M. Night Shyamalan

Sometimes, when a major player in Hollywood loses his or her fastball, it happens fast. We explore actors and filmmakers who experienced such a rapid downfall in our regular series, Hey, Wha’ Happened?!

In 1999’s The Sixth Sense, Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist, sits by the hospital bed of a troubled young patient who has suffered severe physical trauma, possibly self-inflicted. In an attempt to comfort the boy he starts telling a bedtime story, only his story is terrible. Cole, the boy, is touched by the failed attempt at a compelling narrative and offers Dr. Crowe a simple piece of advice: “You have to add some twists and stuff.”

shyamalan-newsweek-coverFor the next five years, the formula of adding “twists and stuff” to his stories helped M. Night Shyamalan capture the imagination of the American zeitgeist. During this period Shyamalan’s movies found appreciation from the critical community and were phenomenal successes at the box office; a rare combination resulting in comparisons to Steven Spielberg. At that moment, in a twist foreshadowed by such comparisons, Shyamalan’s brand began to stink. His movies still made money, but they were no longer loved. After 2004’s The Village, Shyamalan was more likely to be a cheap punchline than a subject of serious conversation. By 2010, when Shyamalan’s name appeared in the trailers for Devil (a film he produced, but did not direct), audiences in cinemas across the country burst out in sardonic laughter. People didn’t just stop liking Shyamalan, they started hating him.

In an attempt to find out exactly what happened to M. Night Shyamalan, we will look back to the promise of his early films (Sixth Sense – Signs), examine the tipping point to see if his descent could have been prevented (The Village – Lady in the Water), follow him down to his career’s nadir (The Happening – After Earth), and finally take a look at where M. Night is now to see if audiences will ever be able to look forward to one of his stories again or, at the very least, stop laughing before he starts to tell one.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

(Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs)

During the first “official” session between Cole (Haley Joel Osmet) and Dr. Malcolm (Bruce Willis) in The Sixth Sense, Malcolm attempts to earn Cole’s trust by playing a mind reading game. For each guess Malcolm gets right, Cole must take a step towards him; for each incorrect guess, Cole takes a step back. Shyamalan pushes the camera forward and back as Cole guesses, adopting the boy’s POV and showing Malcolm framed further and further away as he makes a long series of incorrect assumptions. Later, in the hospital scene, as Malcolm and Cole are bonding over bedtime story techniques, Shyamalan begins pushing in on Malcolm and Cole as their bond begins to grow until, with Cole and Malcolm in tight close-ups, Cole whispers his most intimate secret: that he sees dead people. It’s an effective, if unsubtle, stylistic flourish and displays Shyamalan’s visual thinking.

Comparisons to Spielberg and Hitchcock would come to haunt Shyamalan, especially when he was the one making the comparisons, but it is evident he studied their styles and reveres their methods. Shyamalan attempts to infuse his camera movements with emotional resonance, in an effort to ensure that his style has substance. He consistently works with the greatest cinematographers in the business – Tak Fujimoto (Sixth Sense, Signs), Roger Deakins (The Village), Christopher Doyle (Lady in the Water) and Peter Suschitzky (After Earth) – so his films are almost always gorgeous, with deep and rich images showing foreground characters within, and often overwhelmed by, their environments. Shyamalan’s thoughtful compositions and mature visual sense are part of what made him seem like something special, and after his fall from grace it was common to hear the backhanded compliment that he could be a great director, if only he would let someone else write the scripts.

MNight-sixthsenseWhile The Sixth Sense still has a decent reputation, it is kind of amazing just how big the film was in 1999. It was the second biggest movie of the year, beating Toy Story 2 and The Matrix, and was only outgrossed by Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. It was also the rare genre film nominated for multiple major Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor for Haley Joel Osment, and Best Supporting Actress for Toni Collette as his struggling single mother. Though it is mostly remembered for its “twists and stuff,” the “I see dead people” revelation doesn’t occur until 50 minutes in. Up to then it has some mystery, but it is mostly a somber drama about Bruce Willis’ sad patriarch, and Collette’s divorced working-class mother worried about her troubled son. Like Val Lewton productions, the supernatural elements provide atmosphere and tension allowing the domestic drama to masquerade as a thriller.

Bruce Willis would return as another sad patriarch, David Dunn, in Shyamalan’s next film, 2000’s Unbreakable. Though it didn’t enjoy the critical or commercial success of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable’s reputation has grown through the years; Quentin Tarantino dubbed it “one of the masterpieces of our time.”

Anticipating the post-911 cultural renaissance of superheroes, Shyamalan’s “Everyman as Superman” theme brought a grounded sense of tragedy and depth of sensitivity to comic stories. There is a similar tone in Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, though Nolan’s films also provide more audience-friendly action. Shyamalan uses reflections and roving POV shots to evoke the concept of multiple perspectives and changing lenses informing each character’s world view. Dunn initially sees himself as a mediocre man in a mediocre world, and Samuel L. Jackson’s obsessive Elijah Price sees the world as owing him an explanation and granting him purpose. Price’s lens is cracked, though accurate; Dunn’s is clear, yet limited.

Unbreakable is similar to The Sixth Sense in many ways. It follows the same structure of gradually uncovering a broad mystery, with an episodic climax mostly unrelated to the central narrative (Cole using his powers to uncover a murder; Dunn using his MNight-unbreakablepowers to save a family) followed by a revelatory twist altering our understanding of all that has come before. Unlike Shyamalan’s later films, the twists in Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense reward second viewings. They inform character motivations, and add nuance. They represent the best of Shyamalan: confident direction, unified themes, and a simple narrative with complex characters.

Signs was the last film to date Shyamalan released to widespread acclaim, though it also began to expose his weaknesses and bad habits. Mel Gibson replaces Bruce Willis as the sad patriarch, Rev. Graham Hess, who lost his wife and his faith to a seemingly meaningless car accident. Hess is the second saddest patriarch in the Shyamanlan-iverse, and Mel Gibson’s handsome but weathered presence provides a genuine A-picture gravitas to the B-movie premise of water-soluble aliens invading Earth. Signs wasn’t quite as big as The Sixth Sense, but it still managed to be the 6th biggest film of 2002 and spoke directly to Americans still trying to process the world following the terrorist attacks of the year before. Don’t worry, Shyamalan tells us, as difficult as these tragedies are, they are a part of life and can offer lessons for the future.

MNight-signsShyamalan is a spiritual man and Signs is a blatantly proselytizing film. While Unbreakable argued that everyone has a purpose, Signs suggests that everything has a purpose. Prior to The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan made the small indie film Wide Awake, which followed a young teen suffering a crisis of faith after his grandfather dies. After deciding that the world is random and there is no God, the boy discovers his friend suffering a seizure and is able to save his life. This convinces the boy that all coincidences are part of a plan. In case he had any remaining doubts though, another classmate turns out to be an Angel and assures him God has a plan. Signs is essentially a better and more compelling version of Wide Awake (Signs has more twists and stuff), but both owe a huge debt to the spiritual coincidences of John Irving’s A Prayer For Owen Meaney.

While Signs still enjoys a favorable reputation, it is a less fulfilling experience overall than its two predecessors. Shyamalan’s characters remain complex, and there are sequences which may be more tense and terrifying than anything else he accomplished before or since; but the elements don’t come together as strongly as they previously had. Multiple viewings don’t reveal greater depth, just sloppier construction. The premise that aliens with a fatal allergy to water would visit a planet whose surface is 70% water is, to put it gently, fucking ridiculous; it may have been acceptable as a playful homage to War of the Worlds, if it didn’t feel so cheap and meaningless. If you ask a group of people when they lost faith in Shyamalan, some
will point to the end of
Signs, though most will say the entirety of The Village.

ON DANGEROUS GROUND

(The Village, The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan, Lady in the Water)

MNight-buriedsecretTwo weeks before The Village’s release in 2004, the single worst line item in M. Night Shyamalan’s filmography was aired on the Sci-Fi Channel. The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan is a painful and embarrassing exercise in onanism, in which Shyamalan himself is presented as a supernatural force who can speak to ghosts, is weakened by water, and has a spiritual connection with Philadelphia so deep that his powers are abated if he leaves the city. Shyamalan didn’t direct the fiasco – that dishonor falls on documentarian Nathaniel Kahn – and it is uncertain how much creative input he had with the project; though he was involved with the project to such a degree that he forced Sci-Fi Channel employees to sign non-disclosure agreements and invented a fake publicist. Shyamalan can try to deny paternity over the project, but too much of its DNA belongs to him. Presented as an actual documentary, with Shyamalan even pretending to be outraged by the project to feign verisimilitude and coax interest (accomplishing neither), Buried Secret is only worthwhile as ammunition for those who detest the director. It presents him as an unpleasant control freak on set, and someone so rabidly egotistical he imagines his fanbase has created a hierarchical system where fanatics drool over the potential meaning of his every breath. As Matt Singer said discussing Buried Secret on the podcast The Cinephiliacs, “The decisions that went into making this thing are so inexplicable I still can’t wrap my head around them.”

What might have been a fun promotional exercise or a playful spoof on obsessive auteurists, is such a dour and abrasive affair that it could have turned Shyamalan into a joke even if he hadn’t gone on to make The Happening. Luckily for him, very few people actually watched it.

The only logically conceivable reason for making Buried Secret would be to cement Shyamalan as a supernatural filmmaker prior to the release of The Village. The more the audience believes Shyamalan is primarily interested in spiritual matters, the less likely they are to anticipate the secular twist of The Village. The film focuses on a community of adults who have each suffered a tragedy, so they move to a small, self-contained village away to escape from an overly violent society. The village is located within a forest where mysterious creatures lurk and attack those who violate the strict codes. However, after a series of illnesses and accidents put their children in harm’s way, the elders decide to send an emissary, the blind Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) into the city to procure medical supplies. Before sending her out to the woods, Ivy’s father reveals that the creatures were invented to keep order. They’ve been lying to their children to protect and, in a way, imprison them.

MNight-thevillage

What makes The Village interesting is that in most stories of cults insulating themselves, the group leaders are nefarious, power-hungry bad guys willing to sacrifice lives for order. In The Village Shyamalan has sympathy for these devils. Their way of life does seem to be more fulfilling than the outside world. In Shyamalan’s other films, most people tend to ignore or dismiss the spiritual and are lesser for it. In The Village, perhaps his most underrated film, he seems to suggest that if the supernatural isn’t real, we may be better off pretending that it is.

The Village showed Shyamalan’s good will was beginning to fade. Had it been made between Unbreakable and Signs, it may have enjoyed a better reception. There are fantastic scenes of shocking violence, and an artful Age of Innocence informed subplot of romance repressed for the sake of society. “How do you know he loves me?” Sigourney Weaver’s Alice asks, concerning the affections of William Hurt’s Edward, and the son replies “Because he never touches you.” It is a flawed film, but we may have been more forgiving of the flaws if we hadn’t gone in with such skepticism.

No amount of initial goodwill could have saved Lady in the Water. A sprawling dark fairytale of Narfs, Guilds and Scrunts (oh my!); Shyamalan abandoned his clear and cohesive style of storytelling to create something more epic in scope and sloppy in execution. Paul Giamatti’s Cleveland Heep wins the “saddest of Shyamalan’s sad patriarchs” award: both his wife and child were murdered, leaving him so lost that he quit practicing medicine to become a landlord of a small apartment complex. This is the film where Shyamalan’s weaknesses as a writer began to collide with his directorial strengths. It is an exquisitely shot film, but the narrative is such a bumbling jumble of seemingly improvised voodoo that it’s hard to believe anyone could take it seriously, especially the exceptional cast and crew involved.

MNight-ladyinthewaterThe most egregious sin, of course, was M. Night Shyamalan casting himself as a writer whose work would inspire a child to become a great leader and bring peace to the world. Even if an unknown actor had been cast in the part, it would have been hard enough not to see the character as a proxy for Shyamalan, but the decision is so distractingly arrogant it further sours the already pungent concoction. This character also suggests a number of things that one could imagine the real-life Shyamalan believing, such as critics being the ones actually guilty of outrageous hubris for daring to question storytellers’ tired tropes. The public was disappointed by the ending of Signs, annoyed at The Village and flabbergasted by Lady in the Water; but he wasn’t a lost cause yet. If the ending of Signs was a forgivable foul, The Village a respectable first strike, and Lady in the Water an astonishing whiff, then Shyamalan had one more chance to surprise us all and knock it out of the park. A last opportunity to remind us why he belonged in the big leagues. And man, did he blow it.   

THE LOWER DEPTHS

(The Happening, The Last Airbender, Devil, After Earth)

To be fair, The Happening is certainly the most entertaining of Shyamalan’s terrible movies. It isn’t bogged down by an overstuffed narrative like Lady in the Water and The Last Airbender or as sullen and dreary as After Earth. Mark Wahlberg’s Elliot Moore is a goof, and is the least sad of the sad patriarchs. He hasn’t lost a loved one, likes his job (even if he’s terrible at it), and loves his wife – even after finding out she secretly shared tiramisu with a co-worker. If the plants hadn’t turned evil and started forcing humans to kill themselves in increasingly ridiculous ways, Elliot probably would have lived a satisfying life. Where the events of Shyamalan’s previous films allowed their protagonists to discover something within themselves, Elliot learns nothing and accomplishes nothing (other than forgiving his wife for having dessert). Things happen which are outside of his control, and he spends the film looking baffled or worried or some combination of the two.

Whether by design or ineptitude, The Happening is the most tonally strange film in Shyamalan’s oeuvre. One minute a crowd watches lions bite the arms off a zookeeper on an iPhone, the next a character waxes rhapsodically on the virtues of hot dogs, then children are brutally murdered by hillbillies with a shotgun, and later Elliot pledges his love to his wife through a tube while she is playing around in a shed that had been used to hide runaway slaves. It shares the gleeful WTF qualities of cultural atrocities like Troll 2 and Miami Connection, where the amateurs behind the scenes were so oblivious to what makes a movie work that each subsequent scene is a surprise. Only Shyamalan should know better, because he isn’t an amateur; he’s a professional with access to the best resources and technicians in the business. It’s one thing if you catch a silly little seventh grader toilet papering your house with a few rolls swiped from a nearby gas station. It’s kind of annoying, but it also reminds us of when we were young and dumb and wanted to do something just for the thrill of it. The Happening is more like your rich neighbor buying a Charmin factory and contracting the employees to cover your entire property four times over with perfumed double-ply, while he laughs and takes a piss in your garden. This guy isn’t an expert prankster, or a mature thrill seeker; he’s just an asshole. While his films would still – somehow – make money, after The Happening the director once dubbed “the next Spielberg” was now too maligned to be considered the next Ed Wood.

The Last Airbender is the worst film Shyamlan has (yet) directed. Though still better than the walking abortion that is Buried Secret, 2010’s Airbender manages to indulge all of his weaknesses while neglecting his virtues. Inexplicably shot by the late Andrew Lesnie (The Lord of the Rings trilogy), Airbender’s palette is a joyless collage of blah-blues and ornery-oranges. Like Lady in the Water it attempts to cram an ocean of mythology and narrative into a container barely the size of a sippy cup. In a misguided attempt to adapt an entire season of the acclaimed Nickelodeon series Avatar into a single movie, Shyamalan resorts to a constant use of expository voice over, explaining things without giving us a sense of wonder or a reason to care.

MNight-airbenderThe performances are uniformly terrible, but it is worth drawing attention to Jackson Rathbone as Sokka. Rathbone makes Jai Courtney, the lifeless lump who sucked the energy from both The Terminator and Die Hard franchises, seem like Lawrence Olivier. Shyamalan is hit or miss with actors, but Rathbone is so bad that Jaden Smith owes him thank-you card. As usual, Shyamalan leans heavily on his spiritual, Owen Meaney-lite philosophy that “everything happens for a reason.” This is stretched to the point where a teenage girl sacrifices herself to show “we believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in theirs” and the audience is supposed to accept the need for the child’s death without question. In Signs, Shyamalan was able to bring an atmosphere of danger and mystery to a simple corn field; in Airbender, he can’t convey a whit of wonder within a magical world of vast continents inhabited by magic people and flying six-legged bison. It represents Shyamalan at the rock bottom of his abilities, and unlike The Happening, it was too glum to even laugh at.     

Perhaps because Airbender couldn’t even provide something to laugh at, audiences burst into collective chortles at the mere sight of Shyamalan’s name when it appeared in the advertising for Devil, released just a few months after Airbender. Shyamalan has a story credit and produced Devil, but he didn’t direct the movie – that would be John Erick Dowdle, director of Quarantine. A lean supernatural thriller that plays like a subpar X-Files episode, Devil isn’t a great movie, but it’s fun as light entertainment. It’s the best movie in Shyamalan’s worst period, despite or because of the fact he wasn’t directly involved in making it. It was shot by his frequent director of photography Tak Fujimoto, who brings an anxious intensity to the cramped elevator location. Most notable is the opening credit sequence, which ominously presents an upside-down cityscape. Like a nightmarish version of Ernie Gehr’s Side/Walk/Shuttle, the skyscrapers look like teeth ready to devour us whole, while also suggesting a world out of balance. It’s the type of simple, yet effective visual metaphor that once permeated Shyamalan’s own films.

There aren’t many simple, yet effective metaphors to be found in After Earth, though there is an artless and bungling one at the center of Shyamalan’s 2013 dud. The monstrous creature stalking Jaden Smith’s Kitai Raige, an “Ursa,” is blind but can smell fear, so Kitai needs to overcome his fear to defeat the monster. You see, it’s a metaphor for how you can achieve anything by overcoming your fear. The marketing for the film memorably avoiding mentioning Shyamalan’s involvement entirely, focusing instead on mega-star Will Smith and his son Jaden. The studio and Shyamalan claimed it was to sell the movie as an sci-fi action film; they didn’t want audiences to go in expecting a the supernatural twists of a Shyamalan film. Certainly it was not because they wanted to avoid derisive Devil-ish guffaws.

After Earth is certainly better than The Last Airbender. It’s unfortunately still refreshing to see a black father and son carry a big budget action feature, even if the father is one of the biggest stars in history. Shyamalan, who was the only person of color at his private high school, has always been good at filling out background and supporting roles with multi-racial characters, but After Earth is his first film about a non-white protagonist since he played the lead in his 1992 debut, Praying With Anger. After Earth opens with flashbacks within flashbacks detailing a complex backstory audiences would have easily comprehended with a simple line or two had they been trusted to do so. Once Kitai’s journey into the perilous jungle of an abandoned Earth begins, the movie becomes more tolerable. Shyamalan and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (The Empire Strikes Back) frame Jaden engulfed by the hostile environment in cunning long shots, a return to the classical style of Shyamalan’s peak period. Had After Earth been a silent film, it may have skated by on the power of its images, and the mythic idea of a son learning from his father as the father learns from his son . Unfortunately, the silent era is long gone and the stilted dialog is made even more stiff by the decision to have the leads affect an unnecessary futuristic Southern accent.

Will Smith brought the story outline for After Earth to Shyamalan, who then co-wrote the screenplay with writer/game designer Gary Whitta.  It’s tempting to breakdown the script according to each storyteller’s personality. Whitta most likely shaped the structure of the plot. The “breathers” Kitai uses to adapt to Earth’s altered atmosphere are like power levels in a game, each day he must reach a certain place to advance to the next level and he battles increasingly dangerous animal “bosses” climaxing with his showdown against Ursa, the big boss. Shyamalan almost certainly brought the backstory of Kitai’s sister being killed by an Ursa, making Will Smith’s stoic Cipher Raige yet another sad patriarch. In addition to the idea of a father being saved by his son, Smith most likely infused After Earth with a distinct aura of Scientology. Kitai must learn to recognize his “power” over the elements, and accept that “fear is not real, it is the product of our imaginations.” In order to overcome his negative emotions, Kitai must move beyond his worst memory and go clear in his mind to defeat the enemy. Since Shyamalan’s primary spiritual concern seems to be belief in belief, the Scientology bent doesn’t seem out of place.

After Earth ended up being the most high profile failure in both Shyamalan’s and Will Smith’s careers. Smith has since called it “the most painful failure in my career” in an interview with Esquire magazine. Failure is one thing, “painful failure” cuts much deeper. While it still made its money back (according to Box Office Mojo, worldwide grosses were $243 million) it wasn’t a small, idiosyncratic bomb like Lady in the Water. After Earth was meant to be an audience friendly summer blockbuster, a way to show everyone that Shyamalan could step away from his personal preoccupations and deliver a well-made summer movie. Instead, even as a director for hire, Shyamalan indulged too many of worst tendencies.

A BETTER TOMORROW?

(Wayward Pines, The Visit, and beyond…)

For all of his faults and default themes, something M. Night Shyamalan doesn’t seem to get credit for is his willingness to accept new challenges. After the fairytale failure of Lady in the Water, he tried to make an R-rated disaster horror picture with The Happening. When that failed to connect, he tried to adapt a popular fantasy series with The Last Airbender. When that turned him into a joke, he accepted a vanity project for superstar Will Smith and allowed his name to be buried in the marketing for After Earth. It is almost admirable he has managed to fail so completely in so many different ways.

The drive to bring a personal touch to unexpected projects also makes it a difficult to write Shyamalan off completely. If his unabashed arrogance helped turn people against him, maybe a sense of humility will allow us to forgive him. It’s hard to imagine the Signs-era Shyamalan agreeing to direct the pilot episode of a television series, much less doing so with the perfect blend of camp and class he brought to the FOX series Wayward Pines last May. Blending the mysteries of Lost with the rustic vibe of Twin Peaks and the corporate voyeurism of The Truman Show, Wayward Pines is more of a lark than any of those properties though. It’s refreshing that Shyamalan doesn’t try to burden the series with his oppressive spiritual hokum, even if Matt Dillon’s Ethan Burke, the Secret Service agent trapped within the weirdness of Wayward Pines, fits pretty snugly in Shyamalan’s typical sad patriarch role. Most impressive is that despite the mythology being dense enough for a Lady in the Water-style info dump, Shyamalan handles the first episode (the only one he directed) with a nice balance of mystery, exposition and humor. Wayward Pines can be seen as such an important step forward for Shyamalan precisely because it doesn’t feel important.

Even more promising, the reviews leading up to The Visit have been surprisingly positive. (Editor’s note: Including ours!) It seems he avoided a convoluted narrative and didn’t bog down the material with a pompous and morose tone, while also tapping back into his skills at creating disturbing images inhabited by characters we actually care about. There are rumors he will be working with both Joaquin Phoenix and Bruce Willis again in the near future, and momentum seems behind him for a mid-career renaissance. If The Visit is a critical and commercial hit, it will be his first in over a decade. Though audiences have every right to be skeptical of a director who has burned them over and over again, we watch genre movies like the kind Shyamalan makes because we want to believe. As much as people love to trash the guy, the jokes are getting pretty old. If we’ve learned nothing else from M. Night Shyamalan, we should at least remember it always helps to add some twists and stuff.   

Kevin Cecil is an ex-substitute teacher trying to figure out what those who can’t teach can do.

Art by Kyle F. Anthony

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s