Peripeteia and the Greatest Twist in History: The Career of M. Night Shyamalan

Director M. Night Shyamalan poses for a portrait during a press day promoting his new film "The Happening" in New York June 9, 2008. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (UNITED STATES) - RTX6P8Q

Nearly two decades ago in a little independent film, Bruce Willis starred as a child psychologist who desperately tries to help a troubled, tormented boy who has the unique supernatural ability to talk to the dead. His performance was somber and low-key; an interesting turn for him at the time due to his action star persona. The film went on to become the second highest grossing movie of 1999 (behind Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace) grossing $293 million domestically and $672 internationally. It also garnered widespread critical acclaim and six Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Director, and that’s not even the twist.

You have to be either under the age of six or have lived under a rock in a cave on the moon for the last 20 years if you don’t already know the twist that made this film so legendary. A classic anagnorisis; a bend in the plot that I don’t think anyone saw coming. For those few unfortunate souls that do in fact live under a rock in a cave on the moon, I will resist from saying what exactly the twist is, but it is a doozy, even if you aren’t blessed with ignorance.

You are probably thinking about the twist right now and how surprised, terrified, awe-inspired, and overcome with brutal glee you were when it finally hit you. Well, I have an even bigger twist for you, and that is the fact that this is coming from a fairly new director. This director who wound up earning two Oscar nominations for his direction and screenplay is M. Night Shyamalan, a name that now lives in infamy.

Born Manoj Shyamalan, within the first weeks of life he was moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and away from his birthplace in Mahe, India. Taking up a passion for film at a young age after being given a Super 8 camera, he has really made a name for himself within the film industry. Beginning his filmography with the film Praying With Anger, which he released in 1992 while still a student at NYU, it’s clear he wasn’t always the household name we know him as today. It took one more step (the little seen 1998 drama Wide Awake) before he hit it big with The Sixth Sense in 1999. The rest is history.

Shyamalan was met with massive praise after the release of The Sixth Sense, some critics even calling him an auteur. Thanks to this praise and the incredible profit from Sixth Sense, Shyamalan was basically able to make whatever film he wanted, and that film ended up being 2000’s Unbreakable.

After his partnership with Steven Spielberg to write the fourth Indiana Jones film fell through, he went on to write and direct the superhero-themed neo-noir drama Unbreakable which was a commercial success, but gained fair but much weaker reviews than his previous film. Despite the initial mixed reviews, Unbreakable has gained a massive cult following and is considered one of the best superhero movies ever made and for good reason. It is quite the film to behold.

I have seen many superhero films and I have yet to see one manage to get even close to what Unbreakable is. Don’t let the “superhero” title throw you off. It is much more of a drama than an action packed comic-book movie, it’s actually not even adapted from a comic-book, but an original story by Shyamalan. It centers on a Philadelphia security guard (Bruce Willis) who, after a devastating train derailment kills everyone on board but leaves him without a scratch, learns he cannot be injured and possesses superhuman abilities such as super strength. Shyamalan once again shows his talents for enthralling, subtle storytelling. The majority of the film (actually, just about all of it) is exposition, but what the exposition contains is some of the richest, most compelling drama you’ll find within a film that contains “superheroes” thanks to an ingenious screenplay from Shyamalan, a thoughtful, profound performance from Willis, and an absolutely stellar antagonist in Samuel L. Jackson.

He was linked to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but it conflicted with the production and release of Unbreakable so, for his next outing, he wrote and directed, in my opinion, his magnum opus: Signs. Signs is a masterpiece in slow-building suspense and terror and is the film that truly signified Shyamalan as a talent to be reckoned with. His most powerful film to date, the scenery and landscapes in Signs look as if they were taken straight out of a storybook, but that’s classic deception. The seams drip with dread.

Starring Mel Gibson as a former Episcopal priest who discovers a series of crop circles within his cornfield while similar occurrences are happening all over the world and soon realizes that these may be signs of an extraterrestrial, Signs is even more terrifying than it sounds. With an eerie, sour atmosphere and off-kilter, odd and occasionally deadpan performances from a solid cast which also includes Joaquin Phoenix, it will be sure to puncture you to the core, and the Box Office numbers are evidence towards the public’s reaction. It was a financial success as well as a critical one, Signs is just another stepping stone in Shyamalan’s undeniably impressive career thus far. In Roger Ebert’s four-star review, he says, “M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs is the work of a born filmmaker, able to summon apprehension out of thin air. When it is over, we think not how little has been decided, but how much has been experienced.” What could go wrong?

In many people’s eyes, Signs was Shyamalan’s final good, or at least average, film. This is the point in his career where he goes from unexpected, almost brilliant possible auteur to the butt of every Hollywood joke. Some claim his downfall was based on his past successes and hubris, but others just believe we as a society had uncovered all of his secrets and his predictable pattern of creativity was growing old. The first film to begin Shyamalan’s undoing was his 2004 horror period piece The Village, which takes place within a 19th century town whose inhabitants live in fear of creatures that live in the woods that surround them. While it contains a suitably eerie atmosphere, its central story is immensely flawed and it contains one of the least satisfying endings of any movie, and yes, I mean the twist. It did end up being a financial success, but it’s critical reception was less than stellar with Slate’s Michael Agger noting that Shyamalan is following “an uncomfortable pattern” of “making fragile, sealed-off movies that fall apart when exposed to outside logic.”

And this is exactly what Shyamalan did. For the next 9 years or so, Shyamalan just couldn’t make a quality picture. From his unintentionally side-splitting failed B-movie The Happening to every child of the late ’90s nightmare The Last Airbender, his name on a movie was basically the mark of Cain. Was it that his recent films just weren’t up to snuff, or did we finally come to our senses and truly understand his gimmickry? Either way wouldn’t help the fact that he was officially the laughing stock of Hollywood. There is even a website that was made for the soul purpose to raise money in order to send Shyamalan back to film school. A scathing indictment. It wasn’t a total loss though as his films, with the exception of Lady in the Water, continued to make large profits, thus providing further evidence to the fact that the general public never learns from their mistakes….or maybe they just crave punishment. I wouldn’t be surprised either way, and I have to say I’m guilty of the latter.

If you would have asked me a couple months, even weeks ago, I would have told you that I didn’t think he could ever climb out of the literal pit he dug himself into. I mean, it’s pretty damn deep, but you know what they say: Night is always darkest before the dawn. Just a week ago, Shyamalan released his latest film The Visit and, in my opinion, this may be the start of his comeback. Shyamalan filmed The Visit in secret under the name “Sundowning”, so when I say it came out of nowhere, it literally came out of nowhere. The Visit is a “horror” film which centers on two kids who visit their grandparents, for whom they’ve never met, for a week. The trip begins pleasant enough, but after the grandparents begin to act more strangely as the days go by, the kids soon realize that something is terribly wrong.

Yes, it is as ridiculous as it sounds, but Shyamalan crafts the script in such a way that the ridiculousness almost accents the chaos thanks to its deliberately humorous tone, but don’t get me wrong, it does manage to give you the chills. Once again, Shyamalan is doing what he does best: good old slow-building horror. The Visit has gotten mixed to positive reviews and while it’s not his greatest film, it is definitely a start and I am looking forward to the remainder of what he has to offer. Unbreakable 2? The answer to my prayers.