Unbreakable was the follow-up to Shyamalan’s 1999 mega-hit The Sixth Sense, a film that features one of cinema’s most famous twists. Watched ignoring what came later, Shyamalan appears to be in full command of his craft with the story of a train crash survivor (Willis As Dunn) who slowly accepts the idea that he might be a superhero, along with the idea that Jackson’s Price may be both brilliant and clinically insane.
Written by Shyamalan, Unbreakable’s script pops with each sequence. The subtext lies beneath the surface, while the visuals suggest a higher power, leaving the audience engaged and intrigued. In addition, Unbreakable features stand-out cinematography from Eduardo Serra, with various shots complement superhero tropes (i.e. a hooded Dunn framed within a football stadium, filmed from the back). Whereas Glass relies on spectacle, Unbreakable thrives with suggestion.
Plus, Unbreakable’s collective performances boost the narrative concepts. The audience can genuinely believe Price’s theories because he’s so articulate when speaking about comics, and because he’s incredibly persuasive with his communication. Similarly, Dunn is forceful when emphatically denying any special powers, though his physical behavior betrays his words. With all due respect to the supporting cast, Unbreakable is mostly a showcase for Willis and Jackson, and their composed performances effectively build the suspense. When Price cries in pain, one can feel it. And when Dunn agonizes over the past, one may easily empathize with his trauma.
All in all, Unbreakable holds up for its structure, narrative suggestion, performances, and the final payoff. Back then, Shyamalan seemed to enjoy the audience’s reaction to his narrative execution. These days, he seems mostly concerned about the viewer's in-the-moment reaction to clever dialogue and nostalgic reminders.
In 2016, Shyamalan made Split as a narratively-unrelated follow-up to the surprise 2015 hit The Visit. But it turned out to be so much more than that. With its pacing, performances, and production aesthetic, Split is the best film of Shyamalan’s Eastrail 177 trilogy.
Right from the script, Shyamalan values structure first, spectacle later. He immediately introduces Split's horror aesthetic, as three teenagers are kidnapped in a parking lot by McAvoy’s character, and they’re subsequently transported to a contained dungeon-like setting, reminiscent of the Saw franchise. Shyamalan clearly announces his intentions, and he doesn’t pretend to be a magician-comedian. Only later does he incorporate comedy and narrative magic via the antagonist’s DID, a device that has unsurprisingly been scrutinized.
At the time of release, audiences did not experience Split with the understanding that it’s the second part of a trilogy, with Shyamalan giving barely any clues. The film instead hones in on its performances of its female leads Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, and the aforementioned Taylor-Joy playing the prototypical damsels in distress opposite McAvoy’s The Horde. Because this narrative world is limited (mostly) to a dungeon, Shyamalan also limits his dialogue to protect the final reveal (it's only gradually revealed the story is set in Philidelphia), something that only fuels the horror.
While opening credits don’t reflect a film’s true value, Split’s intro suggests that Shyamalan knows exactly what he wants to accomplish. There’s a Hitchcockian feel to Split’s suspense, and the superhero elements foreshadow larger concepts. From act to act, Shyamalan allows each performer to shine by interpreting his dialogue, rather than reminding the viewer that he’s a clever storyteller. With Split, the director effectively incorporates various genre elements to underline his performers’ talent, and to complement the base story structure. The best Shyamalan films are those in which he drops the ego and embraces the craft.