(Warning, some spoilers for M. Night Shyamalan’s work)
After surviving some uncertainty as a filmmaker, with the release of Split and The Visit I think it’s safe to say M. Night Shyamalan is back as a premier storyteller in Hollywood. Or perhaps he was never really gone? Nah, he was gone. Back in the mid-2000s, I was known to compare M. Night’s career trajectory to Kevin Smith. Like M. Night, Smith released several films that made him a critical darling in Hollywood. He brought fresh ideas into established genres by doing things his way. But like Mr. Smith, Shyamalan took a hard turn into mediocrity and inconsistency and with every film he made thereafter. I think it’s an apt comparison, and I always found it odd, and perhaps it’s because of the genres they tend to fall into, that Kevin Smith didn’t get nearly as much shit for his subpar efforts than Night does. Anyway, this really isn’t about Kevin Smith and his downward spiral, this is about M. Night Shyamalan and my admittedly unabashed love for his work, but also how early success nearly wrecked his career.
Off the bat, I’ll go on record and say The Sixth Sense is the perfect thriller. It’s pacing is so masterfully done, its twists and turns, the performances, the resolutions. There is nothing wrong with The Sixth Sense, it’s perfectly made. You can fight me on that. Above everything else though, The Sixth Sense was a hell of an introduction for a writer/director without much else under his belt at the time. In fact, it was such a big deal, I believe it was the first thriller to ever make over $600,000,000 worldwide. And this was mostly through word of mouth. To call The Sixth Sense a cultural touchstone is the mildest of understatements. Don’t believe me? Say the words “I see dead people” to anyone above 17 and they either know what movie it’s from or at the very least heard it referenced in other pop culture corners of the world. “I see dead people” was a meme before memes were a thing.
As perfect as The Sixth Sense was, his next film, in my opinion was even better. While obviously not horror (but sort of, if you consider a man who terrorizes the world by creating catastrophic events, killing hundreds of people all in the name of finding the one person he can relate to horrific.) Unbreakable was a landmark film but only for a subset of movie buffs. A cult film if there ever was one, Unbreakable made the idea of being a superhero as real as we’ve ever seen in a film. We’ll move on from Unbreakable because again, some people may not consider it horror, I just wanted to make sure it’s mentioned because it’s just so damn good.
Next up is a favorite of mine. In my humble opinion, of M. Night’s early work, it doesn’t get better than Signs. If you’ve read this far and saw me gush about The Sixth Sense, and then Unbreakable, understand in the classic desert island question, I’d pick Signs each and every time over the other two films. While it lacks the perfection of The Sixth Sense, or the realization of Unbreakable, Signs is, in my opinions M. Night’s best work. I know it’s not for everybody, and over time people have looked back at the film and had some not-so-nice things to say about it but are you telling me you don’t jump out of your seat each and every time that alien comes out of the bushes during that kid’s birthday party? You’re a stinkin’ liar. My favorite kinds of stories are the one that put ordinary people in extraordinary situations to see how their worldview changes and Signs is filled with moments and sequences that show real human beings reacting to a forever changed world. Special shout out to Joaquin Phoenix who is criminally underrated, underused, and played a brother-in-law in over his head dealing with a sober Mel Gibson to perfection.
After this trifecta of masterful filmmaking people that follow this sort of thing could see there was something different about M. Night Shyamalan’s following work. His next few films weren’t junk but they were nowhere near what he’d accomplished beforehand. Films like The Village, a terribly underrated gem didn’t have the same depth and audiences were trained at this point to watch for the inevitable Shyamalan twist which turns out, is a really terrible way to enjoy a movie. Things went further downhill with Lady in the Water which was also better than people said it was but was even more lacking than The Village before it. I remember beginning to worry that M. Night was searching for the formula of his previous work and what was manifesting were these forced ideas of what he thought others wanted out of him. The culmination of his mediocrity became the poorly named The Happening which executed terribly on ideas that should never have left the storyboarding process in the first place. The only thing that saves The Happening is pretending it’s a fever dream put on by a pollen build up in Mark Wahlberg’s body (Also, stop making Mark Wahlberg play smart characters, I love you Marky Mark but it doesn’t work. Please. Stop.)
After the clunker that was The Happening it was pretty clear that M. Night Shyamalan was in trouble and becoming the butt of many jokes (it’s at this point in my life where I began to see the similarities to Kevin Smith’s career). As important as M. Night’s earlier work was to me, I held to the belief deep down inside that he was still a skilled storyteller, but a combination of his own early success, along with becoming obsessed with the spectacle of Hollywood filmmaking was tanking his career. Movies like The Last Airbender and After Earth didn’t help, and if it wasn’t for his writing credit on Devil I would have told you he completely lost it. But with Devil, which was advertised in such a bizarre way, PR teams must have been mandated not to utter his name during the marketing push because only people like us, who obsess over movies knew he was the writer behind it. And Devil was pretty damn good. It wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t particularly scary but its premise (which M. Night gets credit for) is top notch, and most importantly it was a human story (mostly). We didn’t have mermaids or airbenders to worry about, we got a concept in its purest form, and that concept turned out to be creepy as fuck.
So Devil gave me hope, it reminded me of the old M. Night that changed my life. But it wasn’t until The Visit when M. Night Shyamalan teamed up with Blumhouse where I finally saw the filmmaker I knew he could be begin to emerge. I wasn’t writing for Modern Horrors when The Visit came out, but I’ve told the guys on a number of occasions, if I got a vote for my favorite horror movie of the year in 2015 it would have been for The Visit. If you remember we got some great horror movies in 2015, Spring, Last Shift, Let Us Prey, Goodnight Mommy, It Follows. And while I enjoyed all of those to varying degrees (especially It Follows which is still my soundtrack of choice when writing) nothing made my heart drop like The Visit did. M. Night showed us once again that he understands humans and that horror doesn’t have to be otherworldly to be terrifying. Sure there is often a touch of supernatural in his films and while The Visit does its own thing it still manages to put ordinary people in a pretty extraordinary situation and as he doles out the drama drop by drop, the entire time he’s actually setting us up for something so human and horrifying that it left me shell shocked well after the credits rolled.
This all brings me to Split. I came away from watching Split very impressed for a multitude of reasons. Not the least of which is the lack of M. Night Shyamalan in it. Early in his career, anybody that studied his films long enough could always tell from the pacing, from the camera movements, the dialog choices, an M. Night film feels like an M. Night film, and there were both good and bad aspects to that. At his worst simple dialog exchanges could be described as laborious. And his very strict adherence to camera angles and drawn out shots teetering on the edge of pompous (for the worst examples of this watch Unbreakable and look from symmetry. Hey, I’m not complaining, I love how he made those films but I’m just keeping it real, not everything I like is good or competent.) So to watch Split after experiencing all the ups and downs of M. Night’s career is almost cathartic. Here we have an obviously skilled storyteller that felt like he was purposefully keeping himself in a box of his own making, simply to pacify an audience that holds his previous work in such high regard, finally allowing for his actors to take the spotlight, finally allowing for his story arcs to come naturally, and finally, as they say, allowing for the film to speak for itself.
Nothing is more evident of the transformation of M. Night as a filmmaker than seeing James McAvoy greedily chew up scenery as all his split personalities come in and out of the light. The M. Night of old would have stifled the performance for the sake of pacing, and as a result, a very different film would have emerged but perhaps a few critical flops have changed Mr. Shyamalan and he no longer needs to have that vice grip on his scenes that he once had. He’s understanding that a film is sometimes only as good as its casting and that there are aspects he should leave to the experts, so to speak.
Split is perhaps best described as a thriller, but throughout the film there is something terrifying about McAvoy’s performance as the horde of personas he projects. Also, I don’t want to forget Anya Taylor-Joy who is fantastic as a character that is always looking to play the long game in terms of survival. The glimpses we get of her past that make up her personality traits were so well done. It was also strange to see Taylor-Joy in modern times, as the last time I saw her was in the excellent The Witch, so I saw her in Split and for a moment thought M. Night time traveled during his casting call. The moments of understanding in Anya Taylor-Joy’s eyes in certain scenes, where she is actively figuring out who she’s dealing with, who she’s fighting against, and who she’s trying to beguile are moments of movie magic and are such huge parts of what makes Split so satisfying to me. This isn’t an alien invasion we’re dealing with, it’s decidedly human (even if perhaps there are outside forces at work here.).
So while I can sit here and lament losing that feel of an M.Night film, I rather celebrate the fact that he seems to be embracing the collaborative side of filmmaking while still retaining what make his work so special. M. Night understands what makes humans tick, he understands what amazes them, and what terrifies them. He understands those human moments that make his characters so gripping in the first place. And now it seems like he finally understands what propelled his career into the spotlight wasn’t the mere words “I see dead people” it was a child clutching his bed sheet, breathlessly telling a dead man he knew who he was.