Love him or hate him, M. Night Shyamalan movies are worth studying. He’s made every kind of movie: universally loved, universally loathed, and a few that will endlessly divide audiences (we’ve ranked all of his films at the end of this article).
But before he became a punching bag on the internet, Shyamalan was making exciting and confident masterpieces. If he had never found such success, perhaps his fall from grace would have gone unnoticed.
So, what makes M. Night Shyamalan’s best movies worthy?
For this post, we’re going to focus on the techniques and strategies that Shyamalan did well. The internet might have irreparably damaged Shyamalan’s reputation but we’re here to rehabilitate it.
Table of Contents
Everything you need to know about M. Night Shyamalan
- The Man, His Stories, and His Endings
- Production Design
- Sound and Music
- M. Night Shyamalan Movies List, Ranked
The Man, His stories, and his endings
m. night shyamalan
1.1 meet the man
Who is M. Night Shyamalan?
Manoj Night Shyamalan was born in Puducherry, India and raised in suburban Philadelphia. His connection with Pennsylvania is obvious throughout his work.
His first two films came and went, but it was his third feature film that captured the world. The Sixth Sense was a massive hit and brought Shyamalan to the forefront. It made a ton of money and garnered Academy Award nominations, including Best Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture.
It’s safe to say that he has been chasing that success ever since...and has yet to find it again.
1.2 hiding in plain sight
Surprise endings vs twist endings
The success of The Sixth Sense is directly tied to its shocking twist ending. Many filmmakers have tried to replicate that experience, including Shyamalan himself, but very few have accomplished anything close.
If you’re looking to create a good twist ending, there are a few guidelines you should follow. The first is to recognize the difference between a “surprise ending” and a “twist ending.”
Surprise endings constitute anything shocking or unexpected that takes the story in a radical direction. This could include killing off a main character at the very end or revealing a major secret.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with these endings but they probably won’t provide a cathartic experience that a twist ending will provide.
A twist ending is also shocking but the key difference is this: the secret was right in front of our eyes the whole time.
Surprise endings reveal a secret that the audience has no chance of figuring out for themselves. Twist endings are hiding in plain sight. They are definitely harder to pull off but the depth of satisfaction for the audience is two-fold.
There’s something about The Sixth Sense twist that might not be achievable again. Shyamalan has backed off using so many twist endings, which is for the best. His value as a filmmaker certainly goes beyond his ability to craft the perfect twist ending.
depth, character, and distance
2.1 depth of action
Multi-plane storytelling in Lady in the Water
Shyamalan is excellent at storytelling within the frame. One of his trademarks is using the foreground, middle ground, and background to tell a multi-layered story.
In Lady in the Water, we have some great examples of this strategy. Our first shot in the film is a close-up of Cleveland (Paul Giamatti) trying to kill a bug under the sink. Behind him is the family, terrified and holding weapons.
M. Night Shyamalan films the scene in a single shot lasting one minute and twenty-three seconds.
Watch the scene here:
This scene is played for comedy, but the advantage of shooting this way is clear. It allows the humor of Cleveland's protracted bug killing to build.
The humor is also supported by the screams of the sisters behind him. We don't need to cut within this scene because we're telling two stories at once — one in the foreground and one in the background.
A few scenes later, we have another single take that uses the foreground and background for suspense instead of comedy.
Cleveland is drawn outside by splashing in the pool after hours. Flashlight in hand, he goes out to investigate.
This shot lasts for one minute and six seconds as we transition between a variety of shot sizes with a single camera move.
The first set-up has Cleveland standing in a wide shot in the foreground, casually scanning the area with his flashlight. He drops a necklace onto a lounge chair and walks away into the background.
The camera then pushes in towards the necklace. Once it is framed in the foreground, the camera rack focuses onto it just as a body leaps from the pool and grabs it.
In the background, Cleveland stands in a wide shot, and the camera continues its move towards him. He steps forward to the edge of the pool, and we end up with a medium shot as he slowly descends into the water.
The length of the shot allows for the suspense to build, but the constant reframing keeps the eye interested without cutting. Cleveland is kept in wide shots, vulnerable and surrounded by the dark, open spaces around him. Then we finally push in closer as he reluctantly enters the pool, focused on his panic.
By accessing the multiple planes in a three-dimensional space, you can tell multiple stories in a single shot. This also allows you to shoot longer takes and let elements like comedy or suspense build.
This is what economic storytelling looks like.
2.2 physical and emotional distance
Framing and Camera Movement in The Sixth Sense
In film language, a close-up brings us physically and emotionally close to a character. The inverse is also true: the further we are away from them, the less connected we are.
In The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan uses these concepts in a scene all about connection and disconnection.
Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is a therapist trying to break through with his new patient, Cole. He asks him to play a guessing game: with every right answer, Cole must step closer. Every wrong answer means Cole steps further away.
The game will bring these two characters physically closer. Adults watching this scene will immediately recognize the significance of the game.
But how does Shyamalan use simple film language to push this idea even further? We’ve created a shot list using StudioBinder so you can see this progression and digression.
When the scene begins, Cole is shot in wide and medium-wide shots. Malcolm gets the first three guesses correct, and Cole takes three steps forward. With each new step, a new frame size is established.
This process brings Cole from a wide shot to a medium close-up. We get a similar progression and increase in shot size for Malcolm. He transitions between a medium-wide and a medium close-up.
But then Malcolm misses the next four guesses in a row, and Cole returns to where he started.
The shot sizes don't merely get smaller, Shyamalan also adds a subtle camera dolly move to the mix. Every time Cole takes a step back, we push the camera away from Malcolm on his reaction.
The process of losing his ground with Cole is dramatically stronger for Malcolm. He assumed he'd be able to win the game so, when he loses, we feel the loss through this addition of camera movement.
The dramatic core is what makes The Sixth Sense one of M. Night Shyamalan’s best movies.
rooms and colors
3.1 m night shyamalan builds personality
Thematic set design in Split
Split is about a character named Kevin Wendell Crumb, and the 23 other personalities living in his head. James McAvoy gives a show-stopping performance as Crumb.
When he is on-screen, you cannot take your eyes off him.
If you do, take a look around the subterranean complex where he keeps his victims. What do we see and how do those spaces support his character development? When Kasey, Claire, and Marcia are abducted, they are kept in a very odd room. It might not seem strange at first glance but take another look.
Each wall is finished with a different material.
The back and side wall is a stone and cement facade. The opposite side wall and ceiling are smooth, unfinished drywall. The bathroom is pristine white porcelain. And the front wall is wooden planks.
The design of this room with an array of materials is an ingenious way to communicate character.
As we mentioned, Crumb is a mixed bag of personas. He switches from a lisping 9-year-old to a proper British lady, to an East Coast macho man.
Here’s a behind-the-scenes video of M. Night and his Production Designer, Mara LePere-Schloop, discussing the design choices they made.
If you were asked to design a room that represents this character, what would you come up with?
We don't need 24 different elements on the walls to represent each character. That would draw attention to itself. The design we get in the film is simpler, cleaner, and more subtle.
3.2 colors heroes and villians
Color in Unbreakable
A "realistic" superhero movie sounds like an oxymoron. But Shyamalan set out to capture that very idea.
Unbreakable is a drama with a light superhero sheen on top. The characters are grounded, and the family drama at the core is never ignored.
So, how does one present a superhero movie for the real world? There are no special effects-driven action set pieces. There's only one real fight scene, and it is downplayed to the bare minimum.
Color is a staple of comic books, primarily when those colors are associated with heroes and villains. Imagine how much less iconic Superman would be with the bright red and blue of his costume.
In Unbreakable, colors associated with our hero and villain are subtle to the point of invisibility.
David Dunn is green. From the lockers at his job and his security guard uniform. His rain poncho, which will act as his iconic costume, is a very dark green.
Elijah Price is purple. Unlike David's muted color association, Elijah's is much more pronounced. His costumes, the wrapping paper on his gift, and even the stationary he uses to communicate with David is a bold, sharp purple.
Green and purple aren't precisely opposites on the color wheel, but it's close enough. From color alone, we understand these men to be rivals.
Check out our collection of images from Unbreakable that showcase how color is associated with the characters.
Stylized color is also used when David begins to explore his powers. When he touches someone, we jump to a flashback when they've done some terrible deed. In these sequences, all color is desaturated to near-black & white except what those characters are wearing.
Visually, this extreme color design shows us an abstract view through David's perception. We understand that what we're seeing is perceived reality, not necessarily the truth. This "power" is as close as we come to a comic book.
All M. Night Shyamalan films use color in thoughtful and dramatic ways. When designing your next project, think about what layers of depth color can add to the characters, themes, and story.
one shot is all you need
4.1 shyamalan does action as ballet
Single take action in The Last Airbender
M. Night Shyamalan films don't shy away from long takes. Working in suspense as he does, a long take is almost necessary.
When you can choreograph a shot using camera movement, and blocking, editing becomes less necessary. Let's look at The Last Airbender as further evidence of Shyamalan's skills with non-traditional editing.
We're going to look at one specific shot early in the film. It is the first real action set piece and you can watch it below.
The shot lasts for a whopping one minute and forty-eight seconds. There is a 2-second cutaway near the beginning, but, really, it's a single-shot action scene.
That's a long time for any shot, let alone during an action scene.
The action is staged for simplicity, and this allows the camera to be more active. Because there are so many special effects in the scene, the single take allows "breathing room" for the eye.
We keep our scene geography consistent, and each action gets its own moment. There's also something graceful about a well-choreographed fight like this. The uninterrupted image allows the action to more like a dance than a fight.
Another benefit of shooting a scene like this with one shot is the sense of teamwork. Aang, Katara, and Sokka are just beginning their journey together. When we see them in the same frame, working together, that bond starts to be established.
Action scenes don’t typically play a large part in M. Night Shyamalan films but perhaps examples like this suggest they could be.
A single-take action scene is a bravura moment for any filmmaker.
And, when done well, it can add more to the characters that would be lost if it were edited traditionally.
Here’s a challenge: Choreograph a single-take action scene that also develops the character relationships.
4.2 action vs presentation
Single take suspense in Signs
There are many suspenseful moments in Signs. Graham (Mel Gibson) investigated the cornfields at night. In the basement, when the lights go out. Or Graham's close encounter in the kitchen with a butcher knife.
But there is one scene near the end that is also suspenseful. It is the moment the family emerges from the basement, believing the crisis to be over. After Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) confirms it's safe to come up, Graham carries Morgan (Rory Culkin) to the couch.
Then Bo (Abigail Breslin) demonstrates the dancing people on the TV. Graham goes to bring the TV into the living room, and we end the shot with a close-up reflection of an alien behind him.
All this action happens in a single take lasting one minute and twenty seconds.
The suspense in this scene comes from the contrast between action and editing. We watch the characters finally able to relax after their harrowing ordeal. Bo's dancing brings a much needed to laugh to the moment.
Everything is going to be OK.
Except the long take is dragging these moments out and we don't know why. Something's not right, even if the characters believe otherwise. We understand, even on a subliminal level that this family's nightmare isn't quite over.
And when the shot ends with the alien standing behind Graham, our suspicions are confirmed.
The lesson here is that a long take can be used for suspense, even when the characters don't realize it. This contrast between the actions on screen and the protracted presentation of those actions creates uncertainty.
There is no music to indicate suspense, and the lighting is a little dim but even. The only thing suggesting dread is the lack of editing.
Next time you have a scene that seems safe but leads up to another tense moment, consider a long take. It will prime the audience, and allow for the jump scare reveal to be subliminally predestined.
If you want to learn trademarks of some other directors, check out our various auteur directors posts.
Auteur Theory Made Practical
Explore directing techniques used by the greats
Create works like these iconic auteur directors. Explore practical directing tips you can immediately put into action on your next project
EXPLORE Auteur Directors
sound and music
listening for character
5.1 aural storytelling
Subjective sound design in The Village
Sound is a great way to get inside a character's head. Subjective sound design can be even more effective than a subjective camera.
The purpose of a subjective technique is to help the audience identify with the character. To see what they see or hear what they hear, even for a brief moment, we can engage with them on a whole new level.
In The Village, Shyamalan uses subjective sound design to get us in the head of our lead character, Ivy.
She is mostly blind, only able to see vague shapes and colors.
For Ivy, and every other visually-impaired person, hearing ability increases. In the film, there are a few instances when Ivy hears something that the other characters do not. At her sister's wedding, she hears the crying and yelling of the young boys much sooner than anyone else.
Our cue for this ability is a shift in the sound design. The external sounds of the room, the music, dancing, and laughing are brought down in the mix. At the same time, we hear a new sound: a harmonic hum like a large resonating bell.
This subjective sound design is also a great way to build suspense. During Ivy's solo trek to the towns for medicine, she is stalked by one of the mythical creatures. The scene begins after Ivy has broken her walking stick. She discovers the break and snaps it the rest of the way in half. Then, a matching snap comes from somewhere around her.
Watch the scene here:
The sound echoes, and we once again enter her soundscape. The harmonic bell begins as Ivy turns around towards the sound. We listen more intently, just like Ivy, straining to hear everything we can.
As Ivy runs away, she has no choice but to run through a small thicket of young trees. Each limb thwacks her across her arms, and we hear her pain just as much as we see it. Her hyperventilating is also loud in the mix.
This shot is from a low angle, and we basically see nothing, just like Ivy. Our lack of vision and heightened hearing puts us right there with her. And it engenders suspense based on audio rather than the visuals.
5.2 music representing character
Music tied to character in Glass
In Shyamalan's Unbreakable trilogy, the three main characters are closely associated with color.
Green, purple, and yellow become visual motifs for those characters.
But Shyamalan also uses music to represent and inform his characters. In particular, Kevin Wendell Crumb is given a fragmented and expressive musical motif. The abstract quality of the music is directly tied to his multiple personalities. M. Night Shyamalan films tend to have striking opening credit sequences where music sets the mood for the film. Glass is no different.
In the opening credits to Glass, we hear a ticking rhythm punctuated with jagged, piercing violin scratches. It is erratic and panicked, just like what it must be like in Crumb's fractured mind. The Beast, for example, is given a guttural and primal musical theme.
Listen to the entire soundtrack here:
There is a rich tradition of matching monsters with musical motifs. Themes for The Exorcist, Halloween, or Jaws will instantly recall the image, presence, and the threat of those monsters.
The Beast is given a similar treatment with a slight twist. We hear many low-end string attacks which sound more like a growling beast than anything resembling music. The line between music and vocalization is blurred.
We can't be 100% sure that what we're hearing is a down-tuned double bass or the growl of The Beast. Either way, it is an incredible sound that adds weight to McAvoy's stellar performance. If you want to learn more about music in film, check out StudioBinder's article on how to create suspense when scoring.
When considering the soundtrack to your next film, is there a way to blur the lines between music and character? Keep the audience guessing, and it will activate their imaginations. It will keep them engaged, curious, and nervous.
M. Night Shyamalan Movies, Ranked
heroes, villians, ghosts, and aliens
6.1 shyamalan's career of ups and downs
M. Night Shyamalan’s Filmography
No one has soared as high nor fallen as hard as M. Night Shyamalan.
From the Best Picture/Best Director phenomenon of The Sixth Sense to the palpable ire of the internet surrounding The Last Airbender.
The good news for Shyamalan apologists like me is his work of the last few years appears to be a return to form. It’s unclear what M. Night Shyamalan’s next movie will be, but here’s to the hope that he keeps this current winning streak alive. Long live the Shyamalanissance!
What follows is an M. Night Shyamalan movies list, ranked from best to worst. This approach is the opposite of what most other rankings take but there’s a reason for it. We want to start with the positive and celebrate what fantastic work Shyamalan has done.
*I’m excluded his first feature Praying with Anger because it’s basically unavailable and I’ve never seen it.
1. M. Night Shyamalan Movies: Unbreakable (2000)
To call it a comic book movie isn’t an insult. It is proof that a story about superheroes can also be about real people. The relationships in the Dunn family ground this story. The mythology is just present enough to give the movie its edge but never overwhelms the human drama.
The filmmaking is confident and mature, as bold as it is subtle. It is an exhibition of restraint on all fronts. The action is a footnote, Bruce Willis’ performance is somber and internal, and the bar for the subgenre is set high.
2. M. Night Shyamalan Movies: Signs (2002)
Signs lands high on this list for one simple reason: it captures a range of emotion and tone. Shyamalan doesn’t typically get credit for humor in his films but this is Shyamalan’s funniest movie. It is also his most emotional. And, after all that, it is a fat slice of suspense.
To balance any one of these tones in a single film is a tall order. To bring all three together like this is masterful.
3. M. Night Shyamalan Movies: The Sixth Sense (1999)
The breakout phenomenon with the best plot twist ending. Like a lot of his early work, the genre is just an outer covering for a deep and resonant drama. The final scene with Cole and his mother in the car is superbly written and performed. It is scenes like this that turn this “almost gimmick” into a film worth watching and re-watching.
4. M. Night Shyamalan Movies: The Village (2004)
What many consider the beginning of the end for Shyamalan is actually a lot better than that. Think of it this way: take out the unnecessary and unearned 2nd twist at the end and what do we have left? A beautifully realized, tense, and well-crafted fable.
5. M. Night Shyamalan Movies: Split (2016)
If this movie was just a supercut of James McAvoy’s scenes, it would be worth the price of admission. How that performance was ignored by the institutions tasked with handing out awards is beyond me. In addition to McAvoy’s performance, we have a film crafted and presented with the confidence and skill we haven’t seen from Shyamalan in far too long.
6. M. Night Shyamalan Movies: Glass (2019)
In his follow-up to Split, and the conclusion of the Unbreakable trilogy, Shyamalan doesn’t exactly stick the landing. But he does give us a film with a lot to admire. McAvoy continues his exploration of Kevin Wendell Crumb, which is still captivating without developing it much further than what he did in Split. The climax is headscratcher for a lot of people but when you consider the foundation laid by Unbreakable’s refusal to meet our expectations of a superhero movie, it makes a lot more sense.
7. M. Night Shyamalan Movies: The Visit (2015)
The decision to make a found footage film years after we had seen anyone do anything interesting with the style must have been made with fingers crossed. And, yet, Shyamalan did find a way to use the medium to his advantage and crafted a horror-comedy that surprised everyone. At this point, Shyamalan really had nothing to lose--it was do-or-die. And that’s when artists often make their best work.
8. M. Night Shyamalan Movies: Lady in the Water (2006)
It is inspiring to watch a filmmaker take chances. It doesn’t always work out but you’ve got to admire the guts it takes to go as far out there as this film does. It is a meta-narrative that operates on a level above our paygrade (and probably above Shyamalan’s as well). Casting himself as “the writer who will save the world” was too much for people to swallow but there’s more to like around that particular misstep.
9. M. Night Shyamalan Movies: Wide Awake (1998)
His second film that is hardly recognizable as “an M. Night Shyamalan film.” It is a straight forward comedy-drama, a family film that succeeds at being just that. There’s nothing glaringly good or bad about the film, it’s perfectly ok. It does begin Shyamalan’s rather successful ability to work with children.
10. M. Night Shyamalan Movies: After Earth (2013)
There are a lot of fascinating design elements in this film but they are not enough to keep this film afloat. It also has some strong themes about the nature of fear but the dots around that aren’t connected. It lands far away from M. Night Shyamalan’s best movies.
11. M. Night Shyamalan Movies: The Last Airbender (2010)
The story and performances here are strangely bad. This is Shyamalan’s first big-budget feature as well as his first adaptation of very popular source material. Can we give him the benefit of the doubt and suggest that he was simply out of his comfort zone? Again, like his other lesser films, there are praise-worthy elements but the project as a whole is forgettable.
12. M. Night Shyamalan Movies: The Happening (2008)
The first time I saw The Happening, I was actually really excited because I was convinced it was all going to be a joke. At one point in the screening, the boom mic dropped into the frame and the whole audience busted up laughing. This was due to the projectionist’s failure to properly mask the aperture, but we didn’t know that at the time. Alas, the end credits rolled and there was no revelation that it was SUPPOSED to be terrible.
It just was.
A Guide to Denis Villeneuve Movies
M. Night Shyamalan movies are known for elaborate plot twists. Another filmmaker who loves a twist ending is Denis Villeneuve. With films like Sicario, Prisoners, and Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve is on a hot streak and his films are filled with inspiring directorial choices.
In the next article, we’ve analyzed some of Villeneuve’s techniques and strategies, making one of today’s best filmmakers.