I See Good Movies

In defense of M. Night Shyamalan.

M. Night Shyamalan 

It’s shaping up to be the worst summer of M. Night Shyamalan’s charmed career. Nearly a decade has passed since The Sixth Sense catapulted him onto the Hollywood A-list, and the critics have been souring on his twist endings, earnest mysticism, and crowd-pleasing thrills. His last film, 2004’s The Village, received generally derisive reviews, and the about-to-be-released Lady in the Water has been dogged by lousy buzz ever since the script-shopping stage, when Shyamalan bolted to Warner Brothers after executives at Disney, his longtime home, didn’t show sufficient respect for his brilliance. Worse, he’s using the movie as a laboratory for his ambitions as a thespian: After laboring through cameo roles in his previous films, M. Night has handed himself a major part in this one, as (what else?) a struggling writer out to change the world.

All of this would be reason enough to tag Lady in the Water as a career-deflating bust. But Shyamalan has another cross to bear—the tell-all book that he foolishly allowed Sports Illustrated’s Michael Bamberger to write, about Night’s heroic struggles to get Lady made. The book is the mother of all embarrassments: If Night and his movies were suddenly ripped out of this plane of existence by a rogue wormhole and only The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale survived, it would be treasured by future generations as proof that those whom the gods destroy they first make petty, vain, and ridiculously insecure.

Not that Bamberger meant for it to turn out that way. At times, his book reads like The Devil Wears Prada, rewritten to be more sympathetic to the boss’s point of view. Shyamalan is a “savant,” an “athlete” of cinema beset by fools and blunderers: the philistines at Disney, led by then-president Nina Jacobson, his longtime producer (Night “had witnessed the decay of her creative vision right before his own wide-open eyes”); the critics and filmgoers who dislike his movies because they envy his success; his new assistant, who Bamberger frets might not know “exactly how her lactose-intolerant boss liked his hot chocolate.” Elsewhere, the book resembles American Son, Richard Blow’s memorialization of his man-crush on John F. Kennedy Jr. “I go down the New Age route skeptically,” Bamberger writes of his first meeting with Night, “but I felt a powerful force coming off the guy. … If he had these powers, where did they come from?” Later, while marveling over Night’s ability to know exactly when to let him read the script for Lady, Bamberger blurts out, “His timing was improbable. …I had never been so well managed—and I don’t mean that crassly—in all my life.”

What emerges through the haze of hagiography is a study in egomania and insecurity—the artist as pathetic prima donna, whose “Oscar nominations and his money and his farm and his beautiful wife and his adorable girls” aren’t enough to keep him from pitching a fit when a Disney executive puts off reading his script to take her son to a birthday party. If you hate Shyamalan’s movies, The Man Who Heard Voices will leave you feeling vindicated; if you like them, you’ll find yourself wishing that you didn’t.

Better, then, if nobody reads it at all, because while Shyamalan may be a narcissist with delusions of grandeur, he’s also a filmmaker of rare talent and creativity (these are hardly mutually exclusive categories, after all), and however lousy Lady in the Water proves to be, he deserves to survive this summer of embarrassment and live to film again. He’s not a Dylan or a Disney, to pick just two names from the roster of ridiculous comparisons that Bamberger fastens on, and his potential has often gone frustratingly unfulfilled in the nine years since Haley Joel Osment told Bruce Willis about all the dead people he kept spotting. But Shyamalan’s missteps have been interesting, his mistakes worth a second look, and his obsession with the integrity of his own artistic visions, however irritating, has distinguished him from nearly all his young-Hollywood competitors.

It’s worth comparing Shyamalan’s career choices, for instance, with those of Bryan Singer, another wunderkind director whose big break was a dark-horse hit with a twist ending. Since establishing himself with The Usual Suspects in 1995, Singer has essentially reinvented himself as a director of comic-book blockbusters, a man to be trusted with massive budgets and well-known franchises. He’s been making movies for the studios, in other words, instead of doing what Shyamalan has tried to do—which is to persuade the studios to make movies for him.

Of course there’s nothing wrong, per se, with directing the two X-Men movies and Superman Returns, and Singer deserves all the kudos he’s received for crafting high-standard summer entertainment. He’s hardly alone, too, in taking the tent-pole-movie career path: Doug Liman started off with Swingers and now handles blockbusters like The Bourne Identity and Mr. & Mrs. Smith; Christopher Nolan went from helming Memento to revitalizing the Batman franchise; Sam Raimi leaped from the dark intimacy of A Simple Plan to the director’s chair for the Spider-Man saga. This summer’s highest-grossing movie to date, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, is the work of another of Shyamalan’s contemporaries, the versatile and talented Gore Verbinski.

But this path comes with a price. You find yourself making sequels and franchise pictures rather than finding (or writing) new and unusual stories of your own. You labor to elevate essentially flimsy material rather than starting off with something deeper and more complicated. And even when you raise the bar, you aren’t raising it terribly high: For all the poise and polish and “subtext” of Singer’s superhero movies, nothing he’s done lately rises much above the level of a well-oiled July afternoon thrill ride, let alone his early work in Suspects.

Shyamalan, by contrast, doesn’t make sequels or franchises (he turned down a chance to script Indiana Jones IV). He doesn’t adapt Dan Brown best sellers, or Robert Ludlum potboilers, or Disney theme-park rides. He doesn’t rely on CGI, or even use it much—and whilehe seems to love comic books as much as any of his Marvel and DC-adapting peers, his own superhero movie, Unbreakable, did something different and more interesting. Unbreakable feels incomplete at times, like a shard of a larger, better motion picture, and it doesn’t use Bruce Willis’ essential flatness and opacity nearly as well as The Sixth Sense did. But for all its flaws, it succeeds in bringing the superhero genre down to earth in ways that no Superman or Batman film could even think about attempting (consider the remarkable moment when Willis discovers his superhuman strength while lifting weights in the basement with his son). By example, the movie also hints that Singer’s more conventional comic-book movies—and Raimi’s and Nolan’s, for that matter—are a good way to make a living, but a creative dead end.

Similarly, Steven Spielberg was widely praised for stripping last summer’s War of the Worlds of countless genre tropes—panicked generals, heroic presidents, mad scientists, and so on. But it was Shyamalan’s Signs, three years earlier, that was actually the more daring space-invader movie, in its attempt to meld science-fiction and horror by bringing the aliens home, to a single farmhouse and family, and using them as the sum of all our metaphysical fears. Sure, it lost momentum in the last act, with a literal deus ex machina and a less-than-frightening computer-generated alien, but then again, the third-act problem is one that no alien-invasion movie has managed to solve, Spielberg’s least of all.

Even The Village, Shyamalan’s least-liked movie to date, has a great deal to recommend it. A weird, slight, and beautiful fable about utopia and modernity, it was dressed up as another twist-ending zapper and marketed as a Sixth Sense-style thriller, which left critics and audiences alike feeling understandably cheated. But if you strip away the studio hype and the director’s showman tics, it makes an intriguing counterpoint to his earlier movies—as a partial rebuke to their credulous supernaturalism, perhaps, and as an attempt (by a director as sex-shy as Spielberg) to grope, with his blind heroine, through the comforts and terrors of fairy tales toward the darker wisdom of adulthood.

In The Village, as in all his films, Shyamalan seems to be aiming for something, amid our summers of high-grossing superhero movies and our winters of little-seen Oscar-bait projects, that’s increasingly rare these days: a marriage of entertainment and art, of mass-market tastes and elite sensibilities. This is a hard combination to pull off, as his stumbles have demonstrated, but it’s precisely the goal that the film industry, home to our last mass art form, ought to be aspiring to. So, Shyamalan deserves credit, despite his vanity and his missteps—not because he’s succeeding, necessarily, but because he’s willing to keep trying and unwilling to take his place with those timid, highly compensated directors who know neither victory nor defeat.