Arch-villain: The Career of M. Night Shyamalan

a1Enough jokes have been made about Newsweek’s cover story on M. Night Shyamalan that new ones are unnecessary; the old ones do not bear repeating. The image of M. Night Shyamalan posing in a cornfield, the set of his at-the-time newest film “Signs,” will last forever, and, in big blocky type, the statement, “The Next Spielberg,” has become almost tragic. It was perhaps less than fair to put such high expectations on an artist who at the time had only two major releases with a third on the way. Nevertheless, it’s almost shocking how he went from “Unbreakable” and “The Sixth Sense” to essentially being a director-for-hire in Jaden Smith’s 2012 star vehicle “After Earth.” His has been a fall so steep, so unbelievable, that it seems too outlandish, too melodramatic to be possible. It’s as if he forgot how to make movies.

Yet here we are, another M. Night film set to release in just a few days. Unlike “After Earth,” which did everything in its power to avoid associating itself with its director, trailers for “The Visit” advertise Shyamalan as “the director of THE SIXTH SENSE, UNBREAKABLE, SIGNS.” It would be all too easy to write about the five titles that came after these, and rip to shreds the filmmaker he has become. Instead, lets focus on those first three, a series of films that nearly justified the hype, that almost proved his label as “the next Spielberg” and made that infamous magazine cover prophetic rather than a sad, unfunny joke.

Shyamalan is not a director of horror. There is no masked man come to kill everyone with a cleaver. The characters don’t flee to the end of an alley or a car that won’t start or the corner of a dark room from which no one can hear you call for help. There is little to no blood or guts or gore to speak of. He’s actually a subtler filmmaker than anyone gives him credit for these days (not that he isn’t to blame in recent years).

The early films of M. Night Shyamalan deal with ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Cole Sear is a normal child who can see dead people. David Dunn is a security guard capable of feats of enormous strength and invincibility. Graham Hess regains his faith in God by protecting his children from an alien invasion. At his best, Shyamalan created interesting, sympathetic characters whose internal crises manifest themselves in external disasters. His movies were crafted with a motive; angles, lenses, lighting seemed purposeful, significant. They felt inspired, stories he wanted to tell and universes he wanted to explore. It’s become a well-known piece of movie trivia that it took seven drafts of “The Sixth Sense” for Shyamalan to think of the movie’s signature twist. The final draft of “Unbreakable” was the first act of an original, three-act screenplay; Shyamalan said in an interview that it was the only part of the script he was truly attached to.

And what a first act it is. “Unbreakable” has become lost in a sea of superhero movies, a genre it took seriously and helped to create and mold into a legitimate form of entertainment and art. While the 1989 “Batman” was certainly more somber and grounded than its cinematic predecessors, it is still a comic book movie, and is therefore restricted by the somewhat cheesy nature of its source material. But “Unbreakable” is an uncommon breed, an original movie about an original superhero. It contains no cartoonish villain, no “ka-pow” effects. In fact, there’s almost no action to be found. It’s a coming-to-terms movie, a movie more concerned with its subject than having its subject rescue people from a burning building. When taken as an opening act expanded into a feature, it’s nearly flawless.

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One thing this movie executes so well that Shyamalan’s more recent ones fail to capture is that raw fear of the unknown. David Dunn and Elijah Price, Cole Sear, Graham Hess: for most of their respective films, they are scared. By the ends of their stories, each one has come to terms with what they are and aren’t. Cole is not a freak; he’s a child. David is not a loser; he’s a hero. Elijah is not a mistake; he’s the opposition. Graham is not a farmer; he’s man of faith and strength. When Elijah whispers to himself, “They called me Mr. Glass,” it’s a moment of such catharsis that one feels as if he has let out a long held-in breath. And it’s so simple: he is Mr. Glass.

I cannot name a moment in “The Happening” that captures such a feeling of acceptance, that captures any feeling other than amusement. Shyamalan’s best stories continued without us yet made us wish there was more. I have no want to see Mark Wahlberg run away from wind ever again. The worst part of “Unbreakable” is that we have to abandon it so quickly.

But do we want the conclusion; for that matter, do we want a second act either? Do we want M. Night Shyamalan to pick up this story again? “Unbreakable” is tucked neatly and safely into our memories, and that Shyamalan might pluck it away and mess with it is both intriguing and frightening.

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At the end of “Unbreakable,” Elijah Price tells David Dunn, “In a comic, you know how you can tell who the arch-villain is going to be? He’s the exact opposite of the hero.” M. Night Shyamalan in 2015 is like the opposite of the same person in 2002. I do not know what circumstances led him to direct “After Earth,” a film that, by all accounts, was Will Smith’s project through and through. Why Shyamalan failed so miserably to adapt “The Last Airbender,” going so far as to change the pronunciations of important characters’ names, is baffling to me. No one will ever know whether or not the comedy in “The Happening” was intentional. I know only this: that Shyamalan was once a talented, intelligent filmmaker. Is he capable of returning to his great works? Probably. Is making a found footage horror-comedy the way to do it? Probably not.

See “The Visit” in theaters September 11th

 Written by Lucas Dispoto

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