Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Director Retrospective: M. Night Shyamalan Part 1

Man, I've been posting a lot lately, haven't I? Huh.

M. Night Shyamalan is an interesting case, when it comes to directing careers. He’s hardly the first auter director to stumble into mainstream success and be unable to cope (he has George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppla for company there). But the speed with which it happened and the degree to which it’s affected him are quite unique. So, with this particular director retrospective, I’m going to try and discover what went wrong, and figure out if Shyamalan can be saved.

NOTE: For the purposes of this retrospective, Praying With Anger and Wide Awake are being ignored. Partially because they’re not exceptionally relevant to his modern career, and partially because they are just fucking impossible to find.

The Sixth Sense

This was the first movie that really brought Shyamalan to national attention and watching it again, it’s kind of interesting to see how poorly it’s aged. It’s still a well made and direct movie, probably one of the better movies in the oft-maligned ghost story genre but…I’m sorry, 2 decades of ‘I see dead people’ and knowing the twist ending, have not been kind to this movie.

Most of the movie’s remaining punch lies with Bruce Willis, as he is working his ass off to keep this movie interesting and engaging. It’s an interesting performance, but compared to his darker turn in 12 Monkeys or his more recent quietly tragic performance in Moonrise Kingdom, it’s not his best work. And while Hailey Joel Osment is good in this, more recent advancements in the field of younger actors (Moonrise Kingdom, True Grit, Beasts of the Southern Wild) mean that his performance seems a lot weaker.

I think a lot, and I do mean a lot, of this movie’s fame came from the almost head-slappingly dopey twist ending. I don’t mean to be cruel, most twist endings are dopey, but this one sort of stands out.  I think knowing the ending both adds something to the movie (in that you can recognize all the details that were alluding to it) and removes something (you can see all the minor failings in the movie’s internal logic), so I guess it all evens out? I dunno, taken strictly on it’s own merits, it’s a well made thriller and quite enjoyable when you’re in the mood, and a great way to introduce Shyamalan to the world. If only it could have stayed so good…


Unbreakable is today considered Shyamalan’s best film by a lot of people, and I find it hard to disagree. It’s got great direction, the most unique look of any of his films, a fantastic pair of performances from Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, a killer setup, and solid execution. It really has only one flaw: the goddamn twist ending.

And no, I don’t mean the twist ending is contrived, or poorly done or just plain stupid, like a lot of his later movies. I mean the twisting ending, should not have been a twist ending., it should have been at the end of the second act, as opposed to the end of the movie in general. That way we get an exciting third act, instead of an irritating anti-climax and a cliffhanger that is, a full decade later, yet to be resolved.

Still, the movie itself is still really good, in my opinion the best Shyamalan has ever done. It’s certainly aged better than The Sixth Sense and it’s certainly better than… what comes after. But I’m getting ahead of myself.


What you’re about to learn is that Shyamalan’s bad movies are more fun to talk about than his good ones. Fact of life.

Signs is a divisive movie. Some people consider it the last hurrah of Shyamalan’s good movies, some consider the beginning of the end. I’m…mixed, leaning the latter though. It’s got some good moments, some well put together scares and some okay writing. It reminds me of nothing so much as Steven Spielberg’s War of Worlds, in that they’re both alien invasion stories about a single family, that work pretty well for the first 2/3rds or so, and then falls completely apart (seriously, War of Worlds is pretty damn good until Tom Cruise kills the guy in the basement, then it more or less completely falls apart). The different is, Spielberg is a better director and Signs already had issues going into that last third. No, not even last third. Like, the last 20 minutes is when Signs fall apart.

The good parts are obvious on the outset, and are actually put together in such a way as they seemed designed to hide the bad parts. The movie is mostly well paced, it’s got some good tense sequences and it can actually be quite engaging when you’re watching it. It’s only when you finish watching it that you start to realize

Strike 1 is the occasionally off direction. It’s hard to even elaborate, but it seems to be spending a lot of time overthinking itself, to the point where it undercuts the tension. Strike 2 is the writing. It’s not bad persay, but it’s really loose. Lots of scenes don’t really go anywhere, there are entire characters who are completely superfluous and the less said about some of the go-nowhere dialogue, the better. Next up is the acting, which is really…weird in certain scenes. A lot of the characters don’t seem to act like real people…except they seem to be being directed to act that way, so maybe that’s the point? I can’t imagine why but maybe? I dunno, Foul Ball.

I’ll tell you what is Strike 3, and that is, yes, the MASSIVE set of plot holes the movie writes for itself come act 3. I won’t spoil them for you, but they’ve been raked over the coals a thousand times, so it’s hardly necessary. The plot holes in this movie are continue to be a punchline about this movie for a decade now, and is probably the best remembered thing about it.

Despite it’s…let’s call them ‘serious issues’ Signs was a major financial success, and while its current critical analysis has definitely trended negative, it’s initial critical response was largely positive. If only things had remained that way…

The Village

A lot of people like Signs, both then and now. The same cannot be said for The Village, and the reason why is not hard to gauge: It’s awful. But it’s also a good study case for something I’ve realized about most (not all) of Shyamalan’s lesser movies; They’re not bad all the way through.

The Village, for example, has a solid premise and a killer setup. The movie is actually moving along rather nicely until the scene where the blind chick and…holy shit, is that Joaquin Phoenix? Huh, guess that really was a dark time for him. Anyway, it isn’t until the point where the blind chick and Joaquin are on the porch professing their love for each other, that you realize the direction this movie is planning to take; it wants to be a love story.

That could have been acceptable (in theory at least, the writing kind of sinks it) but then the twists come in. The first twist takes the rug out from the entire movie (and not in a good way, like the last shot of The Shining) and makes it impossible for you to ever take it seriously again. The second twist is not only incredibly stupid, but it causes you to realize that the entire fucking movie was actually leading in to this twist, and that’s around the point where you stop being disappointed and start being angry.

There are other issues with the movie. It’s poorly written at points and the direction starts to fall apart in the third act, but those two twists are really what kill the movie. The movie had distinctly lower returns than Shyamalan’s previous film, but it still made money and people were more than willing to dismiss it as a fluke. What wound up happening next, I don’t think anyone could predict. And I’ll talk about that next time.

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