The films of M Night Shyamalan – ranked

From Signs to Split, The Sixth Sense to The Happening, we survey this divisive director’s surprisingly varied career.

Words

James Slaymaker

Since the phenomenal success of his breakout feature, The Sixth Sense, turned the young director into an overnight household name, M Night Shyamalan has grown into one of the most fascinating auteurs currently working. Though he was once touted as the next American master, Shyamalan’s reputation has soured over the past two decades: Unbreakable, Signs and The Village were each greeted with a collective shrug by the critical community, while The Lady in the Water was perceived as a plunge into total self-parody.

The director’s brief foray into big-budget blockbuster storytelling fared even worse. After Earth was largely laughed off as nothing more than a showcase for the meagre acting chops of its adolescent lead Jaden Smith and The Last Airbender is still widely considered to be one of the worst films to ever be produced within the studio system. The very artistic traits which were once championed as the markers of a singular creative voice – the slow pacing, the hushed sound design, the pared-down performances, the pervading atmosphere of portent, the obsession with fairy tale and Gothic imagery – were increasingly disregarded as the pretentious extravagances of a creatively bankrupt director treading water.

Although the release of Split marked a minor resurgence of critical goodwill, a title card reading ‘from the mind of Shyamalan’ is still more likely to inspire derisive titters than genuine excitement. For many, the downward trajectory of Shyamalan’s career is a cautionary tale of a director who peaked too young and crumbled under the weight of outsized expectations. In the eyes of this writer, however, Shyamalan is the real deal; an idiosyncratic, tragically undervalued filmmaker whose triumphs vastly outweigh his follies. To celebrate the release of Glass, we’ve revisited and ranked all 13 of his feature films. Read the full list below, then let us know your personal favourites at @LWLies

13. Wide Awake (1998)

Though rough around the edges, Shyamalan’s deeply personal debut feature, Praying with Anger, is clearly the work of an ambitious young voice expressing a unique cinematic vision. The same cannot be said for his follow-up, Wide Awake, a schmaltzy coming-of-age dramedy produced by the short-lived family division of Miramax studios.

The film centres on Josh Beal, a Catholic schoolboy who begins to question the existence of God following the death of his beloved grandfather. Conceptually, this may sound like prime Shyamalan material, though in execution it couldn’t be farther from the brilliance of his later explorations of tested faith.

Relying on cutesy sitcom-style gags, an overbearing score and formulaic character arcs, Wide Awake packs the emotional punch of an afterschool special. Absent is the ravishing visual panache that Shyamalan would develop in his later films, instead this feels like it was directed on autopilot.

12. Playing with Anger (1992)

Written, directed and self-funded by Shyamalan while he was still studying at NYU, Praying with Anger is a scrappy debut that has been largely forgotten outside of a few hardcore auteurist circles. It’s not hard to see why, as it is marred by many of the deficiencies you may expect from a student film. The acting is stilted, the audio track varies in quality from scene to scene, and there is a lot of lazy blocking.

Yet there’s a ramshackle charm to this autobiographical tale of an Indian American college student (played by Shyamalan himself) who, at the request of his mother, travels to his native country to take part in a year-long exchange program, only to be shocked by the extent to which he has strayed from his cultural roots. Shyamalan’s signature preoccupation with spiritual devotion, cultural disconnection and familial bonds are all present in a rough form, and it’s fascinating to see these play out within the context of a light dramedy.

11. The Last Airbender (2010)

Although it is far from the colossal, world-shattering artistic disaster its reputation may have you believe, Shyamalan’s big screen adaptation of the hit Nickelodeon cartoon is one hell of a mess. Shyamalan’s strengths lie in his lean visual storytelling, but the task of condensing the plot of an entire season of television into a 90-minute feature forces him to devote long stretches of the runtime to dull explanatory narration and exposition-heavy dialogue scenes.

The tone is wildly inconsistent in the worst possible way, and the charisma-free lead cast recite their lines as if they have no idea what they’re talking about. Yet, there are so many flashes of inspired aesthetic splendour that it fells misguided to write The Last Airbender off as a total failure. The combat sequences in particular stand out for their balletic choreography and some creative use of CGI to realise the manipulation of the elements.

10. Signs (2002)

Released in late 2002, Signs was the film which marked the beginning of Shyamalan’s mid-career fascination with the sensation of trauma and anxiety that took over the nation in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Although his later films would go on to tackle these themes on a grander scale, Signs takes a decidedly intimate approach, zeroing in on a single rural family who find their taken-for-granted sense of security destabilised by the mysterious threat of an encroaching alien force.

Rather than revealing the aliens outright from the get-go, Shyamalan devotes the bulk of the film to carefully building tension through the power of suggestion, giving us only brief glimpses of shadows in hallways, reflections on knives, and eyes peering through windows as the shadowy beings increasingly intrude upon the domestic space. Because of this, Signs seems less interested in the invaders than the very notion of invasion itself, powerfully tapping into the zeitgeist of its period.

9. Lady in the Water (2006)

At the core of Shyamalan’s endearingly ludicrous tale of narfs, scrunts and tartutics is a genuine belief in the radical power of storytelling: to foster empathy, to break down interpersonal barriers, to heal emotional wounds, to lead the way to redemption. The Lady in the Water spends its opening act introducing a large ensemble cast of broad stereotypes (a braindead bodybuilder, a bickering Jewish couple, a group of aimless young stoners), who each live a shut-off life in their own corner of the central apartment complex.

As superintendent Paul sets about unravelling a centuries-old riddle that will hold the key to releasing a stranded mermaid-like creature known as Story, he must draw on the unique talents of every one of the building’s residents – the very idiosyncrasies which initially marked them as figures of ridicule. The strict divisions that once defined the central housing project gradually break down – spatially, culturally, emotionally – and a harmonious, multicultural community is established.

8. After Earth (2013)

Economic, narratively efficient, and composed in gorgeous ‘scope images by cinematographer Wolgang Suschitzky, Shyamalan’s marvellous work on After Earth elevates the film far above its nepotistic origins as a Will Smith-produced starring vehicle for his son Jaden. Although Shyamalan was brought onto the project late in the game, he acts as more than a gun-for-hire, using this pre-existing material as a vessel to explore his recurring interests in father-son dynamics and environmental ruin.

In essence, it’s a simple survivalist story with a sci-fi twist: in the distant future, a spacecraft crashes on the surface of a depopulated Earth, which was abandoned after mass pollution rendered the natural world inhospitable to human life, leaving the only two survivors stranded within a hostile, hyper-real wilderness.

On a purely visual level, After Earth contains some of the most impressive material of Shyamalan’s career, as he fully imagines an intricate alien eco-system, created through a richly textured combination of natural landscape photography and imaginative CGI enhancement.

7. The Sixth Sense (1999)

Shyamalan’s first masterpiece and the feature which first introduced the world to his distinctive style: a patient, meticulous formalism which draws on elements of classical Hollywood, modern European art cinema and ’50s B-movies.

The final twist has become a cultural touchstone so deeply ingrained into the popular consciousness that even those who haven’t seen The Sixth Sense are familiar with it – but the revelation that Bruce Willis’ Malcolm has been dead for the bulk of the film functions not only as a shocking narrative sleight-of-hand but a revelation that complicates The Sixth Sense’s thematic core and recasts everything we’ve seen before in a new, melancholic new light.

Although broadly categorised as a horror film, The Sixth Sense eschews conventional scare tactics in favour of a more classical, slow-build approach, with Shyamalan’s rigorous formalism maintaining a sustained atmosphere of dread which crescendos into a final act which packs the operatic punch of a grand tragedy.

6. The Happening (2008)

The Happening, Shyalaman’s most peculiar genre project, reconfigures the paranoid sensibilities of atomic age genre flicks for the era of climate change and mass environmental pollution. The film hinges on a daring formal conceit that is, depending on who you ask, a major misstep or a stroke of genius: the threat at the centre of the narrative isn’t a physical being but invisible, intangible neurotoxins being emitted by the natural world.

In this writer’s eyes, the prospect of the very land we rely on to survive inexplicably becoming unable to sustain human life is fundamentally terrifying, and now, 11 years after its release, its environmentalist message seems even more urgent.

Shyamalan reminds us that our lives are dependent on environmental stimuli – the water we drink, the trees that purify our air, the dirt which fertilises our crops – and imagines the large-scale extinction event that may occur unless we put a stop to widespread despoliation.

5. The Visit (2015)

Following his stint in the realm of the big-budget blockbuster, Shyamalan returned to his stripped-back horror routes with The Visit, a claustrophobic chiller which manages to fashion a rich exploration of familial relations and documentary ethics from a hokey found-footage horror premise.

As he did in The Sixth Sense before it, Shyamalan draws on childhood feelings of loneliness, anxiety and incomprehension of the adult world to create suspense and pathos in equal, intoxicating measure. This time, the physical ailments of old age are filtered through a child’s restricted, uncomprehending point-of-view, transforming fairly commonplace infirmities – dementia, brittle bones, incontinence– into the stuff of horror.

Found-footage movies have a bad tendency to use their gimmick as an excuse to be formally sloppy, but Shyamalan finds a witty workaround by making his protagonist a precocious wannabe filmmaker (and cheeky director surrogate) who explicitly reflects on the importance of careful film craft.

4. Split (2016)

The notion of a claustrophobic thriller centred on a gang of young girls held captive by a man with dissociative personality disorder may sound inherently problematic, but Shyamalan masterfully subverts viewer expectations to craft a deeply emphatic study of the after-effects of intense personal trauma.

The film first sets up an archetypical good-versus-evil structure common to the American B-movie tradition it draws on, but then instead of following this genre model through to its expected clash-of-the-elements conclusion, Split collapses such simplistic distinctions to reveal the true villain of the piece to not be any single character, but the very concept of abuse itself.

Rather than simply codifying Kevin as a monstrous Other because of his illness, Shyamalan delves deep into his inner life and finds a vast reservoir of palpable sorrow; in doing so, Split interrogates the mechanisms by which the most vulnerable in society are dehumanised by popular genre fare, thus compounding their sense of alienation.

3. Glass (2019)

Admittedly, it might seem a little early to be placing Glass in the upper ranks of Shyamalan’s fine body of work, but this delightfully deranged conclusion to the Eastrail 177 trilogy is clearly major. One of the most surprising tricks Shyamalan ever pulled was to reveal Split to be the second instalment in a planned series only during its closing moments, making us realise only in retrospect that we had just witnessed a quasi-sequel to 2000’s Unbreakable.

Though, despite its structural engagement with the dynamics of contemporary blockbuster world-building, anybody expecting this final chapter to be a violent confrontation between Shyamalan’s three modern day titans (David Dunn, Kevin Crumb and Mr Glass) is bound to be confounded by a piece that’s far more idiosyncratic, as the conflict instead plays out as claustrophobic psychodrama.

Stylistically, Glass deviates quite radically from the muted, earthy tones of previous instalments in the series, instead embracing a mode of hyper-real expressionism that more closely resembles the pulpy art style of comic book fiction. Blocks of primary colour dominate compositions, silhouettes are thrown across corridors, and off-kilter camera angles abound. It’s a damn audacious way to stage a superhero picture, and a reminder that there is still a great deal of potential left in the genre.

2. Unbreakable (2000)

This languid, self-reflexive enquiry into the nature of comic book mythology and its function in wider society finds Shyamalan at the height of his powers as a genre movie aesthete. The opening act in particular is a masterclass of visual economy, showing us the two major accidents that will hang over the rest of the narrative like an oppressive weight in an elliptical series of long-takes which pointedly omit the actual moments of violence.

Unbreakable is also structured around one of Shyamalan’s most inspired conceptual conceits: it’s a superhero origin story that only reveals itself as such in its final scene. Until this denouement, the film presents itself as a dual character study of two men who deal with horrendous trauma in very different ways: Mr Glass retreats into the fantasy realm of superheroes and neat narrative threads, convincing himself that every event in his life has been predetermined for a vital reason; Dunn, on the other hand, favours a coping strategy of avoidance, refusing to address his physiological pain.

By stripping the film of spectacle and instead focusing on intimate drama and quotidian moments, Unbreakable takes many of the moral issues that lie at the centre of the camp-and-mask mythos and subjects them to intense philosophical scrutiny.

1. The Village

In many ways, The Village acts as the ugly flipside to Signs: Signs engages with the collective hysteria following the 9/11 attacks by offering a re-assuring message of hope, while The Village reflects on the ugly neo-conservatism and xenophobia that infected American life in its aftermath. From the vantage point of 2019, it is hard to view the faith Signs places in the US government to re-establish order and bring peace back to the nation as anything other than naive, while The Village’s vision of the government as a hypocritical force eager to exploit public fear to serve its own imperialistic interests seems as vital as ever.

By fabricating mysterious evil-doers who dwell just outside of the village limits, the elders are able to maintain total authority over a frightened, pliable and culturally ignorant population under the guise of maintaining public safety and unity. If that sounds familiar, it’s because The Village is the fiercest critique of the Bush administration ever put to screen, a fearless expose of the mechanisms by which the neo-colonial ‘war on terror’ heightened the unease of the American population with the aim of forcing them into acquiescence and, ultimately, stripping them of their civil liberties.

Piercing, intelligent and genuinely horrifying, The Village is one of the masterworks of 20th century American cinema, and it stands as Shyamalan’s greatest achievement to date.

Published 18 Jan 2019

Tags: Anya Taylor-Joy Bruce Willis Bryce Dallas Howard James McAvoy M Night Shyamalan Samuel L Jackson

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