prototype 'The Usual Suspects') popularise unsettling films guided by unreliable-narrators.

Respectful shout-outs go to 'Wayward Pines' and 'Servant', which M. Night directed and executive produced. Both are overlooked and very good. He also contributed the story for John Erick Dowdle's 'Devil', a small-scale banger intended to be the first of 'The Night Chronicles' trilogy, centred on tales of the supernatural within modern urban society (one of those ideas ended up being used as the basis for 'Split'). His contributions to 'Stuart Little' only serve to further his legend.

'Old' is out in Australian cinemas from today from Universal.

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