Shyamalan: shaman or schmuck?

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Tom Huddleston assesses the career of M Night Shyamalan, whose latest film 'The Happening' is in cinemas now

As M Night Shyamalan’s latest apocalyptic twistfest ‘The Happening’ opens in theatres (and internet rumours of its unwatchability continue to flourish), it seems appropriate to take a look back through the man’s work, and ask the question- has M Night lost it? And did he, in fact, ever have it to begin with?

Shyamalan’s early films ‘Praying with Anger’ and ‘Wide Awake’ have never received a UK release. Both films focus on faith and spirituality in modern America, closely personal themes for Shyamalan, the child of a Hindu family raised in a Catholic school. Christian themes resurface in Night’s breakthrough film ‘The Sixth Sense’, which deals with a loss of faith as much as it does with ghosts and the paranormal.

It’s easy to underestimate the impact ‘The Sixth Sense’ made on its first release, perhaps because with time the film has revealed itself to be little more than an effectively crafty chiller, utilising the sad eyes and icy pallor of unnerving man-child Haley Joel Osment to superb effect, but sorely lacking in genuine character development or emotional staying power. That much-trumpeted final twist – look away now if you’re one of the few living people who’ve not managed to rumble it – actually undermines much of what has gone before, turning what seemed to be an intriguing study of spousal estrangement into a rather simplistic ‘ha! fooled you!’ moment of cheap revelation. But the film certainly has its fair share of effective scares, aided by an impressively clammy atmosphere and some solid central performances.

Shyamalan applied the same dourer-than-thou aesthetic to his next big-budget genre reappraisal ‘Unbreakable’, attempting to do for the superhero flick what ‘Sixth Sense’ had done for the ghost story – namely, make it as depressing as possible. The film has its share of compelling scenes, and the set-up is intriguing and excellently handled. But then it doesn’t actually go anywhere, Shyamalan seems bent on keeping things as small-scale as possible, assuming that this will somehow result in something affecting and personal. It’s a mistake – films like ‘Superman’ and ‘Spider-Man 2’ have shown that it’s possible to showcase grand-scale thrills while still remaining true to your characters, but Shyamalan’s perspective is far too narrow, and the film suffers for it.

Arguably the director’s best film, ‘Signs’ utilises a simple central conceit – an alien invasion viewed through the eyes of a single, remotely located family – to exemplary effect. It’s clear that Night had seen and enjoyed Kenneth Lonergan’s masterful, Oscar-nominated indie drama ‘You Can Count on Me’, and decided to apply the same low-budget, ultra-personal aesthetic to a grander scale apocalyptic sci-fi piece (he also pinched standout child actor Rory Culkin, and would’ve cast Mark Ruffalo in an almost identical role if an injury hadn’t forced Joaquin Phoenix to step in). Though its plot is vague and its climax somewhat ludicrous, ‘Signs’ has a terrific atmosphere, luxuriating in soft afternoon sunlight and treating its characters with wit, genuine warmth and humility. It’s also surprisingly nerve-racking, keeping the villains out of sight in favour of a series of eerie symbols and off-screen activity – those creepy crop circles, a mysterious tapping on the roof, an extraordinary scene involving a breadknife and a locked door.

Combining the creepout-with-a-twist narrative of ‘The Sixth Sense’ with the effective character drama of ‘Signs’, ‘The Village’ is a film which tends to get a bad rap, but contains some of Shyamalan’s finest writing and a few wildly unsettling setpieces. Okay, so the ending doesn’t work even slightly, and Shyamalan the scriptwriter ties himself in knots trying to reach it, but this can’t completely undercut some superb work earlier in the film, most notably from a sterling above-the-line cast including William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson, Adrian Brody, Joaquin Phoenix again and a simply luminous Bryce Dallas Howard. A scene midway through the film, in which the mysterious wolves from the wood invade the titular community, is as good a suspense sequence as any in recent memory, combining heart-in-the-mouth action, relatable characters in genuine peril and a deeply disconcerting and pervasive sense of the unknown.

And then it all goes to hell. ‘Lady in the Water’ is pretty much as bad as every critic claimed, with its Narfs and Scrunts the centre of a generally woolly mythology and a wretched, pitiable desperation to inspire wide-eyed wonder that’s worse than Spielberg at his most cloying. Poor Paul Giamatti just looks lost, wondering, like his character, what the hell is going on, particularly when Night himself appears as a pseudo-mystical storyteller and attempts to untangle this unholy mess. A labour of love, its this film more than any other that exposed the manifold shortcomings of a heretofore largely successful writer-director: a fondness for cod-spiritualist whimsy, a deeply simplistic moral attitude and a tendency towards self-indulgence and egoism which rivals that of filmmakers of a far grander stature (such as Peter Jackson and Shyamalan’s hero, Spielberg).

So we find ourselves at a crossroads. There’s no doubt that Shyamalan isn’t (yet) the master filmmaker and storyteller he believes himself to be, and if he continues on his current downward trajectory such a goal seems increasingly unlikely. But neither is he anything like the hack some critics would love to paint him as – this is a director with ambition, even if he often falls short; a man of vision, even if that vision is often skewed and rather too personal. His finest moments – the scares in ‘Sixth Sense’ and ‘The Village’, the lovely character work in ‘Signs – speak of a writer and director possessed of genuine talent, an attentive student of film history with a sure grasp of his audience. It’d be nice to see what Shyamalan could achieve with a more straightforward genre piece – an attempt to work within genre boundaries, rather than narcissistically transcend them, preferably working from someone else’s script. So ‘The Happening’ could prove to be make-or-break – if it works, Night is back in the Hollywood fold. But if it fails – as many seem to believe it will – this could spell the ignominious end of a troubled, inconsistent but staunchly entertaining film career.

Author: Tom Huddleston



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