M. Night Shyamalan represents both the achievement and the failure of artist-driven commercial filmmaking. He’s one of the most talented filmmakers of his generation, with an uncanny knack for composition and for building suspense through his manipulation of space on camera and off. He’s a classical filmmaker, consciously aping the style of great golden age directors like Alfred Hitchcock and playing with the conventions of various genres. He’s not an arthouse director, but neither is he a journeyman Hollywood pro. Each film he makes bears his unique artistic stamp. And herein lies his weakness. For while Shyamalan may be one of Hollywood’s most naturally talented filmmakers, he’s also prone to overestimating himself. He’s made some of recent Hollywood’s best films, but also some of its worst. He’s a fascinating director, an intersection of modern Hollywood’s strengths and weaknesses.
M. Night Shyamalan was born in India in 1970, but was raised in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania, as his parents had already immigrated to the United States before his birth. (He was only born in India because his mother returned home for the final months of her pregnancy.) Shyamalan loved movies from a young age and would often made short films himself after his parents purchased him a Super 8 camera. Although his father wanted him to pursue medicine, his mother encouraged him to follow his passion for filmmaking. With her blessing he attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, studying filmmaking and graduating in 1992.
Shyamalan made his first feature while still a student at NYU. Praying with Anger (1992) stars Shyamalan as a young man who returns to India on a college exchange program to explore his family roots and finds his American identity and western outlook at odds with his Indian heritage. The film went mostly unnoticed, playing the festival circuit and never receiving a wide release. Shyamalan’s follow-up Wide Awake (1998), about a young boy struggling with questions of life and death after his grandfather’s passing, would fare little better. Although filmed in 1995, the film never saw wide release until 1998, where it failed to make back even a tenth of its production budget.
It’s a wonder, then, that Shyamalan was able to make another film. It’s a good thing he did, however, as that film turned out to be The Sixth Sense, which made him a household name and became a pop-culture sensation. The story of Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a troubled young boy with a supernatural ability to see ghosts, and Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), the equally troubled psychiatrist that helps him work out his issues, The Sixth Sense is one of the best supernatural dramas ever made. The film wows with its final twist, legitimizing a trend that grew ever popular in the mid-to-late 1990s in films like The Usual Suspects, Primal Fear, and Fight Club, and terrifies viewers with its moments of ghostly visions. It’s also a profoundly moving film. It became a late-90s sensation because of its twist and its scares, but it’s the film’s emotional content that gives it its lasting power.
Shyamalan’s technical prowess and profound humanism are on display throughout The Sixth Sense. His composition lends the film much of its formal power. For example, he often frames shots through doorways, the camera creeping towards characters sitting on beds or engaged in activity, unaware of the ghostly movement near them until they cannot avoid it. This technique alerts the viewer to something the character is unaware of, which creates suspense, while also forcing the viewer’s perspective to align with the camera’s, making the viewer appear to be whatever is the cause of such terror, implicating the viewer, and thus investing him or her in the action. It’s a deceptively complicated technique. Roman Polanski famously uses similar techniques in Rosemary’s Baby, the film that The Sixth Sense probably bears the most resemblance to formally and thematically.
Shyamalan is extremely restrained in The Sixth Sense. It’s shocking how long it takes him to reveal the reality of Cole’s troubles, or to actually show any of the ghosts. Most viewers of The Sixth Sense will remember the sinister images of three corpses hanging from the rafters of Cole’s school, or the little ghost girl with the vomit-stained nighty. However, neither of these images hold a candle to the terror Shyamalan mines from the ghost in the closet, one of the ghosts he never reveals to the viewer. In the film, Cole attends a birthday party of another boy at school. While he’s sulking by himself, Cole notices noises coming from the top of a winding staircase and goes to investigate. When he gets to the top, the birthday boy and his friend meet Cole, and lock him inside the closet that is the source of the noises. Cole is terrified and so is the viewer as he or she knows the wailing voice was emanating from the closet Cole is plunged into.
As the door is locked and the boys return down the stairs, Shyamalan cuts to Cole’s mother (Toni Collette) talking with the other mothers. She wonders where Cole is and goes to find him. When she gets to the bottom of the stairs, she hears Cole’s faint cries emanating from above, and rushes to help him. After she finds the closet and gets help prying open the door, she pulls out Cole, traumatized and bruised along his back. It’s one of the scariest moments in the film because Shyamalan leaves it to the viewer’s own imagination to fill in blanks of what happens to Cole in the closet. Shyamalan understands that often the greatest images of terror pale in comparison to the frightening images the human mind can conjure, so here he uses suggestion (the bruises) and sound (the cries for help and James Newton Howard’s score) to instigate the viewer’s terror instead of explicating the moment.
Shyamalan’s savvy instincts lend into the film’s dramatic moments as well. While the numerous moments of ghostly apparitions are certainly memorable, no scene in the film holds the emotional power of Cole finally revealing to his mother that he can see ghosts. It’s the film’s penultimate scene and although it’s followed by the scene revealing the ultimate twist about Bruce Willis’s character, the image of Cole crying in the car as he tells his mom the reality of his fears remains just as memorable as anything that comes after. Shyamalan coaxes one of the great child performances out of Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, which is best exemplified in this moment. If nothing else, The Sixth Sense is a testament to his gift for working with actors. The Sixth Sense was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, and racked up almost 300 million dollars at the domestic box office. If Shyamalan had never made another film, his name still would have gone down in film history.
Shyamalan’s follow-up is an equally ambitious film but of a very different nature. Unbreakable (2000) tells the story of a mild-mannered security guard (Bruce Willis) who miraculously survives a trainwreck without suffering any wounds. As the guard investigates the reason for his survival, he discovers that he is essentially a superhero, gifted with extraordinary powers and stamina. Unbreakable is Shyamalan tackling the realistic superhero genre before it became vogue to do so. Like most of Shyamalan’s films, it’s technically and narratively precise, building to another climax that reveals a twist that recontextualizes the entire film. Unbreakable was another commercial success, cementing Shyamalan’s growing reputation in Hollywood.
After Unbreakable, Shyamalan was rumoured to direct Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, but a deal was never finalized. Instead he made Signs (2002), an atmospheric thriller about aliens invading the Earth and besetting a troubled farmer family in rural Pennsylvania. It starred Mel Gibson in his last Hollywood A-list role and is likely Shyamalan’s best film. For one thing, Signs shows his increasing formal mastery. Every shot in the film is gorgeously framed and calculated exactly so as to maximize tension. Separate scenes involving a chase through a cornfield and the hero using a kitchen knife to reflect underneath a pantry door are masterworks in suspense. As well, the split-second image of a shadowy figure watching the family from atop a neighbouring barn is enough to send chills down the viewer’s spine years after viewing. Signs also shows Shyamalan fully exploiting genre conventions. Simple horror staples like a dark staircase descending into a basement and movement glimpsed through the gap underneath a door are exploited throughout. Shyamalan’s again displays his uncanny knack for auditory storytelling, using sound to convey much of the film’s horror, especially in the final act when the characters are barricaded inside their house. Often, a creak of upstairs floorboards or the breaking of a piece of glass is enough to terrify the viewer.
Signs also displays his increasing thematic risk-taking. The film contains another twist—by this time a Shyamalan staple—one that unravels some of the previous logic of the narrative while clarifying its thematic obsessions. It confirms that Shyamalan is not a filmmaker interested in “realism,” nor one overly concerned about internal logic. Like Hitchcock, he scoffs at notions of plausibility in film. Instead, he crafts his films to make overwhelming thematic statements, that are often epitomized by his twist. In Signs, he is arguing for the redemptive power of faith. Signs also clarifies that Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1959) must be one of the greatest influences on Shyamalan. His films share that TV series’ focus on the uncanny and supernatural, while also sharing its predisposition to favour thematic impact over narrative coherence. Signs was another smash success for Shyamalan, making over 200 million dollars at the domestic box office.
The combined successes of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs made Shyamalan one of the most powerful filmmakers in Hollywood. However, his next film, The Village (2004), was the last time he could exercise this power. It’s the turning point in his career, and the last good movie he made. The Village follows a secluded late-19th century village in rural Pennsylvania dominated by a board of elders that keep people from leaving the village so as not to upset the monsters that haunt its borders. It plays like a feature-length episode of The Twilight Zone, exploring strict social structures within an uncanny environment. It’s a gorgeous film, greatly aided by the cinematography of Roger Deakins. Shyamalan’s compositions are never more restrained than in The Village. He rarely uses shot reverse-shot, instead allowing conversations to play out in meticulously framed wide shots for minutes at a time. The film contains many horror elements, but mostly as a means to provide atmosphere and shore up the strangeness of the village. Again, Shyamalan is most concerned with the film’s thematic implications.
The Village is another Shyamalan film dominated by a final twist that redefines the rules of the storyworld, but it’s equally memorable for its narrative shifts along the way. For example, the first half of the film follows Joaquin Phoenix’s quiet Lucius Hunt as he tries to convince the elders to allow him to venture through the woods to a nearby town. However, halfway through the film, the narrative pivots, sidelining Phoenix’s character and following Bryce Dallas Howard’s blind Ivy Walker for the rest of the runtime. It’s a bold shift, but one that clarifies a lot of what Shyamalan is trying to achieve by keeping the viewer off-balance. The Village would be the last time Shyamalan could get away with such narrative trickery, however. The film was a commercial success but it received mixed reviews from critics, most of whom were disappointed that he again relies on twists to fuel his narrative.
The critical reaction to The Village changed Shyamalan. He initially intended an adaptation of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi to be his follow-up, but he didn’t want his known predilection for twists to affect a viewer’s expectations for the film’s narrative, so he abandoned the film. His eventual follow-up, The Lady in the Water (2006), is a clear reaction to the criticisms that bristled his ego after the release of The Village. The fairy tale inspired film follows the residents of an apartment complex as they discover a wood nymph (Bryce Dallas Howard) in their shared swimming pool and rally to defend her against the supernatural forces seeking to do her harm.
The film is a shallow ode to Shyamalan perceptions of his own artistic greatness. Within the mythology of the film, the nymph needs to protect one resident of the building who will author a book that will inspire a future president and profoundly change the world. In a decision of pure egotism, Shyamalan plays this author character. There’s no way to interpret this decision other than to determine that Shyamalan thinks he himself is capable of such profound inspiration. The Lady in the Water is a great piss-off to critics—he even viciously kills off a critic character in the story—but a muddled mistake of a film. It’s an example of a filmmaker allowing his own ego to co-opt his storytelling abilities. The film predictably did poorly critically and commercially. It sounded the death knell for Shyamalan’s once-amazing film career.
Shyamalan has only made artistic flops since The Lady in the Water. In 2008 he made The Happening, his worst film, starring Mark Wahlberg as a science teacher struggling to stay alive during a worldwide ailment that makes people commit suicide in brutal aways. The Happening is an example of Shyamalan using his formidable formal skills to ludicrous ends. One scene has Wahlberg and his companions watch a man who has become affected by the mysterious ailment throw himself in front of a lawnmower and be turned into jelly. Another scene follows a series of people committing suicide on a city street, the camera following a handgun as it is picked up by an individual as he shoot him or herself in the head, dropped to the ground, and then picked up by another individual to do the same. These should be terrifying images and nifty displays of technique, but their context is so ludicrous, they become unintentionally funny. When the film’s final twist reveals that the ailment is a result of our environmental mishandling of the planet, The Happening has successfully turned Shyamalan into a parody of himself. While his films used to terrify us, they now make us burst into scornful laughter.
After The Happening Shyamalan made The Last Airbender (2010), a misguided adaptation of the popular Nickelodeon anime series, Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005). While the film is not as dreadful as critics condemned it of being, it’s a poorly-cast and visually-dull fantasy epic. In 2013 he directed the Will Smith vanity project, After Earth, starring Smith’s son, Jaden, as a futuristic warrior crash-landed on a hostile future Earth. The film is a serviceable science fiction adventure, but it lacks any personality. Notably, it’s the first film Shyamalan has directed that he didn’t write.
It remains to be seen whether M. Night Shyamalan’s artistic neutering is a good or bad thing. While his downfall is largely attributable to his artistic overconfidence, it’s also a depressing second act for someone who was one of Hollywood’s most talented filmmakers. Shyamalan has the low-budget horror comedy The Visit (2015) coming out later this year, so it remains to be seen whether his public humbling has allowed him to recapture some of his prior magic. Regardless, Shyamalan remains a fascinating director. When his ego is in check and his attention squarely focused on the filmmaking, he is capable of great works of art. But when he allows spite and ego to determine his work, he’s merely a stylish parodist. His work is a great example of the polarizing nature of Hollywood film.