When did the statement “M. Night Shyamalan is a great filmmaker” turn from a widespread public sentiment to a punchline? Was it after Unbreakable, which seemed underwhelming in the wake of critical and commercial darling (and nominee for Best Picture!) The Sixth Sense? Maybe the cracks started to show after Signs, which still gets ridiculed for what people see as a heavy-handed and ridiculous conclusion. I think it was after The Village that he became a laughingstock in film discourse. People saw a sloppy thriller with a stupid twist, and that was all they needed to create a narrative about him. He became the guy who captured lightning in a bottle but didn’t have the talent to replicate it. Each successive film became a part of that narrative before it was even released, and thus his career became a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. It’s even acceptable to make fun of his name. Get it? It’s different, and things that are different are hilarious! Calling him “M. Night Shamalamadingdong” or some similar derivation was a meme so puerile that even people with no interest in film whatsoever could jump on the hate train. The guy can’t win.
The root of Shyamalan’s woes is that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He has a habit of making great movies that are ideal targets for banal CinemaSins-style “analysis”; it’s no coincidence that his downfall coincides with the rise of an online film culture built more on snarky take-downs than artistic engagement. It’s easy to feel superior to these films: All of them are in the B-movie mold, and Shyamalan clearly has little patience for the strict visual and narrative rules that people cling to when they have nothing of value to say. Pointing and laughing at stiff dialogue requires very little of a viewer. “If my surface-level reaction requires so little of me, then ipso facto his films have very little to offer” was the fallacious basis for endless mockery and mud-slinging.
Shyamalan desperately needs a revisionist movement. He’s a fascinating filmmaker, as I’ll try to outline in this piece, and one whose downfall was the result of public confusion about the kind of artist he was in the first place. His films are just different, and if you watch all them expecting an entertaining thriller like The Sixth Sense, they’re obviously going to seem like failures. But contrary to that popular media narrative, he was never interested in repeating the success of that film. His experimental tendencies became increasingly pronounced with each new film, which didn’t line up with the image of him as a populist heir to Spielberg. And that’s not an exaggeration, by the way.
His is a cinema of empathy, a mode motivated by feeling more than thinking. The Village is a perfect example of this emotional abstraction. The slow glide of the camera, the unusual pace of the editing, and the characters themselves are all pulled along by imperceptible forces, throwing themselves to the mercy of fate. This gives The Village a uniquely animate rhythm. The film feels like a living thing, subject to the digressions and chain-associations of a person’s train of thought. Shyamalan makes films that make themselves, forgoing auteur status in favor of a cinematic mode which gives films their own authorship.
Watching The Village can be an alienating experience for this reason. Its flow is totally un-movie-like, abandoning the logical reasoning that gives us traditional cinematic structure. It’s more like what you’d see if you tried to picture the story in your head, with few moments of filmmaking interference. Shyamalan is an anti-filmmaker, making movies without the film grammar we’re all so familiar with. He is writing a new cinematic language from the ground-up, or perhaps he’s acting as a conduit through which that language can write itself.
You can see this clearly in Signs, which ironically is his Spielberg-iest work. In Signs, Shyamalan keeps putting an extra layer between the audience and the film. The characters are framed by the world around them more than the camera. Mel Gibson is constantly bordered by doorways, windows, corn stalks, and even his two children. We see shot compositions within the shots themselves. The camera becomes the audience, in a way, acting not as a conduit to a fictional world but as a voyeur of a cinematic one. The world of Signs is putting the story and characters in a filmic context all on its own, which is appropriate for a movie depicting paranoia and uncertainty. Gibson isn’t just being watched by the camera; his entire universe is putting him at its center. Remember, Signs is about an ordinary man whose life is co-opted by forces he cannot possibly comprehend. Shyamalan could have made that force the camera itself, but he chose instead to take a step back, making Signs a difficult but rewarding work to grapple with.
It’s also why the film’s coincidences or god forbid “plot holes,” don’t bother me in the slightest. Shyamalan is asking you to accept the film’s world as it is, not just as he is showing it to you. The plot may be hard for you to swallow, but in the world of the film, this is how things played out. He understands that viewers have to take fiction at its word, a philosophy in direct opposition to the pedantic Internet criticism which became his mortal enemy. In short, you don’t know better than a film regarding itself. If a film tells you that things happened a certain way, then you can’t apply your own personal set of logic and ethos and complain that they don’t line up. You don’t think it makes sense that aliens would come to a planet covered in a substance that is poisonous to them? In the world Signs is depicting, it does make sense, because that’s what happened. Shyamalan takes the camera behind the fourth-wall layer that it usually occupies, removing directorial intent from the equation. By doing so, he inoculates himself from charges of hackery. He throws up his hands and says, “Hey, this is what the film is saying. I’m just watching it.” Signs is designed as a self-sustaining system.
This is probably the point where most people will roll their eyes and close this tab. “That’s so dumb,” you might be thinking. “How could you possibly suggest that Shyamalan did all of this on purpose?” There’s a simple answer to that question: I’m not. The beauty of art is that everyone brings their own point of view to the table when they experience it. Whether or not Shyamalan intended any of this is irrelevant. This is what I see in his work. You’re perfectly within your rights to not see any of this yourself, but at the very least, engage with the material before dismissing it entirely. Most criticism of Shyamalan is vapid, plot-hole nitpickery and dead-horse beatings regarding dialogue or line delivery. I’m not invalidating those takes, but they represent a lack of engagement with the films. If nothing else, I hope I can encourage you to watch his films in a different way.
Also, I want to be clear that The Last Airbender is beyond defense, even from me. It is a thoroughly slapdash disaster, with shockingly careless direction from Shyamalan. It is an undeniably terrible film, and it is exempt from the case laid out in this editorial.
With that disclaimer in place, let’s talk about The Happening. This film is a victim of smarmy audience superiority, spurred on by a conditioned insistence on artistic intent. It’s a funny film, and it became infamous for what people called unintentional humor. No one would care about this film if it were marketed as a comedy, because people only like it by virtue of the power that mockery affords them. If they thought that The Happening was in on the joke, they would lose that power. I hesitate to suggest that The Happening is a flat-out comedy, but I absolutely think that it is an absurdist take on the apocalypse. The eye of Shyamalan’s camera here is dead, the film’s images correspondingly lifeless. Shyamalan shoots with straight-faced formalism, an approach entirely out of line with the exaggerated violence and campy drama of the film itself. Depicting such elaborate and gruesome suicides in such a casual way imbues The Happening with a comedic existentialism.
The Happening is also the best example of Shyamalan’s recurring themes regarding the value of community and companionship. In The Village, true love — whether between two people or an entire village — is shown to be worth protecting with trickery and lies. In Signs, the strengths and abilities (supernatural and otherwise) of the central family are capable of overpowering an alien invader. The titular Lady in the Water requires the combined assistance of several tenants of an apartment complex. But it’s The Happening that goes the furthest, explicitly having its villainous airborne toxin target large groups of people. It forces the protagonists to split up in order to survive, which in a Shyamalan film makes them much weaker. Their winnowing group is reminiscent of Ivy’s (Bryce Dallas Howard) companions abandoning her in the woods one after the other, leaving her to take the journey alone. In the end, the three leads of The Happening decide that it isn’t worth it to stay alive if they have to be apart, and they walk together to the middle of a field, accepting their fate. What they don’t realize is that the toxin has passed, symbolically defeated by their defiant act of love. It’s all pretty silly, yes, but The Happening shouldn’t be taken at face value. It’s an uncanny valley movie, unnervingly unlike what you think it should be.
I understand that this article will be rejected out of hand by a lot of people. Shyamalan-as-hack is so widely accepted that contrary opinions may not even register as serious. That’s what irritates me more than anything, that lack of consistent debate on the issue that so many other filmmakers are afforded. The world just decided that Shyamalan was a terrible filmmaker and called it a day, because it’s more fun to make childish jokes about someone’s name than it is to think about a movie. I don’t expect you to agree with anything I’ve said here, but I really hope I’ve planted a seed of curiosity. M. Night Shyamalan is an art-house guy, not a Hollywood blockbuster guy. He was sold to you as the latter, but watching his work through the former lens is a much more enriching experience. We need to reappraise Shyamalan’s place in the zeitgeist. Let’s not wait until after he’s gone to finally see all the wonderful art he’s been giving us.