The Strange and Mysterious Case of M. Night Shyamalan

Split

Can we admit that there is far more to the films of M. Night Shyamalan than surprise endings? We can still argue about whether or not his films are actually good—and believe me, I intend to.

For a long time, it’s seemed like there were two M. Night Shyamalans. The most famous is the director who burst onto the scene with The Sixth Sense (1999), followed it up with the less startling Unbreakable (2000), and then declined into arithmetically lower and lower TomatoMeter scores, losing his credibility by 2008’s The Happening if not 2006’s Lady in the Water before bottoming out circa 2010. This is the M. Night Shyamalan known for plot twists above all else, and teased endlessly on the internet for everything that’s awkward or nonsensical about his films. (The Happening is still the only movie where I’ve ever walked out into the lobby and asked for my money back, and the theater manager told me—I swear this is true—that I should have known it would suck because it was M. Night Shyamalan).

So it may surprise a lot of my coworkers, friends, and casual bystanders to hear that there’s a certain subset of cinephile culture—the kind that wishes the TomatoMeter would die a slow, agonizing death—that never stopped taking Shyamalan seriously. The Cahiers du Cinema voted The Village one of ten best films of 2004. Ditto for Lady in the Water in 2006, where Shyamalan’s film placed slightly ahead of films by Martin Scorsese and Terrence Malick. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, a star critic for the A.V. Club, is an on-the-record fan, as is the Palme d’Or-winning Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whom many cinephiles (including myself) consider one of the most important filmmakers of the 21st century.

His defenders have a point that he deserves a much more careful consideration. Gigantic, rug-out-from-under-you twists play a relatively small part in his filmography considering his oversized reputation as “the twist guy”. It would be more accurate, or at least more inclusive, to focus on his other trademarks. His heroes are scarred by trauma, regret, doubt, and loss. Spiritual dilemmas often come into play: in his films, characters use the word “god” with a capital G and no irony. He incorporates natural elements (particularly water) with a sense of reverence at how overwhelming they can be. He uses color in a way that makes certain objects pop with teasing significance. He often focuses on vulnerable children—not just the old saw of putting some helpless kid in mortal peril (to get the audience to, ya know, feel something), but creating child characters who live with a physical or psychological wound that makes them ache painfully with their own sense of smallness. High-concept though he may be, he doesn’t set out to make a movie without a firm sense of character.

All of which marks him as a director who aspires to soulful multiplex cinema. As much as it became a cultural archetype for surprise endings, don’t forget that The Sixth Sense doesn’t end on its big reveal (the way that The Usual Suspects [1996] does) but continues on to a quiet, character-driven monolog in which Bruce Willis bares his emotions and bids farewell. There’s a shot in Unbreakable where Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson are framed on all sides by both comic book pop art and religious icons. And that, more or less, is the balance Shyamalan tries to strike: a tonal equilibrium between outlandish pulp and making sure that even his superheroes follow the introspective contemplation of a pilgrim’s path.

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So he is, in film-crit terms, undeniably an “auteur”. And perhaps no principle of auteur theory has caused more headaches than Francois Truffaut’s infamous claim that “There are no good and bad movies, only good and bad directors.” Shyamalan strikes me as a talented, personal director who’s spent years at a time making misfires back to back to back. And I have to admit that I’ve thrown up my hands, at a loss for spotting a method to the madness, or for reconciling Shyamalan at his best with Shyamalan at his worst.

For instance, Unbreakable looks better and better these days, especially now that “Superheroes are People Too” has become not only a common subgenre, but a subgenre that rarely does better than the superhero Shyamalan invented fifteen years ago. But how could the man who directed the opening scenes of Unbreakable with such atmosphere and subtlety fail to notice that, say, Adrien Brody’s hammy caricature of an autistic man in The Village kills the tension of so many scenes? How could he stage that scene in The Happening where Mark Wahlberg yells “Nooo!” and dives forward while a kid gets shotgunned in the chest in a display rank cinematic cliche? I thought that Lady in the Water, in which Shyamalan literally cast himself as a Christ-like savior of mankind and imagined a straw-man film critic getting ripped to shreds, was as misbegotten and mind-boggling as its detractors maintain. The only remotely viable defense I’ve heard for The Happening is that the people who laugh at it assume that it was meant to be more serious than it is—a claim of B-movie goofiness that makes sense given how Mark Wahlberg seems to be giving a comedy performance, but a claim I can’t buy given how so much of the movie’s aspirations for aghast R-rated horror and topical preachiness are filmed without guile.

It would be too simplistic to say that Shyamalan has to pick one or the other, to argue that he does better with seriousness than humor or vice-versa. Lady in the Water is a film that takes itself far too seriously, but serious scenes make up its best moments, while its stabs at comedy are cringe-inducing. Meanwhile, comic relief works nicely in Signs (2002), and self-aware camp humor is still The Happening‘s last possible path out of the wilderness of moviegoer scorn. Perhaps the only explanation to the enigma of M. Night Shyamalan, who went from an unknown to the Next Big Thing to a pariah within the span of ten years, is that you can’t accuse him of not having good ideas, only of not filtering out the bad ones.

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Then, in 2015, something happened. With the low-budget found-footage thriller The Visit, the TomatoMeter lit up Fresh again, and suddenly Shyamalan, now working on a modest scale, was no longer just for apologists. Part of this surely has to do with collaboration: while still holding the reins, Shyamalan had partnered with producer Jason Blum (Paranormal Activity), who like Val Lewton or John Carpenter before him grasped that the necessary elements of a successful horror film are cheap—and can be something more so long as they’re in the hands of someone with the imagination to use them. I attended The Visit with curiosity. No grand claims can be made for it, but its twist caught me genuinely off-guard, and as the film reached its climax, I thought that Shyamalan had pulled off a trick that would make Lewton himself proud: he’d made a film that, without ever shedding the appeal of cheapo B-horror, had managed to infuse its genre with creativity, humor, and a surprisingly graceful emotional catharsis. And then, after accomplishing all that, The Visit suddenly tacked on a coda of a twelve-year-old white kid rapping about poop that’s so bad and so utterly wrong for the tone of what came before it that I’m amazed no one involved pulled the plug. Again, I threw up my hands. The method is a mystery.

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But a degree of hype was in the air for his follow-up Split (2017). The curiosity, for me, was even greater than with The Visit, especially since the studio was giving Split such a confident advertising push. The trailer focused on a) the brand of a director who’d just spent a decade as a punchline, and b) the played-out and inevitably ridiculous cliche of a horror movie villain with split personality disorder. In short, if you’d checked out after The Happening, the concept sounded like a joke. And yet here it was, and for audiences, it worked: when it opened in January, Split spent three weeks as the top box office hit in the US, ultimately pulling in blockbuster bank on a production budget of less than $10 million.

Where does Split find us? In the suburbs of Philadelphia, three teenaged girls are kidnapped by a stranger (James McAvoy) and held captive underground. McAvoy suffers from an extremely cinematic version of dissociative identity disorder—even by Psycho‘s standards—which compels him to affect wildly different accents and costume changes, sometimes in drag and always sinister. The girls play a cat-and-mouse game with their captor, attempting different strategies for each personality, while supernatural elements start to come into play. Most of the praise has gone to McAvoy, who shows remarkable dexterity and commitment with a character—or rather, a set of characters—who at different times has to be intimidating, pitiable, or a looney tune for carefree horror audiences looking to get their rocks off. But special mention is also deserved for Anya Taylor-Joy as the misfit loner among the captives, whose own connection to McAvoy, spiritual or otherwise, is teased out beautifully.

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So Split is solid, emotionally satisfying entertainment, well told and prepared to dive in unexpected but not arbitrary directions. At times, it certainly bends towards conventions of the genre—teen girls in danger wearing nothing but their bras, say. But as the film went on, it occurred to me that bottoming out could be a blessing for Shyamalan, for reasons not entirely to do with the quality of his films, but with his audience’s perception of them. Walk into The Village knowing that it’s from the serious, prestigious, Oscar-nominated director of The Sixth Sense, and you may roll your eyes (as many critics did) when it gets preposterous. But walk into Split knowing only what you saw in the trailer—that it’s a goofy split personality B-movie thriller where James McAvoy wears a dress—and you’ll be surprised at the serious and effective places it goes.

Speaking of surprises, there is one awaiting at the very end of Split. If you somehow haven’t had it spoiled for you yet, like it was for me, I’ll try to be vague. Suffice it to say that it twists Hollywood’s new trend of extended universes. To which I throw up my hands again, only this time to say “Why not?” So many extended universes are in theaters already, with committees deciding the fates of Marvel, DC, King Kong, and now Universal Horror. So why can’t Shyamalan have one of his own? At the very least, and even when he’s at his worst, his films never felt like they were decided on by committee.

So I’m intrigued by the promise of a “new Shyamalan film” again for the first time in years. But I disapprove of the use of the phrase “return to form” that keeps popping up in reviews, not only because I still don’t think he’s made another movie on par with The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable, but because his latest two films away from the A-list don’t strike me as an attempt to “return” so much as to try out different territory. But keep your eyes on him. He may surprise you.

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Split is now available on home video. See it before it becomes important.

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