Lost spirit: M. Night Shyamalan

These are disheartening times for the wunderkind behind The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Can the former golden boy ever recover his magic, asks Joseph Bevan?

Joseph Bevan
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Once were legends: Jaden Smith in After Earth (2013)

Once were legends: Jaden Smith in After Earth (2013)

After Earth, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest credit as director and (co-)writer, has emerged to predictable sneers about the writer-director’s career arc and frequently bilious invective from on- and offline critics. This isn’t wholly unjustified: it’s his weakest film to date and – perhaps not coincidentally – one over which he has exerted relatively little creative control (it’s based on an idea by its producer and star, Will Smith). The film finds Shyamalan hiding in plain sight, burying his idiosyncrasies in atypically characterless work. Yet ever since he followed up his 1999 sleeper hit The Sixth Sense with the austere superhero movie Unbreakable (2000), he has been a marked man, a divisive auteur at work within the mainstream, at once enormously successful and on the brink of failure, under constant attack.

Born in India and raised in and around Philadelphia, the son of Hindu doctors, the young Shyamalan saw Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark as a child and unequivocally set his sights on a directorial career. “Some people fall into directing,” he has said. “I don’t want to watch movies by those people.”

After attending Catholic school and making countless Super 8 films, he attended NYU’s film school and made two features – the second of which, Wide Awake (1998), explored questions of mortality and belief from the perspective of a child. After this worthy if inauspicious beginning he directed The Sixth Sense, a melancholy melding of horror (The Exorcist loomed large) and family drama, which introduced his habit of including twists and surprises in his narratives. This is, of course, a feature of stories throughout history (especially, as Shyamalan notes in the script, bedtime ones), though often described by detractors as the filmmaker’s ‘one trick’.

His enormous and unforeseen success brought him plenty of fans but was followed in short order by unusually intense hostility from both within the industry and parts of the filmgoing public – a response that seemed to gather momentum in some quarters once the director’s sensitivity to such criticism became known (“it hurts, definitely”). It’s hard to think of a more polarising recent filmmaker, and as time has passed, the consensus has shifted heavily to the negative side: type his name into YouTube and one of the first videos that pops up is a satirical sketch entitled ‘No One Likes M. Night Shyamalan’.

The Lady in the Water (2006)

The Lady in the Water (2006)

Yet the inane binary by which he is either the flawless genius of his PR campaigns or a talentless charlatan worthy only of internet bullying gets in the way of appreciating the true qualities and singularity of Shyamalan’s work. Why is one of the only truly interesting mainstream movie-makers of the Noughties so publicly derided whilst so many mediocrities get a pass?

Surrounded by haters

It’s worth noting that Shyamalan’s rise to prominence coincides with the rise of digital media, the decline of attention spans and a general pop-cultural turn towards snark and testosterone-fuelled arrested adolescence. This hasn’t been ideal timing for a filmmaker who asks for childlike wonder and rapt attention, who aspires to provoke contemplation and wants his audience to ‘listen like a child and believe in things’. The Village (2004), with its closed community defined by earnestness of speech and adherence to extinct values, can be read as a response to this dissonance between the director’s work and the culture that had emerged around it.

Another factor it would be naive to dismiss is racism. Barely an online comments page goes by without a ‘humorously’ mangled rendering of his apparently hard-to-pronounce second name. Even Quentin Tarantino, in declaring Unbreakable “one of the masterpieces of our times”, went on to refer to Shyamalan as “Shamalangadingdong”.

Perhaps it’s coincidence that the most maligned filmmaker in American cinema happens to be an Indian – or maybe, as priest Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) posits in Signs (2002), there are “no coincidences”. References to racism in the filmmaker’s own work are minimal, unless one sees a subversive allegory at work when the all-white community of The Village seeks to bury any evidence of “the bad colour”.

On the other hand, it could be argued that Shyamalan’s critical lambasting is the comeuppance that follows hubris. A prodigious self-mythologiser from the outset of his career, the younger Shyamalan was not slow in making self-regarding claims. Statements such as “I’ve made profit a mathematical certainty” don’t seem to show much foresight in the here-today-gone-tomorrow world of the Hollywood blockbuster.

On the set of The Village (2004)

On the set of The Village (2004)

Nor were self-aggrandising references to his creative process (“I have an idea, I develop it, then it becomes an incredible revelation”) marked by humility. His stated intention with regard to The Sixth Sense to create a “cultural phenomenon” was indeed realised with that project but hasn’t been since; he himself now represents the cultural phenomenon, in a largely negative sense.

Yet his supposedly overweening self-assurance seems to derive from an uncynical enthusiasm, even awe for the power of storytelling. He is hardly the first director reputed to have a healthy sense of self-worth. The emphasis on the teller rather than the tales obscures the commercially and artistically successful run of films he had with The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs and The Village – until it all fell apart with Lady in the Water (2005). Shyamalan didn’t endear himself to journalists by taking direct aim at them in that film, casting Bob Balaban as a joyless pedant of a writer who is eventually dispatched by a demon dog called a ‘scrunt’. “What kind of person would be so arrogant as to imagine he knew the intention of another human being?” one character wonders aloud. Cut to: film critic.

The elders

Shyamalan is nothing if not a filmmaker with a heritage and a wide range of influences, none of which are particularly fashionable. The first of the neglected genres he revived was the family drama – serious, ‘grown-up’ movies like Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979) or the work of Robert Benton (whose 1994 feature Nobody’s Fool, like The Sixth Sense, starred Bruce Willis) and Robert Redford, whose Ordinary People (1980) served as a middle-class riposte to the delinquencies of the movie brats.

“The dinner-table scene gets me excited,” Shyamalan has said, and his earlier films present a white-bread atmosphere of well-appointed town houses and families saying what they have always meant to say to each other. The white-collar emphasis reflects another aspect of his fall from favour: his finest films were mid-budget Hollywood movies, products of a now-vanishing middle class of filmmakers.

Signs (2002)

Signs (2002)

By far the most pertinent influence on Shyamalan’s work, which can turn on a dime between the goofy and the portentous, the syrupy-sweet and the blood-chilling, is Steven Spielberg – not just his directing credits but films he produced, such as Poltergeist (1982) and Cocoon (1985). Another is George Lucas; he has described discovering Star Wars, in a telling phrase, with the fervour with which “a religious zealot finds God… The force was real… Reality was confused with what I was feeling.”

Another influence is Jim Henson, whose creatures from Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal are echoed in the costumes of Those We Don’t Speak Of in The Village and in the mythical creatures of Lady in the Water. There is also the obvious influence of television, particularly The Twilight Zone and Quinn Martin’s Tales of the Unexpected (as good a description of Shyamalan’s work as one could wish for).

The magic family

The sensitivity of children, their sense of imagination and their willingness to believe, are essential to Shyamalan’s work. In all of his films, we see adults learning from the children they are assigned to protect, as Dr Malcolm Crowe (Willis) does from Cole (Haley Joel Osment) in The Sixth Sense and Hess does from his family in Signs – illustrated by a scene in which his children lead him to the roof of their family car to communicate with aliens via a baby monitor.

In The Happening (2008), a grieving Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) is comforted at the side of the road by the young daughter of his dead friend and it is this gesture that brings Moore, his wife and the girl together as a unit and allows their survival. If 21st-century capitalism seeks to divide the family, setting consumerist kids against consumerist parents, Shyamalan presents besieged but unified families taking strength and solace from one other, often living in stark isolation.

Shyamalan directing Abigail Breslin on Signs (2002)

Shyamalan directing Abigail Breslin on Signs (2002)

Family is traditionally the territory of the sentimentalist in Hollywood but Shyamalan reinvigorates the genre of the family film through the use of both horror and the gentle, uncynical humour that is present in all of his films. That which others might reject as sappy is the lifeblood of his work and when he does pour on the syrup, it’s the real stuff, not the saccharine. In this he cleaves to early Spielberg, another hyper-successful ‘true believer’ sneered at by some, who eventually abandoned this magical territory for the prestige of ‘serious’ filmmaking.

Shyamalan’s films show a genuine respect for children, never reverting to cutesy stereotypes. His kids are often confused, troubled, bewildered, bullied, surrounded by ambiguous and worrying signs and symbols. “Do you think I’m a freak?” asks the cursed Cole in The Sixth Sense. “Look at my face,” his mother (Toni Collette) replies. “I would never think that about you.”

Today’s hero children are confident orphans, or estranged from their families, and easily find magical surrogates. The ultimate example is Harry Potter: a chosen one, at the centre of his fictive universe. None of Shyamalan’s child protagonists (prior to that of 2010’s The Last Airbender) was uniquely ‘chosen’. As Bryce Dallas Howard’s Narf put it in Lady in the Water, “every being has purpose”. Throughout that film, which was based on a bedtime story Shyamalan invented for his kids, children are largely absent from the screen – implicitly because the director is asking the audience to be the children, open and faithful, willing to accept his conceits. By and large, audiences violently rejected this invitation.

The God complex

The unabashedly spiritual aspect of Shyamalan’s work is another factor setting it against the grain of mainstream entertainment. Whereas the average Hollywood film approaches the spiritual through allegory or imagery, his work takes faith as its primary subject, noting its similarities with the creative process, drawing ambiguous conclusions.

Signs (2002)

Signs (2002)

In Signs, when first faced with the crop circles that mysteriously appear on their land, Hess’s child asserts “I think God did it”, and this is the argument the filmmaker goes on to interrogate. Later, as animals start to attack their owners and aliens walk about on the roof, a folksy policewoman pointedly asks, “what, in God’s name, is going on?” The alien attack is actually a message from God, designed to reignite Hess’s lapsed faith following the death of his wife. (Bereavement is another common theme in Shyamalan’s work, from Wide Awake and The Sixth Sense to the community of the bereaved in The Village and Paul Giamatti’s widowed caretaker in Lady in the Water.)

Typical of Shyamalan’s willingness to foster ambiguities in his films is an aerial shot from Signs that shows the family’s car traveling into town, revealing the interlinked web of roads and buildings to be similar in proportion and design to the crop circles and thereby drawing parallels between the human and the alien, even suggesting that our planet might have been created either for or by the aliens themselves. “I choose not to see the world as random,” he has said. “Doesn’t it seem as if there is a plan, an order, some kind of law of things that we haven’t understood yet?” Signs is a film that seems to propose that God is an alien, or at the very least that these particular aliens were sent by God.

Shyamalan’s God can be vengeful. In The Happening, a workman whose colleagues have just begun hurling themselves bodily from the top of a building site looks up at their falling figures and proclaims “God in heaven”. This deceptively offhand film, entirely misunderstood on its release due to its wild and deliberate swings in tone, was a corny Twilight Zone episode played as spiritual satire, lamenting environmental destruction and cultural ennui. “Those people – they’re clawing at themselves,” a young woman observes as her fellow citizens begin to self-destruct. A touching moment with a child is interrupted by a woman showing a YouTube clip of a man being eaten by lions. “My God,” she asks, “what kind of terrorists are these?” Gaia has begun culling humans, yet the movie seems ambivalent as to whether or not this is a bad thing.

This was Shyamalan’s revenge after the rejection of Lady in the Water, the refusal of the mainstream audience to accept that, as Cole says in The Sixth Sense, “some magic is real”. His argument for faith, whether in ghosts, God or human myths, makes many people uncomfortable.

The Happening (2008)

The Happening (2008)

Not only that, but his is an incredibly broad church, probably best described as New Age, encompassing elements of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, environmentalism, child psychology and martial arts. “I hope you can keep an open mind,” Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Mr Glass, tells Willis’s in Unbreakable. Small wonder that, in a cultural climate in which a particularly vulgar form of atheism has become common, his polymorphous, holistic sense of the spiritual has rendered his work deeply unfashionable.

Spirituality is of course no guarantee of profundity. To the unpersuaded, these faith-based films can be seen as vague and simplistic, and Shyamalan’s emphasis on family and the power of childlike wonder winsome. Even so, there is cinematic pleasure to be derived from his mastery of storyboard and technique, his sombre tonal palettes, his idiosyncratic way with actors and his visual conceits as much as his narrative ones.

Night moves

Shyamalan’s dexterity with tone is apparent in a chilling static shot from The Village. A touching romantic scene between Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is blind, and her suitor Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) is followed by a shot from outside a window in Ivy’s house that reveals her entering her room.

In the cupboard, contorted in a clowning posture, hidden in some misunderstood game of his own invention, is Noah (Adrien Brody), the village idiot whose social ineptitude and half-formed desires will eventually threaten the whole of the isolated community. His presence takes a second to register, as do its implications. The effect of the shot is deeply troubling, throwing a long shadow over the gentle comedy Shyamalan has created from the interactions of The Village’s earnest folk.

The Village (2004)

The Village (2004)

Noah is an unhappy spirit, like the disturbed killer at the beginning of The Sixth Sense, all the more dangerous for not being in control of his actions. Yet in Shalaman’s holistic universe even the outcast has his purpose – “your son has made our stories real,” William Hurt’s Elder comfortingly tells Noah’s grieving parents after Ivy unwittingly kills him – just as in Hindu mythology even deities of great violence and destruction are not in and of themselves regarded as evil.

Time after time in Shyamalan’s work, complex ideas are suggested through simple and acute visual storytelling, as in Unbreakable’s beautiful use of inverted shots and reflections to illustrate the symmetry of its characters.

He also excels at affecting and unforgettable set pieces. One example is Mr Glass’s harrowing tumble down the subway steps in Unbreakable, which uses accelerating edits, jarring sound and vertiginous zooms to powerfully suggest the character’s fragility, fear and pain, pulling the viewer into agonising empathy with a character who is later revealed to be the villain of the piece.

Another example is the first genuine sighting of the alien being in Signs, viewed via hand-held amateur footage (an approach expanded to feature length in JJ Abrams’s Cloverfield). The alien appears at a children’s birthday party, glimpsed only for a second outside a window. The effect is memorably upsetting, heightened by the terrified screams of the children and a craftily intercut reaction shot of a petrified Phoenix, watching the footage on television in the cupboard beneath his stairs.

Shyamalan’s greatest moments as a filmmaker come when this technical ability is used to express his romanticism. In an era when even romantic comedies have a dead-eyed, materialistic bent, he put love stories at the centre of his films and approached them with real cinematic verve.

The Village (2004)

The Village (2004)

There hasn’t been a more romantic scene in the last 15 years of cinema than the moment in The Village when Lucius takes Ivy’s hand and leads her to the safety of a cellar, away from the predations of Those We Don’t Speak Of. Shyamalan cuts to heart-stopping, dreamlike slow-motion, emphasising Roger Deakins’ gorgeous photography and James Newton Howard’s rhapsodic score. The fact that, as we later discover, Those We Don’t Speak Of are an invention of the town Elders and the young lovers are running for their lives from nothing at all only adds to the scene’s poignancy.

This romanticism also provides the emotional catharsis in Unbreakable, where Robin Wright’s Audrey awakes to find herself literally floating upstairs, carried by her husband David, as Newton Howard’s music finally reveals the sonorous main theme it has been slowly unveiling over the course of the film. This is filmmaking of real grace and delicacy, accessing a lost Hollywood magic, and for all his brain-teasing plotting, evocations of the limits of our knowledge and expressions of the numinous, it is here that we find Shyamalan’s work at its most genuine and transporting.

Before night falls

Sadly, it seems as if he has been forced to abandon this unique territory and enter the new landscape of commercial filmmaking, dominated by CGI franchise movies and star vehicles. The Last Airbender, an adaptation of the Nickelodeon series Avatar, whose original (and surely preferable) title was used by James Cameron, came under fire from fans of the original series and was criticised for its script and acting, though it breathed new life into the tired ‘golden child’ template through its use of vivacious, largely unknown child actors, singular application of CGI and a multi-racial cast that made it a truly global enterprise. Slated remorselessly in the US, the film did excellent business overseas.

The Last Airbender (2010)

The Last Airbender (2010)

This was Shyamalan’s first true children’s movie, and it has moments of excitement, beauty and charm – especially in the visionary final sequence, where the Avatar Au, who provides a Dharmic balance between the four elemental nations that comprise the story’s universe, harnesses the power of the ocean and non-violently brings the film’s closing battle to an end. But it also showed the first signs that Shyamalan’s concentration on details, spacey way with dialogue and self-described “European, stilted” sense of pacing might work against him on a larger canvas.

Franchise movies can only bear so much idiosyncrasy and innovation before they start to look as if the director’s missing the point. Commercial considerations seem to have drawn Shyamalan away from his true strengths as a filmmaker, away from his hyper-creativity, away from Philadelphia and the world he had defined as his own.

In After Earth, his aesthetic has been flattened. Beautiful to look at, the film is painful to listen to. There is less sleight of hand at work here: the narrative is linear and entirely predictable. There are signature touches, such as the presence of the giant bird of Hindu mythology, last seen in Lady in the Water, and scenes in which our hero is both menaced and purified by water, Shyamalan’s favorite symbolic element. Yet the film’s emphasis on ‘ghosting’, a control of emotion that resembles the Scientologist practice of ‘going clear’, is in many ways the uninteresting opposite of the filmmaker’s usual affirmation of openness and sensitivity.

After Earth (2013)

After Earth (2013)

Beautiful compositions, the odd effective shock and chill and a pleasingly dexterous way with CGI that recalls Peter Jackson or Studio Ghibli cannot save the film. Shyamalan’s usual knack for getting powerful performances from children here runs up against a precocious, not obviously talented child star, who has to work too hard to convince as a child in the first place. His films have always used slightness as a texture but in the past it was playful and deceptive. Here it pervades the whole story and the film feels entirely unoriginal.

It can only be hoped that Shyamalan can mount a comeback on his own terms, a return to the territory that was his, accepting his fate as an auteur and playing to his enviable cinematic strengths. “These are mediocre times,” as Mr Glass says in Unbreakable. “It’s hard for many to believe there are extraordinary things inside themselves as well as others.” Hopefully M. Night Shyamalan can once again reclaim his independent spirit and transcend these mediocre times as successfully as he did at the beginning of the century.

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