The imperfect renaissance of M. Night Shyamalan

Does the release of Glass confirm the mercurial writer-director’s return to Hollywood’s A-list? 

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Revered and ridiculed inside the same five years, the nosedive in M. Night Shyamalan’s credibility represents one of Hollywood’s classic cautionary tales. With just the third feature film of his career, the Indian-born writer-director endeared himself to critics worldwide. The innovative psychological thriller, The Sixth Sense, which starred Bruce Willis and Hayley Joel Osment, grossed $672.8m at the box office in 1999, and was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.

This was followed by the family-friendly comedy Stuart Little, a well-received adaptation of E.B White’s novel that showcased Shyamalan’s remarkable range that same year, before Unbreakable (2000), a grittier take on the superhero genre and his second collaboration with Willis, succeeded in delivering perfect pacing and, as with The Sixth Sense, a disturbingly good plot twist.

Shyamalan, the creative child of two strict doctor parents, returned with the extra-terrestrial horror Signs in 2002, starring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix. Though a box office hit, Signs was met with middling reviews. While scary in parts, audiences rightly asked why aliens weak to water would invade a planet mostly made up of it.

By 2004 and the release of The Village, which had all the creepy credentials of an episode of Scooby-Doo, Shyamalan’s proclivity for plot twists stopped being the ace up his sleeve and more resembled a bad habit. They became a narrative crutch and audiences began to expect them.

Whereas Shyamalan’s previous three films, including Signs, had creditable emotional cores – they explored broken human relationships between characters, even within supernatural plots – The Village, which was essentially a film about cosplay, felt immature with its big “gotcha” reveal: the monsters weren't actually monsters after all.

Lady in the Water (2006) and The Happening (2008) added to his blooper reel, before The Last Airbender (2010), the live-action adaptation of Nickelodeon’s Avatar cartoon, saw Shyamalan hit rock bottom. The late Robert Ebert gave the film half a star and called it an “agonising experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented”. The Last Airbender was widely panned for its whitewashed casting, bad acting and general failure to capture the tone of the original source material.

The comparatively low-budget Devil was released a few months later, with a poor story about Satan taking an elevator, and with Shyamalan’s standing in the movie industry reduced to a shrug. In 2013, he made the sci-fi action flop After Earth. Will Smith, who starred in the film alongside his son Jaden, called it “the most painful failure” of his career.

Two years in movie-making wilderness ensued. Shyamalan was damaged goods and the early comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock – fuelled by his use of intense close-ups and cameos in his own films – now felt tongue-in-cheek.

But Shyamalan refused to stay down. In 2015, he self-financed a found footage horror flick, The Visit, for $5m, taking out a loan against his house – a 125-acre estate in the horse country west of Philadelphia, near where he grew up. The film grossed $98.5m worldwide, receiving mostly positive reviews, and so began his second wind.

Shyamalan’s horror-thriller Split (2016) did even better, grossing $278.5m from a $9m budget. James McAvoy’s gripping performance as the killer-kidnapper Kevin Wendell Crumb, who has dissociative identity disorder (DID) and supernatural powers, provided a fascinatingly terrifying villain.

Of course, the film wasn’t without its faults – members of the mental health community, both clinicians and sufferers alike, have said it did little to invalidate unhelpful stereotypes and stigma around complex conditions – but, in fairness, the supernatural aspect of Split probably should have signposted that it was never going to stand up to psychological scrutiny. And it didn’t.

Still, while Shyamalan’s decision to make a violent main character have a complex mental health condition was always going garner some criticism, Split should be praised for its explicit discussion of DID’s history, diagnostic validity, symptoms and causes with Crumb’s therapist, played by Betty Buckley. 

Overall, Split was a very good film, well-paced, shot, acted, directed and masterfully crafted to be a slow-burnt sequel to Unbreakable – something not revealed until its final moments when Bruce Willis’s character from that film, the superhuman vigilante David Dunn, made an appearance that laid the foundations for Glass, which is out in cinemas this week.

Glass ties together the stories of Willis’s Dunn, McAvoy’s Crumb and Samuel L. Jackson’s menacing Mr. Glass, who was the primary antagonist in Unbreakable, and reintroduces Shyamalan to Hollywood’s mainstream conversation. At a time when the superhero genre is saturated with action-heavy, dialogue-light, big-budget romps, perhaps Shyamalan’s layered and flawed characters are the tonic we need.

Admittedly some early reviews suggest that Glass runs the risk of trying to do too much, and viewers will definitely need to have seen the other two films in the trilogy first, but the fact remains that Shyamalan has created two engagingly original villains that could improve many Marvel films.

For someone who was written off entirely a few years ago, Shyamalan’s renaissance is worth applauding, and as he said himself in a 2008 interview with the Independent: “Always in life, bad times will lead to great times.” And it’s worth acknowledging that even great directors can have their off days. See Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991) or David Fincher’s debut, Alien 3 (1992).

M. Night Shyamalan, ultimately, was a victim of his own success. Pressured to produce the same profits at the box office that his nascent projects commanded, his writing became rushed, predictable and cliché. Given the time to reflect and regroup, however, his more recent work hopefully signals a return to form. “What I’ve been trying to do is become a beginner again,” Shyamalan told radio station Sway in 2017.  “So to do that, I had to take away everything. I don’t have any money, I don’t have any trailers, I just have to go and tell a great story.”

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman