I’ve been a fan of M. Night Shyamalan for years, and that includes the 9-year gap between Lady in the Water and The Visit when it was challenging for everyone involved. I don’t love every Shyamalan movie, but I don’t despise his misfires either — they’re objectively not good, but I do what everybody should do and ignore them. The last few years, however, and I’m not alone on this, Mr. Shyamalan has been quietly making a comeback. And this makes the Shyamalan apologist in me very excited. It’s hard to describe, but it’s similar to being a Red Sox for decades until the Curse of the Bambino was finally lifted in 2004.
So, let’s take a look back at one of the most interesting and dramatic Hollywood careers.
M. Night Shyamalan's Best Movies
A filmmaker rises...
Shyamalan directed two features before anyone knew he even existed. And then, he exploded on the scene with one of 1999’s biggest hits. The Sixth Sense made nearly $300 million domestically and was beaten only by The Phantom Menace.
But how did he do it? The movie is a quiet and sometimes spooky drama that would have otherwise ended up lost in the mid-level of box office Hell. Haley Joel Osment’s performance is certainly noteworthy, as is Toni Collette’s. Even Bruce Willis, whose casting I first assumed to be a clerical mistake, turns in a performance with restraint and range.
The film is not dramatic enough to be a Drama, and it’s not scary enough to be a Horror film. So, what was it about this odd little film that captured the country and became so indelible in pop culture?
The showstopper, of course, is the infamous plot twist. It was a magic trick that you didn’t even know you were watching or knew you wanted. It was pulled off so effortlessly that it seemed as supernatural as the subject matter itself.
The twist was such a bravura moment for Shyamalan. It skyrocketed him to the top of everyone’s list, but it was also the start of his undoing.
When you look at Shyamalan’s filmography after The Sixth Sense, you can see clearly that he’s been trying to recapture that particular lightning in a bottle...often.
A filmmaker's slow descent...
Nothing Shyamalan has made since The Sixth Sense has topped it, but can you blame him?
His next film was Unbreakable, a moody superhero movie that might be his best-made movie yet. It’s an anti-superhero movie, great for a thoughtful and introspective take on the nature of heroes and villains but bad for a crowd-pleasing blockbuster.
Signs is a compelling thriller that most people would love if the ending didn’t land so clumsily.
The Village is gorgeously-shot and well-acted, but the double twists in the movie left most people with a “so what?” taste in their mouths.
Lady in the Water is where Shyamalan lost most of what fans he had left. He doubled down on his eccentricities and tried to outsmart himself. But, as it turns out, it's one of his favorite films he's made.
M. Night Shyamalan Quote
"And for me, if my house is burning down and I can only grab one or two movies, [Lady in the Water] would be one of the two movies."
Then, The Happening happened. The dialogue, the casting, the performances, the direction, and everything else just splatted on the ground like spaghetti tossed off a roof. It’s bad enough that I was positive that it was going to reveal itself in the end as one massive joke. Maybe a Shyamalan twist that would redeem everything and make us look like fools for ever doubting him. Nope.
The Last Airbender and After Earth are films that exist. That’s about the nicest thing you can say about them. Word on the street is that studio interference had more to do with Airbender’s atrociousness than Shyamalan’s direction but who’s to say.
It’s OK, and it doesn’t matter in the end because Shyamalan is back!
A filmmaker returns...
After the mega-budget projects like The Last Airbender and After Earth, the best thing that could have happened to M. Night Shyamalan was to start over. Watch this interview, particularly around the 12-min mark, where Shyamalan assesses his career and explains exactly how he was able to challenge himself and resurrect his career.
His next project was The Visit, a found-footage piece about children staying with grandparents with...interesting...nighttime routines. With a budget of $5 million and a shooting schedule of just 30 days, Shyamalan didn’t have time to overthink things. And maybe that’s what he needed.
Did You Know?
M. Night Shyamalan financed The Visit himself by mortgaging his own house.
He’s back, people. Maybe he never reaches heights like The Sixth Sense again, but that’s perfectly acceptable. The man has a talent, and even his crash landings are exciting to watch.
M. Night Shyamalan is a writer/director who pushes himself and his medium at every opportunity — an approach best summed up by one of his characters. In Signs, Joaquin Phoenix plays Merrill, a man who holds the minor league home run and strikeout records. Merrill’s explanation sums up Shyamalan perfectly: “It felt wrong not to swing.”
Swing away, Shyamalan, swing away.
Shyamalan movies ranked
Let’s look at Shyamalan’s filmography and directing style a little closer. It’s one thing to spout my personal opinion but now it’s time to back it up with some formal analysis. In this post, we’ll look at how Shyamalan uses multi-plane storytelling, subjective sound design, and his mastery of the single take in films like The Sixth Sense, Glass, Signs, and more.