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Swinging for the Fences and the Films of M. Night Shyamalan

I don't think I've come across a filmmaker, in my short life, who creatively goes for broke as much- or as often- as M. Night Shyamalan. From disturbingly good hits like The Sixth Sense (1999) and Split (2017), and even an underrated masterpiece with Unbreakable (2000), to so-bad-they're-good duds like The Happening (2008), he always commits to his vision, no matter how wild or unconventional it is. And when he hits a home run, he knocks it all the way out of the park. I want to explore a handful of titles of his and why they best represent my admiration for him as an artist.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

source: Hollywood Pictures

While not necessarily Shyamalan's first feature (he had previously helmed Wide Awake (1998) and Praying with Anger (1992), this is unquestionably what put him on the map as a fresh new cinematic voice. It follows a child psychologist named Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis, in what's still one of his best performances), who struggles to help a frightened young boy named Cole (Haley Joel Osment, so good he got a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination) cope with his ability to see dead people, and even use his gift to help them. At the same time, Cole helps Malcolm reconcile with his estranged wife Anna (Olivia Williams).

source: Hollywood Pictures

Now, I'm not going to touch on the famous twist ending, in case you haven't seen the film. But I will say that it's still Shyamalan's best because not only does it totally throw you for a loop, forcing you to reframe everything you saw before, but the story has such strong power before and after such information is revealed. The logic of the proceedings still make sense, on top of that. What's more, is that Shyamalan is smart to keep the focus squarely on Malcolm and Cole, and how their encounters with the paranormal affect their personal lives. Cole has a strained relationship with his mother Lynn (Toni Collette) due to his fear of telling her his big secret. For Malcolm, his fervent focus on helping Cole is costing him his relationship. But if he successfully aids Cole in accepting himself, he can finally forgive himself for failing another patient (Donnie Wahlberg) years ago.

source: Hollywood Pictures

Likewise, the ghosts Cole encounters aren't the malevolent spirits we're often used to witnessing in horror films. They're damaged and afraid, like Cole feels, and just want to be able to move on from their pasts. This lends a poignant and tragic atmosphere to the exceptionally well-staged scare scenes that effectively leaves more of an impact than just a surface-level cheap thrill.

source: Hollywood Pictures

All of this culminates powerfully by the end, but what's always struck me as the heart and soul of the picture is Cole's relationship with his mother. Not only do the writing and performances makes us consistently empathize with these two ships passing in the night, but the pair's resolution is easily the best scene in the movie. When Cole, in essence, comes out to his mom about his special ability, it captures the fear and catharsis about such an experience, in my case as an LGBTQ person. There are other ways it can be interpreted- disclosing a mental illness, or wanting to pursue a career that isn't what your family wanted for you- but that's my way in, and it hits me in the feels every single time. The Sixth Sense is correctly hailed as a horror classic, but where it shines even more is its heartfelt and compassionate storytelling.

Unbreakable (2000)

source: Touchstone Pictures

Now this is not only my favorite of Shyamalan's movies, but one of my all-time favorite films, period. It is also the most original superhero movie I've ever seen. It follows David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a security guard who is strangely the sole survivor of a train wreck while traveling home from a work trip. Even more oddly, David doesn't have a scratch on him. Soon after, he's found by an enigmatic comic still curator named Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who seems convinced this incident is indicative of an extraordinary ability David had no idea he had.

If you haven't guessed already, David's gift is his incredibly strength and durability. But what I love about Unbreakable is that, instead of plunging us into a bunch of routine learning-your-powers montages, or bombarding the viewer with a bunch of FX-laden action sequences, it does away with all that and focuses on the people involved. David is in a strained relationship with his wife Audrey (Robin Wright), along with his son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), and it all stems from his total uncertainty about his place in the world. Having seen this early in my adolescence, I related intensely to that feeling, as I gradually came to terms with my bisexuality, and fought to figure out who I was in general. You'd think the movie wouldn't still have power for me as an adult, now that I know more who I am and what I want, but you'd be wrong. It honestly resonates strongly with me when I watch David start to embrace his powers, use them for good, and therefore heal his relationship with his family. There's nothing more fulfilling than when you finally know who you are, and unabashedly love yourself, and this movie captures that masterfully.

source: Touchstone Pictures

The performances are also flawless across the board. Bruce Willis gives the performance of his life as David, often speaking volumes without even saying a word. Robin Wright is also wonderful as Audrey, and Spencer Treat Clark excels as Joseph. But the one performance that could possibly rival Willis' is that of Samuel L. Jackson as Elijah Price. His portrayal, at once unsettlingly enigmatic and warmly empathetic, creates the most fascinating character I've seen in a superhero movie. If you haven't seen or heard of this amazing piece of work, rent it immediately. It will always hold a special place in my heart.

The Village (2004)

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

source: Touchstone Pictures

This is an interesting one to discuss. Following up after Signs (2002), his biggest hit since The Sixth Sense (1999), Shyamalan's moving period-style romance caused much divide amongst critics and audiences upon its theatrical release. A large part of that, initially, was due to the film being advertised entirely incorrectly. In one of his big career regrets, Shyamalan's ad campaign painted the picture as a suspenseful horror movie, much like his two most profitable works. But another part of that lay within the movie's twist. Yet neither of those things ultimately takes away from The Village's overall quality.

source: Touchstone Pictures

If you haven't seen it, the story centers around a small, isolated commune wherein a young woman named Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard, sensational in her debut role) falls in love with her longtime friend Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix), much to the dismay of her other friend, Noah (Adrien Brody). At the same time, a group of cloaked creatures only referred to as Those We Do Not Speak Of begin to attack the village, despite the community's measures to ward them off. The chaos finally hits its pique when Noah stabs Lucius out of jealousy, which compels the elders to send Ivy outside of their home to find medicine.

source: Touchstone Pictures

Where I do think this twist fails is in the timing of its execution. Editor Christopher Tellefsen (A Quiet Place, Moneyball, The Menu) has Ivy's father Edward (William Hurt) reveal to her that Those We Do Not Speak Of are actually village elders in costume, and that the roaring sounds often heard were pre-recorded and played in the forest to scare citizens into not venturing into the outer world. Later, when Ivy goes to fetch medicine for Lucius, she's attacked by one such being in the woods. However, any tension that could be manufactured here has already been eradicated beforehand, so we just watch passively as Ivy inevitably manages to defend herself and continue on her journey. Oh, and of course her assailant turns out to be the resentful Noah.

Here's how I think this could have been fixed: Tellefsen should have shown Edward taking Ivy to be shown important, then cut away to another scene before he revealed the big twist to us. Later, once Ivy began her confrontation in the wood and quickly gained the upper hand against Noah, he should have intercut that with clips of her seeing that these things aren't real, and Edward's expository dialogue could be carried over the climactic fight scene. It would've made more sense because it actually came as a surprise.

source: Touchstone Pictures

Another element of the twist that divided people was the revelation that it is actually modern day. The villagers have actually been hiding away from the rest of society due to several traumatic tragedies that befell many of the elders in the past, who then sought to shelter their brethren from such anguish. While I actually like this idea, and can feel a lot of poignancy in its commentary on grief, I can also see why others would be turned off by it.

In the end, The Village is, I think, Shyamalan's most daring, creatively risky picture. Even with the absurdity of some of his later projects- The Happening, Lady in the Water (2006), Old (2021)- this one is easily the most ambitious in combining an outlandish idea and twist with a grounded human story. Does it always work? Not quite. Does it have a stirring core romance? Yes. Is it nevertheless exquisitely acted and directed? Absolutely. Does it have masterful cinematography by the great Roger Deakins, and a haunting score by James Newton Howard? Well, now I'm just stating plain facts. This isn't a perfect movie, but it's Shyamalan putting himself out there to the max, and enough of it works to where I'll always admire The Village for that reason.

In Conclusion

Shyamalan directs Ben Aldridge in Knock at the Cabin (2023).

Ultimately, I love Shyamalan for the way he throws himself wholeheartedly into his artistic visions, even if they don't always work. If he's got an idea, he sees it through to its fruition, pouring as much creativity into his sets, costumes, cinematography, and the direction he gives his cast members. Even when he trips over himself and makes something like Old or The Happening, I'll still be eager to see whatever he cooks up next, because I know I'm going to get a distinct and uncompromising experience. If you have never seen a Shyamalan film, the three pictures I just discussed would be a great place to start.

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