From the Archives: M. Night Shyamalan Isn’t a Bad Filmmaker, We’ve Been a Bad Audience

From the Archives: M. Night Shyamalan Isn’t a Bad Filmmaker, We’ve Been a Bad Audience

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.
Originally posted on Cinema76.

A few years back, the trailer for the M. Night Shyamalan-produced Devil played in front of a packed theater. As the trailer went through its motions, the audience seemed interested, but when Shyamalan’s name was branded across the title card, the entire theater erupted into laughter. I looked around me and couldn’t help feeling anything but shame. Had we really come to a point where the mere inclusion of the Shyamalan name merited ridicule? Had we become so elitist, so closed-minded, so sure that we knew exactly what we were getting with Shyamalan (even in a movie like Devil, which he neither wrote nor directed) that a bully mentality was the accepted response to the mere mention of his name? Haters apparently do want to hate. So what happened? How did the man who was once being touted as the next Spielberg become every film snob’s favorite punching bag? I have a few theories.

1. After The Sixth Sense, we stopped watching his movies like movies.

When (spoiler alert) it was revealed that Dr. Crowe was dead for the entirety of the film, the moviegoing world went nuts. We had all been thrown for a loop. Shyamalan had fooled the masses without making us feel dumb, and in him a star was born. Unfortunately, this burst into fame would also be the groundwork for his downfall.

From this point forward audiences were determined never to be tricked by Shyamalan again. We had incorrectly branded him, based on the merits of a single film, as the “master of the twist” and spent the running time of all of his subsequent output trying to figure out the inevitable twist before it came, and in doing so, failed to give most of them a fair shake. I’ve had a ton of folks tell me they hated The Village, because they “figured it out right away.” Yeah, well so what? Sure, it’s not the strongest story, but it’s extremely well made, has a palpable mood, and one of the finest casts ever assembled, but since audiences were so hell-bent on decoding the “twist” they hinged their entire experience on one small aspect of the film and immediately branded it as crap. Hardly seems fair.

2. We completely misunderstand what a twist is.

As I see it, only two of Shyamalan’s films have a twist: The Sixth Sense and The Village. To me, a twist is a fundamental change in a film’s narrative that redefines every moment preceding it. This is different from a “reveal” which is something that just about every movie in history has. Finding out the the aliens in Signs can be killed with water is not a twist, much in the same way that the aliens of War of the Worlds being brought down by bacteria is not a twist. Finding out that Mr. Glass is actually a murderous villain is not a twist, nor is finding out that Hans Gruber’s motive was actually simple theft. These are just plot developments in which we, the audience, are given more information than we had at the outset, none of which redefine the rules of the film’s world. Yet with our inclination to base our reviews entirely upon a twist that isn’t coming, there’s nothing to be but disappointed.

3. We stopped wanting to like Shyamalan’s films, but still kept seeing them.

If you’ve read any of my past pieces, you know that nothing sticks in my craw worse than when people see a film “just to see how bad it is.” This is closed-minded thinking at its most disgusting. After The Village (which, to be fair, did indeed mark a dip in quality on Shyamalan’s end) audiences watched his films with a glass half empty mentality, confident that they had outsmarted his “twists” previously, and thusly his films would have to work doubly hard just to break even. We wanted The Lady in the Water to be bad, we hoped that The Happening would be proof that we are all smarter than that guy who “got us good” with The Sixth Sense so many years prior, and we entered the theater with the idea that at best, his films would henceforth merely be “only pretty bad.” Nowhere in our brains did we ever entertain the notion that maybe a new Shyamalan film might actually be good, nor did anyone want it to be. And when facing criticism based in pre-accepted negativity, how could a film like The Happening have any hope to please anyone?

4. We will not let go of “Shyamalamadingdong”

Let it go. It was never funny or clever at any point whatsoever. Ever. Hack at its most hack, but since “Shyamalamadingdong” can hardly be used in a positive review of any of his films, we were forced to make a choice, and the crappiest pun somehow beat objectivity with disconcertingly little effort.

5. We’ve lost the ability to see gray area.

It seems that anymore, a movie is either regarded as a total masterpiece or unadulterated crap, which in reality is almost never the case. I’ll be the first to admit that Shyamalan has made some stinkers, but so has just about every filmmaker on the planet. Yet we hold Shyamalan to this ridiculous binary standard, where decent misfires like The Village are considered garbage because they are not perfection, where movies like The Lady in the Water (which I didn’t much care for at all) are deemed the product of a talentless egotist and not the failed experiment of a storyteller who was trying something new (dear god, what a crime!).

This last week, Shyamalan’s latest film, The Visit, was released to generally positive reviews. I, for one, loved the flick, and am hopeful that this marks a return for this filmmaker to our good graces, or at the very least, the turning over of a new leaf where the audience can view his films with an open mind, leaving the notion that pessimism is identical to critical validity at the door.

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