The Films of M. Night Shyamalan
Praying with Anger
The Sixth Sense
Signs (August 2/02)
Signs, like M. Night Shyamalan's previous two films The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, is virtually impossible to talk about without spoiling something, with the film undoubtedly faring best among viewers with little foreknowledge of the plot (which follows Mel Gibson's former preacher as he investigates the emergence of a huge pattern in his crops). Unlike the majority of so-called scary movies (including Shyamalan's own Sixth Sense), Signs contains a good deal of frightening images and genuinely suspenseful moments. There are no oh-it-was-just-the-cat moments here; every suspenseful sequence belongs within the context of the movie. When Gibson goes out into his field in the middle of the night after hearing odd noises, that scene is incredibly tense because you just know he's going to see something odd out there. Shyamalan's previous two movies had serious pacing issues, a problem which has been fixed here. Though Signs will never claim to make Speed look like a slow ride to Grandma's house, it moves at exactly the right speed (no pun intended) that the material warrants. It's that slow build that makes the movie as scary as it is, because we're in the same position that Gibson and his family (which includes Joaquin Phoenix's Merrill and Rory Culkin's Morgan). We learn information when they learn it; the audience is never a step ahead of them. And though some of Shyamalan's fans will complain of the lack of a twist ending, think about it - is this really a movie that would have been enhanced by such a conclusion? Gibson gives one of the best performances of his career here, and that alone makes Signs worth seeing. Add to that a storyline that is genuinely frightening, and you've got a winner on all accounts. (This is, without a doubt, one of the scariest flicks ever to hit theaters.)
The Village (July 28/04)
If nothing else, you have to admire M. Night Shyamalan for continually playing with the expectations of his audience. Though he's essentially stuck to the same genre since hitting it big with The Sixth Sense five years ago, there's no denying that each of his successive films has been completely different than the one before. The trailer for The Village seemed to promise something fairly close to Signs, his last movie, in that it appeared to be about a small community coming under siege from outside sources. And while that's true to a degree, The Village is far more concerned with the ins and outs of small town life in the late 19th century. It's a choice that might turn off some viewers, but the combination of Shyamalan's natural gift for storytelling and the strongest ensemble cast he's ever featured is impossible to resist. Shyamalan has been quoted as saying he was inspired to write The Village after the events of 9/11, and it's not difficult to see such parallels in the film's story. The town's citizens - such as Joaquin Phoenix's Lucius, Adrien Brody's Noah, and William Hurt's Edward - are completely isolated from the outside world, relying on each other for support and comfort. It's fairly clear that the village itself represents Shyamalan's vision of a Utopian society; even the mysterious creatures that live nearby aren't considered much of a threat, provided nobody travels into their domain. It's probably not a coincidence that everybody that lives within the village is portrayed as happy and content. It's become something of a trademark for Shyamalan to imbue his films with a slow, deliberate pace - something that doesn't always work (ie Unbreakable). But with The Village, Shyamalan effectively builds the suspense by allowing us to get to know the characters first (an impressive feat, given how many of them there are). Though Shyamalan has peppered his cast with a number of familiar faces, it's newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard that receives the most screen time. Playing a blind girl named Ivy, Howard is required to run the gamut of emotions - while also engendering sympathy from the audience (she eventually becomes the hero of the piece). It's an eye-opening performance that all but assures Howard a long career (unless her upcoming role in Lars von Trier's follow-up to Dogville kills it). Supporting players like Hurt, Phoenix, and Sigourney Weaver (playing Lucius' mother) don't have quite as much to do, though Shyamalan never relegates them to scenery. If there's a complaint to be made regarding the performances, it's Shyamalan's continued instance that his actors speak in muted tones. It works when there's a creature around the corner, but it's becoming something of a cliché that all of his characters whisper to one another - no matter what the situation. As enjoyable as The Village is, there's little doubt that it will be the most heavily debated film of Shyamalan's career thus far. It's a love-it-or-hate-it sort of movie, depending primarily on how certain third act revelations hit you. But even detractors must admit that Shyamalan does a fantastic job of establishing the mood of this small town. There are certainly opportunites for nitpicking within the film's storyline - ie Ivy's blindness sure comes in handy towards the end - but Shyamalan envelopes the viewer in this world so effectively that it's easy to overlook such elements.
Lady in the Water (July 20/06)
Though it hardly seems possible, Lady in the Water is surely destined to divide audiences even further than The Village did; with its head-scratcher of a storyline and expectedly deliberate pace, the movie gives filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan's detractors plenty of ammunition to use against him. But as undeniably strange as much of Lady in the Water is, Shyamalan certainly deserves kudos for trying something different - although the director occasionally goes a little too far in terms of kookiness. Paul Giamatti stars as Cleveland Heep, the sad-sack superintendent of an apartment complex that's home to a whole host of unusually offbeat characters. Cleveland's depressing life is interrupted by the arrival of a water nymph named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is evidently being pursued by evil little creatures known as "scrunts." With the assistance of his fellow apartment dwellers, Cleveland slowly unravels the secrets behind Story's existence and begins formulating a plan to secure her safe return back home. Much has been made of the fact that Shyamalan elected to make Lady in the Water at Warner Bros following a dispute with Disney executives, who reportedly objected to some of the more obscure elements within Shyamalan's screenplay. But there's absolutely nothing here so strange that it impedes the viewers enjoyment; Shyamalan does a superb job of establishing this world and its inhabitants, as well as the rules that clearly govern their actions (ie nobody is terribly surprised by Story's presence, which does make sense within the context of the film). That Shyamalan has selected a uniformly strong cast to bring his story to life certainly helps ground the proceedings into something that resembles reality, although it's clear literally from minute one that the filmmaker is going for a distinctly mythical sort of vibe. Giamatti, who delivers an expectedly riveting performance, has been surrounded by a whole host of stellar co-stars, including Jeffrey Wright, Freddy Rodriguez, and Bob Balaban. Balaban, in particular, provides the film with an appreciated burst of humor, as the actor effectively steps into the shoes of a ridiculously pompous film critic. Lady in the Water ultimately feels like the sort of movie that'll improve immeasurably on repeat viewings, as one can't help but fixate on the film's plethora of bizarre happenings the first time around. Still, in terms of creating an intriguing, compelling fable, Shyamalan has undoubtedly succeeded (although it'd surely be nice if he'd stop directing his actors to speak in incomprehensible whispers).
Undoubtedly M. Night Shyamalan's weakest thriller to date, The Happening has been infused with a broad, almost campy sensibility that virtually negates the strength of the film's genuinely disturbing moments. There are consequently very few elements within the proceedings that provoke the kind of visceral reaction that Shyamalan is undoubtedly aiming for, as the director's usual tropes ultimately don't come off nearly as well as they have in the past (ie the protagonist is subjected to a personal problem that's neatly wrapped up by the time the credits roll). The storyline - which follows several characters (including Mark Wahlberg's Elliot and Zooey Deschanel's Alma) as they attempt to survive during an environmental crisis - moves at an appropriately brisk pace, though it does become increasingly difficult to look past the pervading lack of tension within the film's more overtly scary sequences. Shyamalan's far-from-subtle modus operandi surely plays a significant role in The Happening's downfall, with the overwrought and flat-out laughable dialogue exacerbated by performances that are almost uniformly ineffective (something that's particularly true of Wahlberg's egregiously earnest and downright incompetent efforts at stepping into the shoes of an everyman). And while there are admittedly a handful of eerie interludes sprinkled throughout - ie the fate of John Leguizamo's character - The Happening remains a misguided effort that bears few similarities to such prior Shyamalan successes as Signs and The Village.
The Last Airbender
Based on the cartoon television series, The Last Airbender, which unfolds in a world that's been divided into territories based on Earth, Fire, Water, and Air, follows scrappy Water Kingdom siblings Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) as they attempt to keep the title character (Noah Ringer's Aang) safe from harm - as Aang's ability to master the use of all four elements has made him a target of the violent Fire Kingdom. The rather dense nature of the film's mythology ensures that the opening half hour of The Last Airbender is surprisingly difficult to follow, as writer/director M. Night Shyamalan offers up a convoluted narrative that's exacerbated by a distinct lack of character development (ie why are the film's white heroes living in a village with dark-skinned natives?) It's worth noting, however, that the movie is initially quite watchable even during its overtly baffling stretches, with Shyamalan's expectedly skillful visuals and the almost uniformly strong performances - Ringer's astoundingly awful turn is a notable exception - proving effective at sustaining the viewer's interest (albeit on the level of a summer-popcorn-flick extravaganza). The progressively muddled storyline - coupled with the inclusion of a few decidedly underwhelming action sequences - slowly but surely transforms The Last Airbender into a lamentably tedious experience, and there's little doubt that the interminable build-up to the final confrontation results in as hopelessly anti-climactic an atmosphere as one can easily recall (with a noble sacrifice made by a periphery figure standing as the only reasonably compelling interlude within the movie's otherwise disastrous third act). And while Shyamalan does deserve some respect for trying something completely different, The Last Airbender is simply (and ultimately) a tremendously disappointing effort from a once rock-solid filmmaker.
Arriving on the heels of the nigh disastrous The Last Airbender, After Earth can't help but come off as a step in the right direction for beleaguered filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan - as the movie, though saddled with an astonishingly inept lead performance from Jaden Smith, boasts more than enough positive attributes to warrant a relatively enthusiastic recommendation. The spare storyline follows a futuristic father (Will Smith's Cypher) and son (Jaden Smith's Kitai) as their spacecraft crash lands on an Earth that's been long-since abandoned by humanity, with the movie, for the most part, detailing Kitai's perilous efforts at recovering a beacon that will summon help for both himself and his injured pop. It's an engaging, low-key premise that stands in sharp contrast to the over-the-top fare that generally dominates multiplexes during the summertime months, as Shyamalan, working from a script cowritten with Gary Whitta, offers up an engrossing father/son tale that's enhanced by the inclusion of intriguing sci-fi elements. There's little doubt such attributes, coupled with Will Smith's typically engrossing work, goes a long way towards compensating for the ineffectiveness of the younger Smith's performance, as the fledgling actor's less-than-competent turn ensures that Kitai simply never becomes the dynamic, charismatic lead character that one might've expected (and hoped for). It's subsequently not surprising to note that After Earth hits a palpable after the protagonists find themselves unable to communicate, with the pronounced emphasis on Kitai's solo exploits ensuring that the movie's second half simply doesn't fare as well as the first. (And it doesn't help, either, that the film is topped off with a fairly generic battle between Kitai and a laughably unconvincing CGI monster.) Still, After Earth is, for much of its refreshingly brief running time, a better-than-average big-budget blockbuster that marks Shyamalan's most entertaining effort since 2006's Lady in the Water.
A typically erratic found-footage effort, The Visit follows scrappy siblings Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) as they reluctantly agree to stay with their mother's (Kathryn Hahn) estranged parents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) for a few days - with horror ensuing as it becomes increasingly clear that there's something not quite right with grandma and grandpa. Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan has infused the majority of The Visit with many of the touchstones one has come to expect from found-footage chillers, and yet it's worth noting that the movie never quite becomes as predictable as many of its similarly-themed brethren - as the writer/director does an effective job of peppering the narrative with surprising elements and an undercurrent of unexpected drama. (In terms of the latter, The Visit, for much of its first half, functions as an impressively trenchant look at aging and its effects.) But it's in its more overtly horrific sequences that the film really shines, with such moments boasting a palpably creepy feel that's heightened by Shyamalan's typically sterling directorial choices. And, of course, The Visit contains a third-act twist that's both shocking and impressively plausible, with, unfortunately, this superb development followed by a generic final stretch and a silly, somewhat desperate shock ending. It's clear, nevertheless, that The Visit marks Shyamalan's best horror effort since 2004's The Village, and one can only hope that this marks the start of a comeback for the once-reliable filmmaker.