Alternate Title: The Work of M. Night Shyamalan, A Critical Examination in Five Minutes Or Less.
NOTE: This will not include anything Shyamalan did pre-Sixth Sense, because I haven’t seen any of that stuff. I’m only interested in the Shyamalan of myth, the Shyamalan we have come to know in the past decade, the one who — like a young Bruce Wayne in his study who looked up at a bat and gained instant career direction — looked up at the Raiders poster in his office and asked himself why he wasn’t making those kind of movies. That is the filmography I will be talking about here.
The Sixth Sense (1999) – Good, solid movie about faith and the after-life and how those intersect and overlap. Maybe even good enough to one day sit on a shelf alongside another one of the director’s inspirations, The Exorcist. Nothing much new I can write about it, because it’s been already covered to death by more thoughtful thinkers than I. But it does serve as an answer to the most vehement haters, the ones who, burned by his later films, have rechristened him F. Night Shyamalan:
Anybody wondering why they still allow this guy to make movies should re-watch The Sixth Sense. For the studios, it’s all about the money, which was huge. They’re no doubt optimistic that one day, this guy will do that again. (So am I, for the record.) But the movie itself does indeed hold up to revisiting. To prospective screenwriters like myself, I also recommend reading it in script form, if you can track that down, because it’s still just as affecting on the page. The truth is that Shyamalan’s filmmaking talent is very real. Every movie he has made since The Sixth Sense has contained varying degrees of that vast cinematic talent. Key word: “varying.” It’s why his filmography is so frustrating. He wouldn’t be so widely discussed if he wasn’t so capable.
Unbreakable (2000) – I loved this one when it was first released. Saw it twice theatrically and a couple more times on
Anyway, that’s why Shyamalan’s “deliberate” pacing falls so often flat. It also plays into the cardinal mistake Shyamalan likes to make of turning lighthearted subject matter, in this case superheroes, into a somber and ponderous suite of melancholy. But comic books themselves have been doing this for years, so Shyamalan can’t be entirely faulted there.
On an intellectual level, Unbreakable still works. It’s an interesting approach to the standard superhero/supervillain origin story. I just don’t want to rewatch it ever again, unless… You know what would solve all its problems? If the once-rumored sequel were to happen. Because as it stands now, Unbreakable feels like the longest first act ever (Fellowship had as many first acts as it did thirds). But I would definitely be curious as to what happens in the second Unbreakable movie if it ever happened. Especially since the second act is traditionally where the majority of the actual story happens…
Signs (2002) – This is where the storytelling problems start to rear up violently. Shyamalan’s technical skill is still crazy-impressive – every scene where those aliens appear (or don’t) is freaky and great. It’s the other stuff that just plain doesn’t add up in a coherent way, first and foremost that ending, and there’s been enough cyber-ink spilled on the subject for me to not bother to add to it. But the movie still made tons of money, and enough people still say they like it, which is precisely how one’s ego could keep spiraling out of control, prompting one to trip right into the next blunder…
The Village (2004) – Or as I call it affectionately: Cinematic blue-balls. There’s nothing wrong with the original premise – colonial village is surrounded on all sides by a thick forest and maintaining an uneasy truce with the horrible monsters who live there – in fact that’s a goddamn great premise! And the way those red-cloaked spiny creatures are set up is chilling. Even knowing how things turned out, I still get chills thinking of their first couple appearances in the movie, and trust me, I don’t scare easy at movies. The first half of The Village does the tough part and brings the fear.
So why completely subvert it for a corny twist ending? I’ll tell you how I figured out the twist after the first five minutes of the movie: “Okay, colonial village, bunch of musty old white people, how are they going to work in a role for the director, a modern-sounding East Indian guy, AHA! – it’s actually set in the present day!” And sure enough, there he was, and so it was. Sorry to ruin the movie, but you’d be a lot happier if you turned it off at the hour-mark anyway.
There’s a problem with this career.
The Lady In The Water (2006) – Massive folly. Near-unbelievable, but I didn’t see it alone, so I know for a fact it really happened. [To quote a great Patton Oswalt bit:] Man… I don’t know where to start or where to begin.
Reading Shyamalan print interviews is one of my guilty pleasures. I’m just fascinated by how someone so smart and talented can so often be so misguided. I may risk sounding like an asshole to say so, but I truly find it illuminating. For a while there, Shyamalan was fond of defending his work by questioning why so many people criticize him and not his movies. Seems to me that one way to avoid that is to take a break from casting yourself in your movies. Right? Kind of hard to separate the two when, in this case, you’re playing the pivotal role of the man who will write the book that will change the world, even though it will mean he will die a martyr. And you can’t be so naive as to think that notebook-toting, detail-oriented professional film critics won’t pick up on the fact that the only character to meet a gruesome death, in an entire movie about the act of storytelling itself, is the cranky film critic.
The same way that you can’t complain about the way that people are always trying to figure out the twist endings of your movies when you keep putting twist endings in your movies. Right?
I particularly liked how the title character spent very close to the entire running time curled up in the shower. That was exciting.
And Paul Giamatti had the speech impediment coming and going, and that Latino dude with the fucked-up arm… (Now I’m getting confused again.) The wolf made of grass was pretty cool though. (Was I high?)
The Happening (2008) – Okay. Okay.
It’s starting to become apparent that the director may no longer be interested in suspenseful stories about the supernatural, and has in fact now evolved into the maker of really, really weird comedies. If you go into The Happening in this spirit, you will not be disappointed. If you are looking for a creepy edge-of-the-seater, you surely will. Without giving anything important away (I want to leave the half-hearted yet still insane ultimate revelation to the bravest among you), here are some reasons why I enjoyed The Happening:
- For one thing, the reason why I stuck the word “Filbert” up there in the title, is on account of how it was revealed in the movie. The main characters are fleeing
on a railroad train, which inexplicably stops. Someone ducks their head away from the window, and the name of the town in which they are now stranded is revealed: Filbert. FILBERT! Duh-duh-duhhhhh! No, God, please, no, not… Filbert! Filbert! Dooooom! I don’t even care whether or not I’m the only one who laughed at that, because it’s still funny to me. Philadelphia
- I was NOT, however, the only one who laughed when the construction workers started walking off the building. Not just because I’m watching Rescue Me Season 4 on
DVDright now, and the point-of-view construction worker is played by Cornell Womack, the actor who I can never watch as anything but the mentally- and Tourette’s-challenged brother of Franco’s girlfriend. No, it’s mostly because the plummeting crazies are played by dummies. And if I learned anything from Saturday Night Live, it’s that dummies are the greatest of comedy props.
- I don’t know who in all of
I would cast as a science teacher and a math teacher, respectively, but Mark Wahlberg and John Leguizamo are not they. Likable and down-to-earth actors both, but far better casting for, say, the gym coach and the wisecracking AV teacher. They do their best, but the dialogue they are given does them no favors. Hollywood
- I swear a couple times Shyamalan cuts away from the action to a reaction shot of Zooey Deschanel and it looks like she’s trying to suppress a crack-up. Shyamalan may not have noticed, but I did…
- Intentional laughs are in the movie for sure, to the point where it’s almost confusing when it happens – stay tuned for the scene where Wahlberg tries to relate on a personal level to a plastic plant. Expertly written and played, and I’m not being sarcastic at all.
- Far and away Shyamalan’s best and most hilarious cameo in all of his movies to date happens in The Happening. If you end up going, please stay for the credits to see what role he played. It’s just got to be a joke. But one of those jokes that only the one making it gets; you know that kind.
The Lion Scene! Oh man, the lion scene. The lion scene is a horror-comedy classic of which an Evil Dead 2-era Sam Raimi would be chainsaw-wieldingly envious. Soon to be a YouTube staple, guaranteed.
A Special Bonus from the World Of Unintentional Laughter:
The trailer to Bangkok Dangerous played in front of both The Incredible Hulk and The Happening this weekend, and