Barring some kind of wider cultural shift, M. Night Shyamalan will never command as much attention and goodwill as he did around the turn of the century, when he was widely praised as the next Hitchcock or Spielberg of American cinema on the strength of 'The Sixth Sense', his acclaimed and very popular third feature. His reputation slipped with every subsequent film - at first in tiny increments, and then steeply, with 'The Happening' marking the point of no return. Released in the summer of 2008, it was a commercial success, but was met with overwhelmingly negative reviews.
Ego-stroking endeavours such as 'The Man Who Heard Voices', Michael Bamberger's fawning account of the making of 'Lady in The Water', and the self-indulgent faux-documentary 'The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan' didn't help things. When I went to see Edgar Wright's 'Scott Pilgrim vs. The World' at a cinema in 2010, and the trailer for 'Devil' played and from "From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan" popped up on the screen, groans and laughter erupted from the audience.
But let's be real here: for all the shit thrown his way over the years, Shyamalan is a fine filmmaker and a master manipulator, so in control of his craft that it's hard not to follow him down his latest rabbit hole. He became a "name above the title" filmmaker purely on the strength of his non-franchise/non-sequel/non-adapted films. He might be the last consistently interesting blockbuster auteur to build his capital on original stories and still be operating within Hollywood in this age of Disney supremacy.
Sure, all of Shyamalan's films teeter on the brink of New Age ludicrousness - sometimes they go over, sometimes they don't. At his best, M. Night knows that what makes for lousy metaphysics can make for powerful metaphor, and he can create a deeply, surprisingly affecting film out of a little bit of smoke and brimstone.
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.
Shyamalan's lone pre-established property adaptation was based on 'Avatar: The Last Airbender', the popular children's cartoon series. Retitled 'The Last Airbender', it's weird because it doesn't even seem like it was directed by M. Night. You could have hired an unknown journeyman and gotten the same results, since it bears so few of his trademark flourishes. Another filmmaker might have crafted the material's themes - which reference Buddhism and Christianity while exploring the relationship between good and evil - into a striking film, but Shyamalan lets unimpressive, headache-inducing CGI-effects sequences do the talking for him. There are also many scenes of children doing tai chi, and some imperilled magical fish.
In 'After Earth', Will Smith plays high-ranking space general Cypher Raige, who finds himself marooned on a post-apocalyptic Earth. Injured and immobilised, he must remotely observe his son (Will's actual son Jaden Smith) as he traverses an unforgiving landscape populated with savage predators. That synopsis is also a pretty apt metaphor for how the film was received by audiences and critics, and why Smith regrets making it.
Acting more or less as a gun-for-hire, Shyamalan brings considerable formal chops to this film, which seems to be an expensive gift from the elder Smith to his seemingly disinterested son. His style - part arthouse, part Spielberg - is well-suited to the material, and his knack for framing and editing comes in handy during the movie's many dialogue-free scenes, including an effective post-crash sequence. The most striking moments feature austere, roomy 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 vast backdrops of swaying foliage.
Alas, there was only so much that M. Night could do working off somebody else's screenplay and lacking his usual creative control over the project. I'm not even getting into Jaden Smith's acting. Jesus fucking Christ, just no.
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.
Inelegantly tying together the plots and mythologies 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 sleepiness here serves only to highlight the nuanced understatement of his work in the first film. That's true in general of 'Glass', which keeps triggering memories of 'Unbreakable' without approaching its power. It all builds to a twisty retcon and a bizarre, almost abstract climax.
Paul Giamatti stars as a depressed superintendent who stumbles upon a magical sea nymph (Bryce Dallas Howard) and, with the help of a motley gang of neighbours, tries to help her achieve self-actualisation. This process that involves a magical flying creature, tree monsters, and avoiding a wolfish beastie. Or something like that.
'Lady in the Water' is Shyamalan at his most clunky, talky, and self-indulgent - he makes a film and book reviewer (Bob Balaban) a sour heavy and casts himself as a visionary writer whose brilliant ideas have world-changing consequences. But it also kicks off with a lovely, spare animated sequence artfully spelling out the film's complicated back story about ferocious "Scrunts", Korean mythology and a giant eagle. The movie, which began life as a bedtime story for Night's children, never stops unpacking its mythology. Even as deeply flawed as it is, the way it melds the fantastic with the everyday is quite charming.
After a couple of back-to-back big-budget flops, Shyamalan reset his career with 'The Visit', told from the perspective of a 15-year-old budding filmmaker as she tries to make a documentary about her creepy grandparents. Self-reflexive and dosed with macabre humour, this offbeat exercise in just-around-the-corner horror grounds the largely exhausted found-footage approach in classical storytelling and visual values, resulting in a refreshing (and memorably strange) genre piece, premised almost entirely on a child's willingness to accept grown-up weirdness as long as it ensures stability. Though it never matches the atmosphere of Shyamalan's best work - partly because the writer/director intentionally deflates the tension with kid-friendly wisecracks and freestyle rapping until the third act - the movie's free-for-all approach to domestic horror still produces plenty of creepy images, framed so that the viewer knows exactly what they've seen, but still can't make sense of what's going on.
M. Night casts a very young Joseph Cross as protagonist/off-camera narrator 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 communicate with God to see if his grandpa is okay, delving into other religions along the way. Of course, this concerns 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 that didn't end well, either. She too was slammed by Weinstein, who hit her with the b- and c-words and also made O'Donnell cry.
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.
The titular settlement is ruled by a council of elders who speak in harsh tones about the "wicked" towns outside its borders, and where the villagers are forcibly isolated by the surrounding woods, unable to think about the outside world. The elders have formed an uneasy truce with "those we don't speak of" - an ominous phrase referring to the murderous creatures that are prepared to slaughter anyone who sets a toe into the forest. After a child dies from lack of medical care, intrepid loner Joaquin Phoenix volunteers to brave the woods in search of modern medicine, but his actions have potentially grave consequences 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 curiosity and love, much to the chagrin of the psychologically imbalanced Adrien Brody.
Working with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, Shyamalan relies on old-fashioned techniques for suspense and shocks - precise framing, stomach-churning sound work, offscreen space - for a film that is part Grimm fairy-tale horror, part social parable.
Shyamalan's follow-up to 'The Sixth Sense' was a comic book deconstruction arriving just before the modern comic book movie became the next great Hollywood fad. With 'Unbreakable', the years have been kind to its eccentric, working-class reading of what has since become our preeminent tentpole-event genre. M. Night found a stirring human story, one about the need for purpose and meaning, in the standard discovering-your-powers arc of an origin story. Unbreakable was a comic book deconstruction arriving just before the modern comic book movie became the next great Hollywood fad.
Rewatching 'Unbreakable' this week in preparation for this article, I was really struck by how good Bruce Willis is in it. It's a quiet, wounded 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.
M. Night split the difference between alien and home invasion by imagining extra-terrestrials as intruders casing a rural house in 'Signs'. The Hess family - a former Episcopalian priest (Mel Gibson), his two kids, and his loser brother (Joaquin Phoenix) - are terrorised by noseless green bogeymen, and also by the stuff of an earlier generation's B movies: a picture of a flying saucer vaporising the residents of house just like theirs, an army recruiter character who seems to have wandered in from a Cold War cheapie, and so on. John Krasinsinksi would later borrow the critters crawling through cornfields, an inanely simple vulnerability for the aliens, and the whole therapeutic bent of Shymalan's central melodrama for 'A Quiet Place'.
Trees set out to bump off mankind, poisoning our cities with airborne neurotoxins that make people smash their heads through glass or hurl themselves off buildings and into traffic, 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 kooky drive-in sci-fi played inconsistently straight, often cited as exhibit A in the case against 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 greatest, all-consuming weakness - the ease with which his own writing becomes rigid, tedious, and predictable - and realised his work benefited from just being bugfuck ridiculous pulp without the po-facedness.
How else do you explain Mark Wahlberg being cast as a Philadelphia science teacher? It's an absolute hoot to watch his confused face (which, coincidentally, is also Mark Wahlberg's resting face, as well as his making-a-joke face) as he runs from a change in the direction of the wind and encounters such colourful characters as a plant-lover obsessed with hot dogs and a mean old spinster who doesn't much cotton to city slickers eyeballing 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 only ever responding to environmental stimuli and that free will is just an illusion. The trees don't actually matter; the real plot mechanic is that people do whatever chemicals tell them.
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 bunker-like basement by Kevin (McAvoy) - a man with an incredibly elaborate case of dissociative identity disorder - or more specifically, by two of his normally harmless alternate personas, who have staged an internal revolt to prepare for the arrival of an apocalyptic entity that they have dubbed "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 boring. He pulls out one ingenious camera move after another with the help of Michael Gioulakis, the cinematographer of 'It Follows'. Toying with audience perception, M. Night creates a stifling maze of limited perspectives, point-of-view and overhead shots, and rapid changes in visual focus.
Bruce Willis stars as a Philadelphia psychologist who, shortly after receiving an award for his work with children, is confronted in his home by a disturbed former patient (Donnie Wahlberg), who feels Willis failed him. A year later, he encounters a child (Haley Joel Osment) who reminds him of Wahlberg, a boy who eventually reveals he has some traffic with the supernatural. Though not without some genuinely frightening moments, 'The Sixth Sense' is less a horror film than a moody piece of magic realism. 29-year-old writer/director Shyamalan's approach, composed largely of Kubrickian extended takes, has a sense of purpose and an artful construction that respects both its story and its audience, allowing both to take their time sorting things out. It's a style that also brings out the best in its cast; Willis has rarely been better, and both Olivia Williams (as Willis' wife) and Toni Collette (as Osment's overworked, deeply concerned mother) turn in convincing performances. Also great (critically for the film) is Osment, who brings unrelenting gravity and an ability to convey sadness 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 contemporary films 'Fight Club' and 'Memento' and earlier prototype 'The Usual Suspects') spawn a wave of unreliable-narrator imitators.
Respectful shout-outs go to 'Wayward Pines' and 'Servant', which M. Night directed and executive produced. Both are underseen 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.