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M. Night Shyamalan’s Best Movie

Jan
11
2007

M. Night Shyamalan is living my dream. He writes screenplays that he directs himself for studios which pay him a lot of money – I mean, a lot of money – and allow him to hire top shelf actors. And he has a large audience of followers who will see any movie by the writer-director who thrilled them with The Sixth Sense, the 25th most popular film in history as gauged by world-wide box office gross sales.

And yet, in my view, The Sixth Sense is vastly overrated. Still, I feel a great deal of sympathy for Shyamalan because his best effort, Unbreakable – it’s actually his only movie that I really liked – was the least successful of his first four major releases.

As with Hitchcock and other auteurs, we know from his distinctive style when we’re watching a Shyamalan picture. In fact, the only thing standing in the way of the writer-director earning his own adjective – think Hitchcovian or Spielbergian – is that the coinage (Shyamalanian) sounds like the chorus’ refrain in a doo-wop song.



M. Night

Shyamalan’s

The Sixth Sense

Signs

Unbreakable

But auteur status has it perils, primarily: no one can tell the auteur when he makes mistakes. Even when he makes a lot of mistakes. Or, at least the auteur doesn’t have to listen – until his audience goes away. Which may be happening to Shyamalan: his most recent film, Lady in the Water, wasn’t even at the cinema long enough for me to see it. I finally watched it on the recently-released DVD and I understand why it disappointed the critics and audiences last year.

It looks as if Lady in the Water will be even less popular than Unbreakable, the only one of Shyamalan’s major pictures to gross under $100 million domestically.

SPOILER ALERT: What follows gives away significant elements from The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, and Lady in the Water.



Unbreakable

The Sixth Sense

I have great admiration for Shyamalan’s inventiveness, and I wonder how good his movies would be if he had to vet them before a committee of professionals. Critics and would-be auteurs often complain that input from too many studio suits is the cause of a good idea that is ruined by the time it hits the big screen. But Shyamalan’s movies would be stronger if he had to defend key elements of his story and directing, listen to constructive critics, and adapt his process to account for major missteps.

I’ll give a few examples of weaknesses common to most of his movies, then show how his best film avoided them.

Mainly, there are major illogical elements in his pictures. Audiences were stunned – pleasantly so, in most cases – by the surprise ending to The Sixth Sense. We didn’t realize that Dr. Malcom Crowe (Bruce Willis’ character), like the character himself, was actually dead. Well of course we didn’t: too many things happen in the course of the picture which would have made him, and us, realize he wasn’t among the living. Sure, we were surprised: we were cheated, too.

In Signs, some strange happenings are finally explained by an alien invasion. Oddly, these aliens are bipeds and about the size of the average human – they even look like humans dressed by Ed Wood’s costume department; i.e. not convincing – and they appear capable of conquering humankind. These supposedly overwhelmingly powerful aliens can’t be too smart, however: they’ve invaded a planet that is two-thirds water, an element that is fatal to them.

In The Village we are supposed to be shocked to discover that the characters are living on a commune which appears to be in the eighteenth or nineteenth century but in fact is part of a present-day experiment that keeps all traces of contemporary civilization away from half of the communards. How is that possible? Does an aircraft never stray over? Does no hunter – or nosy reporter – ever wander by? Absurd.

Lady in the Water tries to head off some of these objections by positing up front that elements of a fantasy-world are overlain on a world that is otherwise exactly like our own. It doesn’t work.

None of these set-ups is internally coherent, and none really compel us to suspend disbelief.

Unbreakable is the exception. Yes, as we learn in the end, David Dunn, the character played by Bruce Willis, really is physically invulnerable, just like a comic book character; and his nemesis is, in many significant physical and psychological ways, his antithesis. Near the end of the movie we are properly surprised to learn that these two characters, otherwise just like everyone else, have extra-human qualities. But the signs of their extra-human abilities are carefully placed in the story all along, as is the fact that comic book logic may be part of the story. Shyamalan, for a change, does not cheat.

Unlike the dead Dr. Crowe of The Sixth Sense, Dunn subconsciously knows there is something exceptional about his body, and he learns more about his abilities along with the audience. Likewise, Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) is well aware of his exceptional physique, as is the viewer. Shyamalan delivers an internally coherent world, and yet is still able to deliver a trademark surprise twist at the end. I don’t understand why audiences did not respond to this inventiveness and discipline.

One other thing Shyamalan does differently, and better, in Unbreakable: he allows his actors to behave naturally. Samuel L. Jackson delivers one of trademark bravura performances and Willis’ character plays the strong (and, boy, is his character strong), silent type just right.

In some of the other pictures it appears that the director saddles his major actors with a weird and unnatural way of speaking. Paul Giammati, the lead in Lady in the Water, is a terrific actor but doesn’t get to show it. The same is true for most of the other actors in that picture with the exception of the brilliant Jeffrey Wright, who is always excellent. Likewise, in The Village, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, and other fine actors speak as if they are automatons; the only naturalistic acting comes from Adrien Brody, but he’s playing a mentally damaged person.

So there is my constructive criticism for Mr. Shyamalan – not that I expect him to pay attention. After all, he’s an auteur.

Are you one of the multitudes who hated Unbreakable and loved The Sixth Sense? My email is to the right: feel free to vent.

Share  Posted by mzeringue at 6:28 PM | Permalink

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