I’ve really gone and screwed myself this time.
Let’s not mince words – M. Night Shyamalan has had a wildly mixed bag in terms of a career. He was downright awful for a long time there, getting lost in his own ego and taking half-assed “for-hire” jobs that never felt like his heart was in them. There has been a resurgence in interest for the director once hailed as a combination of Spielberg and Hitchcock and he proceeded to use this opportunity to lecture his audience. Each entry into his career has proved worth discussing, though not all are worth watching.
He’s got thirteen films people, so let’s get down to business.
- Praying with Anger : Culture clash is an interesting phenomenon, especially when one has become engrossed in a new one and then visits their former home. So why, in the name of whatever you believe in, did this one land with such a thud? Exploring the Hindu religion through the understanding and culture of a Western gaze could go wildly wrong but instead, it just ended up being…boring. This is M. Night Shyamalan’s debut film and it’s such a stinker. So much of the frustration about this entire endeavor is the acting ability of the director, who set himself as the star as well. It’s likely that no one truly bought into his idea here, given the struggle he shows in portraying anything beyond skin-deep emotes and silly dialogue. Most people are unaware that he’s even got this on his resume.
- Wide Awake : He did a movie with Rosie O’Donnell. Let that sink into your bones for a moment. Normally I wouldn’t cite a dramady as a strange thing, as a lot of directors do something like this early on, but for him it’s just…weird. Following a child asking questions about life and death is an interesting premise, but this is also one easy type of story to screw up by getting lost in silliness and conventional blandness. I can’t cite any of this as good or even worth your time, but it’s somehow an improvement on his first film in that you can see his style improving. His visual conventions, uses of color and still versus moving shots, can all come together. I won’t tell you to watch it, but I will tell you that you can see him coming into his own in certain ways that I honestly wouldn’t have predicted if I saw this film before any of his other works.
- The Happening : I’ve gotten myself into this, and now I have to dig my way out of it. Okay. So in 2008 our dear director shot a movie about plants that hate us and wanted to wipe us out by forcing our brains to go suicidal. There’s a lot to unpack in that, but instead I’m going to start with Mark Whalberg’s performance. This is a man used to playing a tough guy and he can’t let go of that, instead forcing his resentment of the character to the front and giving us a self-loathing performance that felt scathing. His wife, played by Zoe Deschanel, is disconnected and uncomfortable (I’m not a fan of hers so take what I say with a grain of salt). Then you’ve got John Leguizamo trying to convince everyone that statistics will calm them down and make them happy. See, this is all so batshit insane that you’ve basically forgotten about the premise! Seriously, this isn’t his worst film but it’s right up there. I enjoy it on a camp level and Shyamalan defends it as a misunderstood B-movie, but he did that on purpose and thought he could convince us all of his whimsey but instead I just can’t accept that. He botched it.
- After Earth : Have you noticed that Will Smith really wants to be in the movies with his kids? This was an early example of that, where he hired a popular but ailing director to direct a sci-fi film he wrote that showcased his child’s…*ahem*…talents. The film is silly and laden with the stylings of one that wants to make sure Scientology is a thinly appealing story-element. Inventing a syntax, creating a religious-warrior style of combat for the plot, and using emotion as a weakness, all of this stuff is present and makes for an uncomfortable story that is just no fun to watch. This is a better-executed film than The Happening but its pretentious nonsense makes it less enjoyable to watch. I saw this in the theatre, already ready to shit on Shyamalan, but this one just made me sad for him. Have you ever been genuinely worried about a director? Me too, and I’ll bet this is one of the films that set that sentiment in your heart.
- The Last Airbender : What have I done? The endless suffering that is the lower-end films of M. Night Shyamalan was quite a ride for me, but placing this as high as I have would make me an absolute beast in the eyes of those dedicated to the show it sprang from. This is an absolute triumph of trash and I’ll defend it as better than the previous four films on this list. I don’t pop this on with any regularity, but the two times I’ve seen it have been absolute laugh-fests. It really takes the right crowd, but this is where bad starts to feel like fun and games. I hate feeling that way when you can tell the director wants to do something fun, but he just went for his weird and twisted vision with such a gusto that I found it impressive. How often do you see someone hit absolute bullshit with this kind of care and intensity? I hated it and had a blast with him here. Sure, it was at his expense, but at least it was fun.
- Lady in the Water : Okay, c’mon, you know it’s fun to watch him go up his own ass like this. Shyamalan wrote a movie that hailed himself as the greatest storyteller ever born while also attacking his critics with such cartoonish hatred that I just giggled at the sight of it. This is a movie starring Jeffrey Wright, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Paul Giamatti. Oh, and Bob Balaban is in this shit. Seriously, how fun is that!? At one point Giamatti (who has a stutter to hilarious effect) rolls around on a couch with a milk mustache to placate an elderly woman who will tell him a random story from her ancient homeland. Offensive, stupid, and amazing, Lady in the Water is something best experienced as blindly as possible. It holds all the elements you want in a bad Shyamalan film, from his ego to his visual prowess. There’s also a wolf made of grass, did I mention that? Awesome.
- The Visit : Ok, we come to the first decent movie on this list! People had written him off at this point and he’d take a slight break. Two years after his big-budget Will Smith film, Shyamalan returned to bring us a weird little hand-held film about two kids visiting their grandparents to hilariously eerie results. Look, this has dirty old man diapers, a nude grandma scratching walls, and a child rapping. I won’t say this is a terrifying movie, but it has a lot of thrills to offer. Pieces of the correct things are here to find and each of them gets a spotlight, from the absolutely unhinged performances to the imagery that appears to feel revitalizing despite the exhaustion with the format. I think there are plenty of things to love in The Visit and this was what brought Shyamalan back to the public eye in a positive light. If you haven’t seen it I urge you to seek it out, it’s worth your time.
- Split : I love me some James McAvoy. Let him off the leash and let him play all of the wild things in the forest? Sold. This was a secret screening at Fantastic Fest a few years back and the viewers were threatened with a permanent ban if they yapped about the ending. Once that came out people were ravenous for Shyamalan again. With one singular stroke he had stoked the fires of interest and brought the viewers back to the table. The move payed off well, with his own personal investment budget of nine million being recouped twenty plus times over and making him a star again. It also timed perfectly with Anya Taylor-Joy’s rise to scream queen after The Witch and cemented an excellent cast into something disturbing, funny, sweet, and entertaining. I had serious misgivings about some of the directions this film took but upon seeing the final seconds of footage I decided I was happy. Also, it’s got a killer score and that’s nothing to shake a stick at. Damn.
- Glass : Yup, we’re back-to-back with the trilogy here. This was a taxing movie for a lot of viewers, pushing them to accept a blatant judgement of their love for superhero films and culture. But we don’t just get our own fascinations put to the test, no. The entirety of human history is on trial, discussing our desire to believe in beings beyond our own abilities in a condescending fashion. The Blank Check podcast described this as “spiking the football into the toilet” and they weren’t wrong. We get our superhero movie for about a fifth of the film, with the rest reading like a dissertation on what we truly believe about super-beings. I adored the audacity of this film when I reviewed it, and on repeat viewings have only come to love it more. I don’t think he’s gone balls-to-the-wall this time, but he’s close and insulting on a level that is hard to fathom. In a year when a superhero film made more money than god it’s hard to deny his view, but most will struggle with it like they struggle with their own human weaknesses.
- The Sixth Sense : I don’t know that I need to digress on this one as it’s still his most famous film but screw it, I’ve come this far. We don’t need to talk about the excellent performances from Haley Joel Osment, Bruce Willis, and Toni Collette. We don’t need to talk about the twist because everyone already knows about that. I definitely don’t need to talk about the fact that it’s the single best piece of acting that Mischa Barton has ever put on display. I just enjoy all of this, and it’s a nearly-perfect piece of filmmaking. A director doesn’t always get a star-making performance on-film, but here was where M. Night Shyamalan began to be recognizable as a name before his actors or premises. The twist is still legendary and everyone knows it. This has become like the finale to The Planet of the Apes, a moment that affected pop culture permanently.
- The Village : This is my personal favorite Shyamalan film. I enjoy it more than any of his other work for the audacity, the sheer silliness, and the brilliance of the performances. This is also his best score, something that I listen to regularly to this day. Sure, a set of music that’s all violin? Why not! I even defend Adrien Brody’s work here, his mentally-deficient character playing all the right notes to evoke my sympathy while making me roll my eyes at the extravagant excess of it. We’re also given the debut onscreen performance of Bryce Dallas Howard, a woman who has a career as fascinating as Shyamalan’s himself. They built a village for this people, how can you not love it? Oh, and Brenden Gleeson is in this movie! I’m gushing, but I really do adore this film on almost every level. The pieces fall together in a way that makes me happy and tickles me in the way that most audacious filmmaking just doesn’t. I defend this on a regular basis, and while I don’t think it’s his best I think it’s his most fun.
- Signs : This is one of the first real thrillers I got to see in theatres. My mother took me opening weekend with my brother to check it out, and I’ll always remember it fondly. You see my mother used to have pretty solid taste and wanted us to experience things like this. Once upon a time I was taken to task by a woman that wanted me to see some of the wider world and she used this as one of her angles. I sat terrified, elated, and in awe. Hell, I loved Mel Gibson (to be fair this was before we knew what a shithead he was). This is a movie about a priest that regains his faith in God because of aliens. I mean…right? Inside of this wildness is a story about a grieving father that has disconnected from his kids and brother in an effort to close off his grief. As a child I connected with that but as an adult I’m absolutely devastated by it.
- Unbreakable : You knew this was coming. I genuinely consider this the most beautiful film Shyamalan has made in his entire career. A story about love, about friendship and its consequences, and a story about the endless cycle of belief. In fact, this is a story about the true dangers of belief. When one is confronted with deniability in the face of true faith you can encounter danger. Bruce Willis’s character discovers this in the face of his friend, now commonly known as Mister Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), James Newton Howard delivered a score that is still being used to this day, and entering into it is entering the film itself. This was one of the first things that truly made me feel something, and while I don’t consider it the best comic book movie I do consider it the most individual and interesting of them. It’s the director’s best film with a bullet, and one that still leads the conversations to this day.
That’s my list! What’s yours, and what sins have I committed in this nightmare-world of a filmography? Let me know!