Anatomy of a Career: M. Night Shyamalan

M. Night Shyamalan (and no, I’m never not going to second-guess the spelling of his name) is a really interesting director, not necessarily for his movies, but because his name has become shorthand: shorthand for deliberately mind-bending twists, sure, but shorthand for an ignominious crash out of critical good graces and audience interest, too.

His problems began after his mainstream breakthrough at the turn of the century with 1999’s The Sixth Sense (following two previous movies, Praying with Anger and Wide Awake) that met with a collective shrug and a critical yawn), because it was too damn good to follow – the twist was well-seeded, the ideas were well-developed, the performances and characters well-cultivated. After a film as brilliant as The Sixth Sense – one of the only horror films to earn Academy Awards nominations across multiple categories – what came next almost had to be a drop-off.

And I think that the only thing we can debate here is when exactly that drop-off started, because I don’t think anyone would argue that Shyamlan’s ouevre is untouched by garbage: the well-recieved Unbreakable followed The Sixth Sense, to muted but positive reviews, and from then on in it was a downward slide towards true mediocrity. Aside from the brief and notable uptick of Signs (who amongst my generation didn’t beg to see that on VHS, and then scare themselves shitless over that bit with the alien in the chimney?), the 2000s were varying colours of bad news for Shyamalan. The critical and commercial success of his previous work allowed him space to work out all his weirdest ideas, for better or for worse. The Village was ambitious but ultimately flat and Lady in the Water was almost roundly – and rightly – ignored, aside from some criticism about Shyamalan casting himself as an artistic prophet destined to save the world.

Over his next trio of movies, Shyamalan would define himself as the king of the flailing, pretentious dead end, with the notoriously terrible The Happening  (what was more egregious: casting Mark Wahlberg as the lead, or having plants as the villains? Answers on a postcard to hell) and After Earth seeming masterpieces next to his catastrophic, disaster-plagued adaptation of The Last Airbender. By 2013, Shyamalan had almost a straight decade of films that were questionable at best and outright legendarily bad at worst behind him. The nuanced looks at death, loss, and mortality that populated his earlier movies were replaced by broad, boring blockbuster strokes, and accusations of attempts to promote a Scientological agenda.

So, where do you go when your career has become a shorthand for a world-renowned drop-off in quality? For Shyamalan, the obvious answer was to return to what people had actually liked early in his career: 2013’s The Visit was a simple family-driven horror, led by a couple of excellent performances from child actors, with a well-structured twist and some solid scares into the bargain. Nobody was paying attention to Shyamalan’s work by the time it came out – and for good reason – so it basically slid under the radar, despite favourable and visibly surprised critical reviews (including my own). But it wasn’t until 2016’s Split that the director really came crashing back through into mainstream cinematic consciousness.

Featuring James McAvoy as a man who was occupied by the personalities of a dozen different people, Split was a film carefully cultivated to buy into the good graces of people who had long-since gone off M Night Shyamalan. Aside from the compelling premise (which did, rightly, receive criticism from people dealing with the mental health issues that McAvoy’s character is identified as having), Split is just a great little pulpy B-movie – up-and-comer Anya-Taylor Joy (then fresh off leading the critically acclaimed The Witch) and James McAvoy put in great performances, and the inherent ridiculousness of the story lets Shyamalan have his fun and indulge his more wild impulses without tagging on a ridiculous twist out of a sense of necessity.

Well, almost. Because Split does feature a twist: the last moments of the movie feature Bruce Willis’ character from Unbreakable, tying Split into the previous movie and announcing the imminent arrival of a third movie to round out what was deemed the Eastrail 177 trilogy. And that third movie comes this week, in the form of Glass, starring Samuel L Jackson, Bruce Willis, and James McAvoy repirising roles from their previous movies, along with Sarah Paulson as the woman trying to fix their various superheroic complaints.

And of course, of course, of course, it has been reviewed terribly so far. We’ll be reviewing it later this week, when it comes out in the UK, but until then, it seems fair to say that the arrival of Glass is a reminder that Shyamalan’s career functions in enormous peaks and troughs. He’s a director of wild, huge, never-before-seen ideas, and often that’s because his ideas are so fundamentally fucking stupid that nobody else in their right mind would want to go near them.

But it’s also what keeps a lot of people, including me, coming back to his movies: because there’s always the tantalising promise that he’s going to find that odd, alchemic mix again, the one that feels right, the one that finds the balance between his enormous ideas and the themes and humanity that ground them. For every time he succeeds, there are three more times that he fails – but when he gets it right, he gets it right. His biggest twist is always the reminder that he’s actually a good filmmaker somewhere under all of that mess, under all of the sad Will Smith memes and plant-villains and self-aggrandising casting.And that’s what keeps me, and so much of the movie-going public, coming back to his films: the hope that maybe, just maybe, this will be the one to make it all worthwhile once more.

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By Louise MacGregor

(header image via Letterboxd)

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