The Man Who Heard Voices: A Look At M. Night Shyamalan

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*There are spoilers in this article*

It’s not often that a filmmaker comes along and makes the kind of impression that M. Night Shyamalan did in 1999, with his first major motion picture The Sixth Sense. The film grossed over six hundred million dollars globally and went on to garner six Academy Award nominations (including best picture) and countless other nominations and awards at various festivals around the world. But after three back-to-back hits, Mr. Shyamalan fell off a bit, some might say more than bit. So in light of the July 2nd release of M. Night’s 3D spectacle The Last Airbender, I thought it might be prudent to take a look at the hits and misses of a young filmmaker who prides himself at being the Alfred Hitchcock of the twenty-first century.

There are a couple of films like Praying with Anger and Wide Awake (starring Rosie O’Donnell and Denis Leary among others) that I won’t bother to talk about, simply because they were made early in his career by a very green director who was trying to find his voice. Both films are considered by many to be nice attempts, but nowhere near the same caliber as some of his later work. I am also a little more interested in the scope of his career since M. Night Shyamalan became more of a household name.

The Sixth Sense

1999 was an incredibly strong year for Hollywood films. Here’s a short list: American Beauty, Magnolia, Cider House Rules, The Insider and Boys Don’t Cry, to name a few. So it’s safe to say the competition for The Sixth Sense was steep. The story of a child psychologist who investigates a boy who suffers from extreme anxiety (he sees dead people) is excellent! The movie deftly dances between drama and old school horror, and it captured the imagination of audiences worldwide. It was with this picture that M. Night perfected his signature technique of the bait and switch with the audience. Drawing us down a fun-house corridor of anticipation, only to whisk the curtain back revealing a truth that we’ve been starring at for the entire film without realizing its power or relevance! With The Sixth Sense, M. Night proved he was a true visual magician. And we the audience, were like a bunch of side show rubbernecker’s begging to be amazed! Shyamalan did for Hitchcock what Tarantino did for Lumet. In a single film he re-invented a genre!

Unbreakable

When someone asks me what my favorite movie is; more often than not this film makes it onto the list! I love it! As a child who traded in comic books; the story of David Dunn, an unlikely security guard who discovers he has certain super-human abilities after he is the sole survivor of a train crash is one that I really enjoyed! Once again M. Night showed his wonderful story telling ability, as he played out the line with a measure rarely seen by such a young filmmaker. The picture culminates with one of the best reveal/endings (in my humble opinion) in recent memory. Sam Jackson’s portrayal of Elijah Price, Dunn’s friend turned nemesis was one of the first times I ever noticed the actor when not playing a gangster or the like! This is just one of those films that plays well on all fronts. It would be difficult for any filmmaker to follow up something as commercially viable as The Sixth Sense with another hit. And even though I am a huge fan of the film. Generally Unbreakable did poorly at the box office and critics gave the film a lukewarm reception. But those two factors have done a lot to elevate the film’s status as a cult hit!

Signs

Signs is one of those films that everyone likes but nobody loves! It boasts a formidable cast with both Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix before they lost their minds (Hey, maybe there’s something in that)! The film tells the story of a Pennsylvania widower and his family as they come to terms with their own tragedy while dealing with the possible invasion of the earth by a hostile alien army. M. Night does a great job in showing the audience a massive global issue through the eyes of four people who, at times seem a thousand miles away, but at other times have that same issue knocking on their front door! You have to consider a formula that seems to work over and over again: big issues, small world, in the sense that you only have a small number of characters sharing an experience in one or two locations. This formula seems to work time and again! This picture also has a few genuine “WHAT THE F**K WAS THAT”, moments the will blow you out of your seat!

However…

This one just didn’t have the same punch of Shyamalan’s other two films. A great little jump out of your seat summer flick something you might go see on a Tuesday (back when that actually meant cheap)! Or something to see at the drive in! If any other filmmaker had made this picture no one would say a thing; but Shyamalan had given himself a very high standard, something that was going to be tested over the few years of his career!

The Village

Not a good movie! M. Night’s prowess as the master of the bait and switch was going to be his downfall. He had painted himself into a corner of sorts, so that his audience was starting to get wise to his tricks! The whole point of a bait and switch is that you have to show people something! So when you’re making a movie and people know your trick; they’re going to start looking at everything a lot more closely! I, like many people called this film in, at about the 5-minute mark! No monster (It’s the handicapped kid), and the village itself isn’t in the distant past it’s in present day! Roger Ebert called this plot twist “a crummy secret, about one step up the ladder of narrative originality from it was all a dream.” This film is the perfect example that good acting can’t always save a bad script.  Almost all the aspects of this film are good or better, the only weak part of the film in the story, but in this case…the story sucks!

It was all downhill from here…

 

 

The Lady In The Water

Originally conceived as a Disney film The Lady in The Water was the first time (since The Sixth Sense) that Shyamalan had a difficult time securing funding for a picture.  This became a highly publicized struggle between Disney, M. Night and the studio that would eventually fund the project, Warner Brothers. This struggle ended up as the topic of Michael Bamberger’s book The Man Who Heard Voices (ahem)! The story (of the film not the book) follows a handyman at an apartment complex who becomes entangled in a fairytale of sorts, involving an assortment of mystical creatures that live in and around the apartments pool! Paul Giamatti is completely charming (as always) as the handyman. But audiences gave the picture a cool reception and most critics panned the film calling the film fractured and Shyamalan “self-indulgent”. Michael Medved gave Lady in the Water one and a half stars (out of four) calling it, “… a full-out, flamboyant cinematic disaster, a work of nearly unparalleled arrogance and vapidity”. Nuff said!

The Happening

Where to begin? You know something is rotten in Denmark when the film’s writer/director has to qualify the movie before it comes out. “It’s a B movie” is one way of saying: “I took a risk on an idea with lots and lots of someone else’s money and it didn’t turn out the way I had in my head”! Once again, M. Night had a difficult time selling the film to studios (it’s funny how that happens when you start racking up the pure crap)! The fact that every studio in Hollywood passed on this film before a Bollywood studio jumped on board with half the funding should have been a clue…for someone, somewhere! This film is absolutely terrible! Which is so disappointing because the trailers looked so good! People start killing themselves on a massive scale. No one knows why. They figure out that the trees are releasing some sort of neurotoxin…yes…that’s right, I said the trees! And they (the characters in the movie) run away from the trees and the wind…

THEY RUN AWAY FROM THE TREES AND THE WIND! How can the same guy who made Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense make this movie? I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!

There is so much wrong with this movie that there is no point in listing it. It’s a shame that a filmmaker with as much talent and promise could have a miss as big as The Happening. It’ so bad someone should invent a drinking game just to make the viewing of it more bearable!

Overall it might seem like M. Night Shyamalan hit his head sometime in 2004 and never quite recovered. It almost appears that he is trying to recapture some of his former glory by spitting out film after film in hopes of something sticking to the proverbial wall! If you watch other filmmaker’s of Shyamalan generation like P.T. Anderson, Sophia Coppola or Spike Jonze you can see three varied artists who are taking their time. In ten years Shyamalan has made almost seven films. P.T. Anderson, Sophia Coppola and Spike Jones have each made three (They have all been busy with a variety of other projects that are not feature length motion pictures I realize, but you get my drift)! A feature film takes time, especially if you are going to write and direct the damn thing. I for one certainly hope M. Night finds his way, but I’ll wait for the reviews of The Last Air bender before I plunk down my 15.99 or whatever it costs to go see a movie these days! But if it’s anything like his last three…that’s THREE shit movies folks (In baseball he’d be out)! Shyamalan should take a page out of QT’s book and take 5 or 6 years off and give someone else a chance to win a Razzie!

– Jacob Barker

 

 

4 Comments
  1. Bill Mesce says

    Interesting piece. I was eager to read it since, early on, I’d been a fan of Shyamalan’s and, like others, wondered, Wha’ happened? You start wondering if his early movies were as good as you thought, if he was the talent you first judged him to be. Well, he was…and he wasn’t.

    Look, I loved THE SIXTH SENSE and even SIGNS — still do. Still watch ’em whenever they show up on cable. But even on first viewing it was clear his plotting wasn’t as masterful as his execution.

    That’s the thingto keep in mind about Shyamalan: even when he was on a hot streak, it wasn’t quite THAT hot.

    With all respect to your affection for UNBREAKABLE, it was generally considered a disappointment, and it was judged to do as well as it did (a little under $100 m domestic) because of people wanting to see the follow-up to SIXTH SENSE. Similarly, although THE VILLAGE did $114 m US, it was gauged yet another disappointment and its box office — again — assumed to be largely a product of the popularity of SIGNS, his 2nd largest hit.

    I think his successes were built on the films being meticulously and elegantly crafted, and from their strong casts, and a great “feel,” all of which covered a heavy reliance on contrivance and on the viewer being so absorbed in any given moment that the plot holes wouldn’t be evident until the ride home.

    SIGNS is guiltier on these counts than SIXTH SENSE. Let me get this straight: these aliens are smart enough to master interplanetary flight but once they’re here the art of home invasion completely eludes them? And the military can’t seem to do anything about them even though the aliens don’t seem to have any armament other than their little wrist misters?

    Or take his biggest hit: THE SIXTH SENSE. Shyamalan has constructed a series of delicately designed just-misses to make plausible the lack of communication between Willis and his wife, and they work in that moment…but not beyond. It’s hardly plausible that that kind of ballet can go on between two people sharing a house for hours and days, but Shyamalan’s weakness — and, paradoxically, his strength — is that he requires us to only believe in the moment.

    When he fails to pull off those neccessary moments, however, then you have THE VILLAGE, or LADY IN THE WATER, or the unbelievably bad THE HAPPENING.

    THE LAST AIRBENDER may ultimately do just well enough to keep Shyamalan in the game, but the appraisal of the film thus far suggests it’s hardly a comeback vehicle.

    Again, interesting piece about a career more dramatic than most of Shyamalan’s movies.

  2. Ricky says

    I LOVED THE HAPPENING. IT IS SO FUNNY AND I CAN’T WAIT TO REVIEW IT AGAIN.

  3. Jacob Barker says

    Sorry about the exclamation marks Duncan. I know it’s an issue. I use the ! as my default period. I also yell and point a lot, maybe that’s my problem.

  4. Duncan Timiney says

    I am the only person in the world that liked The Happening. I found the concept of an invisible threat to be really creepy. The specific symptoms were creepy. The ending was abysmally poor, though. Not even a deus ex machina. Just an “oh, we’re okay now.”

    Unbreakable, I liked… good use of colour. The only other shamalamadingdong film I’ve seen is Signs – I did not like its pacing or its message. I really can’t get a handle on him. The quality of his storytelling seems so variable. The reception that Airbender receives will be interesting either way.

    Jacob, I enjoy your articles, but do you think you could either use less exclaimation marks, or more? :>

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