Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan || Produced by: M. Night Shyamalan, Barry Mendel, Sam Mercer, Jason Blum, Marc Bienstock, Ashwin Rajan
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan || Starring: Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Wright Penn, James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Sarah Paulson
Music by: James Newton Howard (U), West Dylan Thordson (S, G) || Cinematography: Edwardo Serra (U), Mike Gioulakis (S, G) || Edited by: Dylan Tichenor (U), Luke Ciarrocchi (S, G), Blu Murray (G) || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 106 minutes (U), 117 minutes (S), 129 minutes (G)
Manoj Nelliyattu (M. Night) Shyamalan has had a roller-coaster of a career. The quintessential 1st-2nd generation Indian-American remains one of the most well known, recognizable Hollywood auteurs of this generation, dabbling in genres of all kinds (many successful, many outright failures), playing with director-cameos with such unabashed glee not seen since Alfred Hitchcock (some memorable, while others, pointless), and popularizing the filmmaking cliche, “The Shyamalan Twist” in the modern zeitgeist.
Much as my childhood pop culture infatuations were informed by the original Star Wars (1977, 1980, 1983) trilogy, or how I embraced the violent, speculative science-fiction of the Alien (1979, 1986, 1992) and Predator (1987, 1990) series, I was more or less raised on popular Shyamalan works ever since The Sixth Sense (1999). Shyamalan’s weird, identifiable thrillers were everywhere by 2002’s Signs, which made the mainstream director’s long, excruciating fall from grace even weirder by comparison. The weirdest thing of all, I’d argue, was how a non-blockbuster filmmaker specializing in confusing mainstream audiences won them over without angering them, becoming so mainstream himself that your average American redneck casually (re: correctly) pronounces his South Indian surname as they would common Japanese car brands.
Shyamalan entered a downslide with 2006’s Lady in the Water, soon after producing laughable, so-bad-they’re-entertaining disasterpieces like The Happening (2008) and The Last Airbender (2010) before hitting rock-bottom with the Will Smith/Jayden Smith vehicle, After Earth (2013). His career was given a new lease on life by the house that Jason Blum built, however, with 2015’s inexplicable found-footage movie, The Visit. That in turn preceded the autuer’s greatest meta twist of all: Returning to his thriller roots with a backdoor sequel to Unbreakable (2000), Split (2016), connecting James McAvoy’s dissociative identity disorder (DID) villain to the deconstructive “superhero” universe of Bruce Willis’ David Dunn. In other words, Shyamalan executed an effective “twist” on the Shyamalan-twist. I guess we all have to be good at something. This backdoor sequel was later followed by a more conventional sequel, Glass (2019), a sort of Avengers (2012)-style “team-up” that featured the combined starring casts of both Unbreakable and Split.
To better understand this unorthodox franchise, however, we must look beyond its writer-directors’ fascinating rise, fall, and rebirth, and examine the films’ cinematic minutiae in greater detail. The first installment, Unbreakable, was a respected yet sleeper-hit followup to Shyamalan’s Academy Award nominated Sixth Sense, a film whose hype I first overlooked. Many of my peers and pop culture commentators profess to loving this movie so much they have longed for a reboot-sequel in today’s age of reboots and long-postponed sequels. Released before the modern renaissance of superhero blockbusters and expanded franchise universes, Unbreakable was an introspective dissection on how superhero mythology has affected modern culture. The film spends the bulk of its time toying with the idea of whether its lead, Willis, is a would-be vigilante capable of superhuman strength and fortitude, all whilst Samuel L. Jackson’s physically frail yet intellectual “mastermind” pulls strings to bring his graphic novel fantasies to life.
It’s not a bad yarn when all is said and done; Shyamalan’s creative premise — another screenwriting staple of his — uses Willis’ gruff yet relatable masculinity to mull the psychology of social responsibility, vigilantism, and physical limitations. His subtle long-takes, great use of lighting and rain FX, and clever blocking (e.g. the opening train sequence) create an almost noir-like backdrop against which Willis’ David Dunn can unfold his extraordinary abilities. Is Dunn truly a “superhero” in the traditional sense? Perhaps… but perhaps not. The film’s ambiguity, like in much of Shyamalan’s work, is part of its appeal.
Fast-forward 16 years to Split, a deceptive, bizarre thriller that meets or exceeds its auteur’s weirdest self-aware projects. Starring Anya Taylor-Joy (see The Witch ) as an outcast teenager kidnapped by James McAvoy in a career-highlight performance, the film morphs from a quasi-believable thriller about DID (McAvoy’s antagonist is alleged to contain 23-24 unique personas) into an unapologetic grindhouse horror. Split may be Shyamalan’s strongest visual narrative, flaunting wonderful set-design and terrific low-key lighting to accentuate McAvoy’s transformation from creepy kidnapper to literal supervillain. Shyamalan frames his characters such that their mental state is front and center, utilizing flashbacks to gel characters’ past trauma with their current predicament in ways that most horror movies (e.g. The Ritual ) fumble. His close-ups feel deliberate and purposeful, emphasizing not just key lines, but manic, raw emotions (e.g. McAvoy wrenching apart iron bars with his bare hands) or character desperation (e.g. Jessica Sula’s relentless attempts to pick a lock).
Wrapping up this trilogy — and perhaps with it, its auteur’s career resurgence — is 2019’s Glass. The film combines the main and supporting casts of both its predecessors to make the final exclamation point on Shyamalan’s superhero commentary. Glass juxtaposes its multi-star ensemble better than the likes of Age of Ultron (2015) or Justice League (2017), providing ample character development for McAvoy, Willis, and Jackson via brief yet powerful flashback sequences, intriguing monologues, and conclusive arcs. From a visual standpoint, Glass is comparable to Split. Its vibrant colors, striking scenery, and subtle nods to comic book color palettes put the flat, digital color-grading of most blockbusters to shame. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: It’s these sidestream or niche graphic novel adaptations that most look and feel they’re descended from comic properties (e.g. Blade II , Hellboy , Watchmen , Scott Pilgrim vs. The World , Dredd , Deadpool ), not Thor: The Dark World (2014). But I digress… Glass wouldn’t be a true bookend to an out-of-left-field Shyamalan franchise without stumbling at the finish-line. Its finale muddles pointless narrative twists that feel neither earned nor very “Shyamalan-esque.”
With all that in mind, M. Night Shyamalan’s pop culture evolution reminds us that a good thriller is much, much more than an effective twist. One needs to build an entire feature that is, in effect, thrilling. The informally titled “Unbreakable Trilogy” is a unique, eclectic summation of its auteur’s strengths and mainstream resurgence, while also reminding us of his striking weaknesses as a filmmaker. He is unlikely to ever regain the highbrow critical acclaim of The Sixth Sense, as Red Letter Media pointed out: “M. Night Shyamalan has given up the facade of being snooty, pretentious artist-man, and he’s just making schlock — really well crafted, entertaining schlock,” noted Jay Bauman, and that observation may be the best explanation why the man is having fun making movies again. As someone who’s adolescence was shaped in part by his work, from memorable thrillers to crap blockbusters, I am happy for him and even happier that, after all these years, he hasn’t changed all that much. Here’s to you, Manoj.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Ambitious, eclectic, and undeniably unique in both good ways and bad, M. Night Shyamalan’s almost impromptu superhero franchise showcases what made him a household name. His oners are stylish without calling attention to themselves, while his use of color and set-design are a benchmark for how “real” comic book-movies should stylize their films. Meanwhile, his inventive screenplays explore major characters portrayed by McAvoy, Jackson, and Willis with care, and yet also undercut their journey by the end credits. It’s a journey that only Shyamalan could’ve written, so check your story-twist expectations at the door.
—> RECOMMENDED, warts and all.
? There was a clandestine meeting at a coffee shop where Jason Blum slipped him a gigantic check and said, “Do you like being an ‘artist,’ or do you like MONEY? Now, let’s make a schlock film about psychopathic elderly people; it’s gonna bring in the kiddies!” — Mike Stoklasa