The curious case of M. Night Shyamalan is a tragic tale, a story so epic in scope that it spans the first decade of the 21st century. It is a tale that begins in the sunlight, with the birth of a filmmaker whose first hit feature earned him major accolades and a bankable name at the multiplex. Within the depths of that artist’s soul lay a far more sinister figure, a diabolical Hyde to his kindly Dr. Jekyll, capable of crafting such deplorable cinematic schlock that it would leave the world trembling in its wake.
Seriously though, how did M. Night Shyamalan go from being so beloved to utterly reviled in the eyes of film critics and a growing portion of the moviegoing public?
Every artist out there has his or her high and low periods, and no one is without their supporters and detractors. The erosion of Shyamalan’s reputation is something else, something that really boggles the mind when you examine it as a whole.
So why the turn around? Is it because of Shyamalan’s self-proclaimed arrogance as a filmmaker? Is he a one-trick pony who’s been struggling and failing to come up with a new, crowd-pleasing act for the last 11 years? Or is he an artist truly ahead of his time, one whose output has yet to be fully appreciated by the moviegoing public?
Well, what better place to start examining Shyamalan’s career trajectory than with the film that he’s most associated with even today – the 1999 ghost drama The Sixth Sense.
The Sixth Sense is all but the definition of a sleeper hit. It featured Bruce Willis in a non-action role alongside then-unknown child actor Haley Joel Osment and indie actresses Toni Collette and Olivia Williams. Shyamalan had previously written/directed two little-seen films – Praying With Anger and Wide Awake – and had yet to prove that he could deliver a hit at the box office.
How then did The Sixth Sense manage to gross $26.7 million in its first weekend of release? Well, you just have to look at the film’s original trailer – tell me that it doesn’t make the flick look like a dark, engaging thriller that is heavy on atmosphere and legitimate scares:
Besides being well-received critically, The Sixth Sense became a pop sensation that claimed the U.S. box office crown for five consecutive weeks, grossed almost $673 million worldwide, and earned Shyamalan Oscar nominations for both his writing and directing. As I remember it, there were two particular things in the movie that moviegoers just could not stop talking about: Osment’s great (and eventually Oscar-nominated) performance and – of course – that infamous plot twist at the very end.
I found The Sixth Sense to be a decent if unremarkable drama that was slowly paced and a bit heavy-handed at times. There’s no way for me to fairly say whether or not the concluding twist was really that effective as it was spoiled for me in advance of my first time seeing it. If you’ve never seen the film and have miraculously avoided learning about how it ends, be warned – the final twist is all the more predictable if you know that one is coming.
Shyamalan really began to establish his reputation as a secretive filmmaker with his followup to The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable. The teaser for the film (which you can watch below) was moody and mysterious, with only a few bits of expository dialogue that hinted what the flick was about – naturally, moviegoers were intrigued.
Although Unbreakable was not nearly the critical/financial hit that The Sixth Sense was, it secured Shyamalan’s place as a serious artist interested in crafting thoughtful, character-based dramas instead of mindless, blockbuster drivel. It’s not only my personal favorite of the director’s films but it’s a definite must-see for comic book fans or anyone who likes the idea of a superhero movie that explores what life really would be like for an inhumanly-powered being in the real world.
There were certain problems that popped up in Unbreakable that began to hint at Shyamalan’s limitations as a filmmaker. While the movie was again kind of frustratingly slow at times, it also featured an anti-climactic twist ending that really isn’t a surprise if you know anything about the classic hero/villain dichotomy. It was really just a mistake on Shyamalan’s part to try and pull the rug out from under moviegoer’s feet again and expect the same kind of success.