There are few directors as resilient as M. Night Shyamalan who has managed an upward career trajectory despite a rocky patch in the early millennium where the flops began piling up and The Sixth Sense was a distant memory.
Primarily known for the huge twists that occurred in the third act of his films, it eventually became more of a plot crutch than plot device after audiences began anticipating his misdirection tactics and Shyamalan attempted to throw them off with elements that felt less-than-organic to the story.
With another upswing occurring thanks to the popularity of his latest film, Split, a confirmed sequel to Unbreakable occurring, and a planned reimagining of Tales from the Crypt, Shyamalan is certainly on a roll.
We’ve compiled Shyamalan’s 12 films and ranked them from best to worst. Not surprisingly, there are a few twists and turns along the way.
The Sixth Sense
The Sixth Sense remains Shyamalan’s best work by miles thanks to a twist that still remains effective even after you know it’s coming. One of the major reasons for this is because it felt deceptive, and never cheap, as the journey taken between Cole an Dr. Malcolm was equally entertaining as the denouement.
The entire film is a masterclass of subtle filmmaking which never gives you the savagery and visceral brutality that plagues the horror genre today. Even with a PG-13 rating, it still remains spine tingling and keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Hollywood is a place where imitation and “more of the same” is always in vogue. Thus, The Sixth Sense created a template for more effective surprise endings like Seven, The Devil’s Advocate, The Usual Suspects, American Beauty, Fight Club and Vanilla Sky which surely placed added pressure on Shyamalan to continue to deliver films with similar shock value.
The dreaded “sophomore slump” can apply to a multitude of different artistic ventures but is most commonly used in both music and filmmaking.
Thankfully for Shyamalan, his followup to The Sixth Sense minted the then 30-year-old filmmaker as a certifiable wunderkind.
Unbreakable matched Shyamalan’s flare for dramatic endings with a critique of the superhero genre which played with the expectations as to who is friend and who is foe.
While the ending was certainly unexpected, audiences were looking for that signature “Shyamalan moment” and got it in satisfying form as we came to learn that Bruce Willis’s character, David Dunn, wasn’t merely a survivor of a deadly train accident.
This year’s well-received sci-fi film, Arrival, owes a lot of its success to Shyamalan’s third film, Signs, which depicted the emergence of aliens on Earth in a much more subdued and nuanced manner than in the hands of a director like Michael Bay who prefers spectacle above character.
Although Mel Gibson has come to be known more for his controversial remarks than his acting in a contemporary context, his portrayal of a Episcopalian preacher who has lost his faith proved his brilliance as an actor.
Shyamalan is a master at making the audience feel uncomfortable. It’s not that he is deliberately inundating you with sickening imagery or even berating you with a twisted premise. Rather, his filmmaking evokes a sense that “all is not right with the world” as animals react to seemingly nothing out there, baby monitors crackle, glasses of water seem tainted, and the mere indentation in blades of grass prove much more unsettling than ever seeing who produced them.
As Alfred Hitchcock famously said, “There is a distinct difference between ‘suspense’ and ‘surprise'” — noting that if a bomb explodes underneath a table, the public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene. However, if we know the bomb is there, “the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen.”
Shymalan’s Signs proves this theory. We understand that these crop circles aren’t merely coincidences. Thus, we’re on edge for the entire movie as we wait to see what otherworldly entity created them.
The film is an achievement for 90 percent of the film. But you can’t deny that the ending felt a bit cheap after we’ve come to believe and even understand that intelligence life exists and aliens have traveled light years to make contact, only to be undone by a liquid substance that is everywhere and personal traits that every family member has.
The only thing that could possibly be interpreted — besides Shyamalan looking desperately to dig himself out of a hole — was that he was attempting to showcase “divine intervention” as a means of illustrating that God had never given up on Mel Gibson’s character.
As Roger Ebert noted in his review, “Signs is all buildup. It’s still building when it’s over.”
Even though Split is still fresh in the minds of many, it was an important film for Shyamalan’s career which saw him returning to a style of filmmaking that was complex, but again, not a cheat against the audience’s sensibilities.
James McAvoy’s portrayal of Kevin – a man with 24 different personalities – again keeps us thrilled as we come to understand that each person has different motives for the imprisoned girls, and they themselves know that forming a kinship with entities like “Dennis,” “Patricia” and “Hedwig” could be the key to their freedom.
If a movie’s chief goal is to entertain, Split does it in spades. Shyamalan takes a Rashomon-style approach to the idea of the unreliable narrative and ratchets the action and intensity up 100 percent.
Additionally, Shyamalan opts to save the tricks up his sleeve after the film is technically resolved so it creates the sense of unlocking the next chapter as opposed to rectifying the situation with something out of left field.
In this case, we understand that Split is a part of the Unbreakable universe. Had Bruce Willis’s character, David Dunn, proved to be the hero, it would have ruined the movie. Shyamalan was wise to show some restraint.
After a string of misses, The Visit was completely self-funded by Shyamalan so he could forgo any external pressures from studios and focus on telling stories that interested him.
The Visit focused on two children who go visit their grandparents after their mother needs space following a recent divorce. Whereas Shyamalan laid eeriness on early and often in films like The Sixth Sense and Signs, he instead opts for a sense of happiness and whimsy as the children have never met their grandparents before and their own juvenile naivety infuses solid comedic elements that layer nicely once events turn darker.
While it’s a small detail, it also provides a valid reason as to why the film uses found footage elements (the kids are filming a documentary about the experience).
Although there are “twist” elements to the film, it occurs much earlier than previous instances of misdirection when the children learn that their “grandparents” are not in fact blood relatives.
A lot of the same reasons why Split was effective stems from The Visit. In both instances, the bad guys delightfully bounce from happy to evil in milliseconds before returning to their own baseline for normal.
Even though the film wasn’t a huge success with critics, it did signal a shift at the box office for Shyamalan who turned nearly a $100 million USD dollar profit on a $5 million USD budget.
Plausibility is one of The Village’s biggest weaknesses. It’s as if every character trait, motivation and incident Shyamalan created was in service to the shocking — and albeit hard to believe — ending to the film.
We had been led to believe that not only were we watching a film occurring during 1897 — due in large part to the costuming and lack of technology — but also that monsters were plaguing this village.
It isn’t until the blind heroine of the film, Ivy Walker, emerges from the dense overgrowth that we learn that the film takes place in modern times and the threat of monsters was merely a way to keep people from realizing that the world they knew was merely an illusion.
It would have certainly been interesting if Shyamalan had zigged instead of stayed the course with his twist endings during this film. Had it merely been a more straightforward story, the film would probably be more well-received today.
Long before he was delving into more suspenseful elements, Shyamalan was cooking up family fare — albeit with his own unique sensibilities.
Exploring similar themes that would permeate his later works like faith, grief and loss, Wide Awake focuses on a 10-year-old boy, Joshua, who attempts to come to grips with his grandfather’s passing.
Joshua’s life is further rocked along this spiritual journey when he witnesses his best friend, Dave, nearly succumb to epileptic seizure.
Joshua has a lot of the same traits that would define Haley Joel Osment’s portrayal of Cole in The Sixth Sense. He wants to understand how the world works, and why he’s been the one tasked with bearing all of the weight.
Shyamalan also managed a major twist in an otherwise Hallmark-esque film.
Praying With Anger
Shyamalan’s debut film, Praying With Anger, is relatively unknown to the general public as it was released seven years before he came onto anyone’s radar and primarily had runs at festivals.
Showcasing not only his writing and directing talents, he also starred in the film which focused on an Indian-American man’s experience in India as part of a foreign exchange program where he inevitably came to understand more about his own personal lineage.
Whereas most of Shyamalan’s other films contain themes pertinent to the director’s life, this film feels particularly genuine as it avoids any signature misdirection in favor of more honest and independent filmmaking sensibilities.
After Earth had all the makings of a blockbuster film; Will and Jaden Smith in starring roles, future-dystopic elements, and a $130 million USD budget — which was by far Shyamalan’s largest chunk of change to devote to production.
What resulted was a clunky, nonsensical film with Scientology elements throughout that was heavy on spectacle and light on character development — which Shyamalan was known for even when films didn’t quite “work” for critics.
Even those with little knowledge of Scientology couldn’t help but feel like it was one nod to the religion after the other: namely, “auditing” and “leveling up” as major plot elements.
The marketing for After Earth was particularly alarming for M. Night Shyamalan’s career. While he had once been painted as the next Steven Spielberg, Sony officials decided his name wouldn’t be utilized in any of the lead up to the film’s release in posters, trailers, TV spots, and the film’s own website.
Will Smith called the film, “the most painful failure in my career,” adding, “Wild Wild West was less painful than After Earth because my son was involved in After Earth, and I led him into it. That was excruciating,”
The Lady in the Water
There is a lot going on in The Lady in the Water. It’s equal parts fairytale, criticism against the media, and personal vendetta against film critics who had lambasted Shyamalan’s past works — the latter point reinforced by the director playing a writer whose in-progress book will become so important that its ideas will inspire a future leader who will save the world.
Watching it is like experiencing a fever dream. There are nymphs, monkeys with mohawks, and wolves bumping up against “industry” humor.
It all starts to make a little bit of sense when you find out that the origins of the movie started when Shyamalan was telling his daughters a bedtime story and improvising each subsequent beat.
For many directors, they have to ask themselves “why this project” or “why this story?” For Shyamalan, it felt like The Lady in the Water was made as simply a preemptive strike against the next film critic who criticized his work.
The Last Airbender
Studio executives like to fancy themselves smarter than the movie-going public. Thus, Paramount Pictures reasoned that much of M. Night Shyamalan’s missteps in the past were simply because he was developing his own ideas.
But in the case of helming The Last Airbender, he would be handling source material that already came with a pre-installed audience thanks to its success as an anime program on Nickelodeon.
What was once planned as a trilogy similar to The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter became a single film that was plagued by whitewashed characters even though the studio promised, “the most culturally diverse tentpole movies ever released, period.”
Additionally, the 3D elements were a complete afterthought after filming was complete — leaving the whole film to lack any vibrancy or “pop” as if the camera man had forgotten to clean his lens — which was also in stark contrast to the energetic hues that fans of the anime cartoon had become fans of.
As much as people like to pile on Shyamalan for this film, it begs the question: should this movie have even been live action?
The Happening allowed M. Night Shyamalan ample room to ratchet up the scares and shock value as it was his first R-rated feature.
Despite this fact, the gruesomeness seemed to only make the tonal imbalance between the plot of the film — centered on plants causing mass suicides — and the bizarre performances by the actors all the more jarring.
It’s easy to see that Shyamalan was trying to make a critique about man’s place within the universe and how our destruction of the environment is going to one day lead to our eventual downfall.
However, it plays more like a bizarre PSA than a horror or thriller and was decidedly different than the promotional materials which made it seem like Mark Wahlberg was going to be fighting a geographical anomaly similar to Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow.
Adding to the further dysfunction was the pacing of the film. It starts fast, and gets progressively slower until we reach what can only be described as an “anti-climax.”
While promoting his film, The Fighter, Mark Wahlberg said of The Happening, “It was a really bad movie … fuck it. It is what it is. Fucking trees, man. The plants. Fuck it. You can’t blame me for wanting to try to play a science teacher. At least I wasn’t playing a cop or a crook.”
- Lead Image: The Sixth Sense / Spyglass Entertainment