Bruce Willis and M Night Shyamalan on the set of Glass
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Credit: Universal Studios

How M. Night Shyamalan found his voice by embracing his thriller roots

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Jan 22, 2019, 1:34 PM EST (Updated)

"When I became happy with the idea of making thrillers for the rest of my life, everything went right," writer/producer/director M. Night Shyamalan said in a recent profile tied to the upcoming release of Glass, a movie poised to become his latest success.

The new thriller is a unique situation as a direct sequel to two different films in his filmography, Unbreakable (2000) and Split (2016), that don't appear to be connected until the final moments of the latter. In that Rolling Stone profile, Shyamalan talks about how he came to accept, after his 20s, that his wheelhouse as a filmmaker was in making thrillers. And for a guy who likes to make twisty, spooky thrillers, it seems fitting that Glass is his 13th feature.

When you look at the director's career, it's easy to agree: M. Night Shyamalan tries his best to make a thriller each time he directs a film, even as each of them shares space with other genres, to varying degrees of success.

The Sixth Sense

Credit: Buena Vista Pictures

There was a brief period where it felt like Shyamalan could both maintain his identity and succeed with audiences and critics alike — the three-year period in which he wrote and directed The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs paired him with A-list actors, intriguing and unexpected set-ups, and different B-movie genres (ghosts, superheroes, and aliens) while still feeling fresh and frightening.

Even now, nearly 20 years later, his breakout hit The Sixth Sense definitely deserved not only the Best Picture nomination it received but possibly the win. (While 1999 is largely agreed upon as one of the best overall years in modern cinema, The Sixth Sense's fellow Best Picture nominees weren't all among the best of the year, excluding Michael Mann's superlative drama The Insider).

Perhaps what's most interesting about each of Shyamalan's early films, which remain the best overall in his career, is that they exist within some of the trappings of B-movie genres and are merely masquerading as genre fare so that he can present muted character studies.

The Sixth Sense, yes, is about a boy who sees ghosts, but it's also about how that boy and his psychologist struggle to connect with members of their own families. (The psychologist, of course, has a pretty good excuse.)

Young Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) is justifiably terrified of his inexplicable "gift," but he's equally unable to talk to the other kids in his class, his teachers, and even his single mother. It's only through Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) that Cole is able to reconcile his power to see dead people, just as Malcolm can only come to grips with his own passing after working with Cole and letting go of his widowed wife. The film has thrills and scares, yes, but even the big twist ending only works because of how invested we become in Cole and Malcolm's dual journey.


Credit: Buena Vista Pictures

Unbreakable is ostensibly about how a seemingly average man accepts his true identity as a superpowered individual who can withstand a train derailment and has super-strength, but it's also about a fractured marriage whose occupants try to pick up the pieces as best they can.

Shyamalan used comic books as a sort of frame in which to place this grim, sad story. Yes, David Dunn has superpowers, or at least a heightened ability to withstand attacks and super-strength, but he and his wife Audrey (Robin Wright) are grappling with marital problems too great to be fought off with even superpowers. And Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) is less a monomaniacal mastermind than an extremely pitiable if highly intelligent figure struggling to understand why he exists — if there even is a reason.

Signs, Rory Culkin

Credit: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

Signs (2002) is as much about an alien invasion (as initially portended through crop circles) as it is about a preacher struggling to regain his faith after the loss of his wife.

Shyamalan himself gets to be something of a catalyst here, playing the man who got into a car accident before the events of the film, accidentally killing the wife of Reverend Graham Hess (Mel Gibson). When aliens attack, it's obviously meant to be terrifying, but as the story progresses, Shyamalan grows more and more inward as a storyteller, trapping Hess, his children, and his brother in their farmhouse so they can grow stronger as a family unit, let alone fight off extraterrestrial threats.

The Village

Credit: Buena Vista Pictures

Because these films are all grounded in some relatable relationships, the thrills and scares work all the more. Ghost sightings, the ability to possess super-strength, and the chance to face off against an alien are all pretty ridiculous, but because Shyamalan built out fascinating characters and relationships, those B-movie thrills feel more exciting and terrifying.

But after Signs, there was a lengthy period of Shyamalan's career where it seems he felt bereft, both struggling to clarify what messages he wanted to impart through his stories and tipping on the wrong side of the balance between the ridiculous and the profound. His not-terribly-subtle messages about extreme reactions post-9/11 in The Village (2004) never went over too well, in part because the thrills in that film feel too goofy to work. Though The Village is arguably much more grounded than a film billed as a "fairy tale," Lady in the Water (2006). It's strikingly photographed and has a great ensemble cast, but even now, more than a decade later, the concept of a magical creature called a "Scrunt" is just laughable.

The Happening

Credit: 20th Century Fox

The fine line that Shyamalan walked in his most successful early films was in telling stories that could easily have been laughable in the wrong hands or with the wrong cast. But his style of thriller can quickly tip into the outlandish; even in his best films, the characters barely speak above a whisper, the pacing is intentionally glacial, and the thrills and scares can be abrupt and unexpected. It works in The Sixth Sense when Cole Sear is startled by the presence of a ghostly young girl in his bedroom. But that style, when utilized in an R-rated horror film like The Happening, invites calumny and scorn. You can blame the presence of Mark Wahlberg, but how many actors do you know who could make running away from the wind entertaining for the right reasons?

Whatever else is true of films like The Village and Lady in the Water, they are inescapably, unavoidably stories Shyamalan wanted to tell. In some ways, both The Last Airbender (2010) and After Earth (2013) suffer because Shyamalan's identity is present but filtered through source material that doesn't work with his voice.

The Last Airbender found controversy, in part by casting more white actors to play roles of color, but it also suffered from adopting more of Shyamalan's predilections into a story that didn't require it. Fans of the Nickelodeon show Avatar: The Last Airbender couldn't recognize the show they loved so much in the feature adaptation; it's easy to wonder if Shyamalan was perhaps the worst person to take on the role of journeyman director. The same is true of After Earth, a film guided less by Shyamalan's directorial style than by the presence of megastar Will Smith. Shyamalan has worked with a number of major actors in his career, but none quite so massive and inescapable as Smith, making it so Shyamalan's presence could have been replaced by anyone.

James McAvoy Split

Credit: Universal Pictures

But Shyamalan's work post-After Earth at least feel like he's reclaimed his voice.

Nothing he's done since Signs has come close to topping those early films, and both Split and Glass have the unfortunate side effect of echoing the past instead of telling exciting new stories. But they are both unquestionably M. Night Shyamalan films, and they stay on the right side of the balance between the ridiculous and the profound.

What's worked for him with this trio, too, is that Shyamalan embraces the ridiculous a bit more than before. The found-footage horror of The Visit (2015) isn't supernatural, but is no less goofy; it's just more self-aware than his previous efforts. And both Split and Glass attempt to balance the inherent nonsense of treating multiple personalities like something out of a comic book with the personal dramas that brought the three lead characters to this point. In reviving his career, Shyamalan has more fully embraced his preternatural ability to make thrillers; he shifts within genres but remains stridently himself.