M. Night Shyamalan is the poster child for interesting careers. Once poised to become the next legendary filmmaker, the writer/director eventually found himself in the midst of a downward spiral that was several years long. What defines each of us, though, isn’t simply success, but rather how we find success through our struggles. In 2015, M. Night Shyamalan began to claw his way out of that hole, and as his next feature draws near, so does his redemption.
Shyamalan began his film career in 1992 with the semi-autobiographical drama, Praying with Anger, using only borrowed money while still attending NYU. Written, directed, and starring M. Night, the film tells the story of Dev, an Indian American who returns to his native country as part of a college exchange program. The film was primarily shown at film festivals and never received a wide release for mainstream distribution. However, the film gradually built a cult following as a unique work exploring the clash of Western values with those of the Indian subcontinent.
His second film, Wide Awake, a comedy-drama about a 10-year-old Catholic schoolboy who searches for God after the death of his grandfather, was written in 1991, made in 1995, but not released until 1998. Though the film received a mixed critical reception, it featured a well-rounded cast that included famous actors such as Denis Leary, Rosie O’Donnell, and Robert Loggia. That same year, he co-wrote the screenplay for the Michael J. Fox-starring Stuart Little, which went on to gross $300 million at the worldwide box office. Even the newly minted success of young M. Night Shyamalan, though, didn’t adequately prepare us for what was coming next.
Shyamalan gained global recognition in 1999 for serving as both writer and director for The Sixth Sense. The film established M. Night as a writer/director to take seriously, as the film went on to gross $672 million worldwide and be nominated for six Academy Awards, three of which were for Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture. A cultural phenomenon that’s still relevant nearly 18 years later, The Sixth Sense introduced the public to Shyamalan’s traits, most notably his affinity for surprise endings. The plot, which follows Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), a child psychologist who begins working with Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a troubled young boy who can see and talk to the dead, is scary, emotionally satisfying, and eternally immortalized by pop culture. One of my personal favorite films, The Sixth Sense more than suggested the arrival of M. Night Shyamalan…it brought chatter of him becoming the next filmmaking icon, drawing comparisons to the legendary Steven Spielberg.
M. Night followed The Sixth Sense with Unbreakable in 2000, a well-received yet entirely underappreciated take on the superhero genre. Again starring Bruce Willis, Shyamalan’s film went on to critical acclaim and box office success to the tune of $248 million, with Time magazine listing at as one of the ten greatest superhero films ever made. Following the success of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, Shyamalan’s name was linked in the discussion of potential directors for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but the film conflicted with his filmmaking schedule.
M. Night Shyamalan’s next hit, again one of my favorite films, was 2002’s Signs, starring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix. The film, which explores faith and kinship while presenting itself as a character-driven alien invasion flick, was a critical and financial success, grossing $408 million internationally. Though the film was well received by the majority of critics and fans, others found that Shyamalan was beginning to rely too heavily on his twist endings to take him seriously as the next big director. While M. Night Shyamalan would remain atop the cinematic world following the success of Signs, his next film would drastically alter his career trajectory.
The Village, written and directed by Shyamalan, was released in 2004 and is widely considered to be the straw that broke the back of his career. While the film was widely maligned by critics, it went on to gross over $250 million at the box office. Many fans were disappointed by the film, though, as it was marketed as a straightforward horror film, when in actuality, it’s more of a romantic period piece. Though entirely divisive among film lovers, I found the film to be great and was genuinely surprised by the twist ending. However, audiences and critics had become tired of the director’s repetitive tricks and yearned for something more.
Following 2004’s “misstep,” Night began planning a film adaptation for Yann Martel’s novel, Life of Pi, but elected to drop out of the project so that he could make everyone’s favorite film, Lady in the Water. Probably not the greatest career choice. Released in 2006, Lady performed much worse critically and financially than any of Shyamalan’s major films. A fantasy thriller starring Paul Giamatti and Bryce Dallas Howard, the film’s plot centers around a Philadelphia maintenance man who discovers a young woman in the swimming pool of his apartment complex. Gradually, he and his neighbors learn that she is a water nymph whose life is in danger from a vicious, wolf-like, mystical creature that tries to keep her from returning to her watery “blue world.” In addition to his writing and directing credits on the film, Shyamalan cast himself as a major supporting character- a visionary whose writing changes the world, no less; something that left a bad taste in the mouths of critics and film-goers everywhere. Lady in the Water barely managed to make back its budget, grossing $72 million and turning in a profit of only $2 million.
Generally, in both life and baseball, you’re out after three strikes. With two strikes intact and in desperate need of a contact swing, M. Night Shyamalan’s next film was 2008’s The Happening. Unfortunately, nothing, and I do mean nothing, comes remotely close to working in this film. The plot revolves around a cryptic neurotoxin that causes anyone exposed to it to commit suicide. The film’s protagonist, a science teacher named Elliot Moore (Wahlberg), attempts to escape from the mystery substance with his wife and friends as hysteria grips the East Coast of the United States. Advertised as being Shyamalan’s first R-rated film, The Happening seemed poised to finally put the director back on the path of glory. However, with unintentionally hilarious moments and horrible performances from talented actors at the forefront, this horror film sent the once applauded filmmaker further down the rabbit hole. In this particular film’s defense, however, it exists in the realm of “so-bad-it’s-great” territory, making for an enjoyably awful experience.
Throughout the undeniable struggles of M. Night Shyamalan, he’s a director that I continued to root for. His earlier films are hugely influential on my personal love for cinema, so with each new release, I found myself hoping that this would be the film that pulled Shyamalan out of his funk. With critics and general audiences long turned against the filmmaker, he continued pushing forward. Neither of his next two films would repair the broken relationship between himself and the public, with 2010’s The Last Airbender being destroyed by critics and 2013’s After Earth not faring much better. However, with his back against the wall and his reputation seemingly tarnished, Shyamalan would not fully relinquish his good name.
The Visit brought positive change. Made with a budget of only $5 million, the film was a resounding success at the box office and received well-enough reviews to breathe new life into the career of M. Night Shyamalan. With elements of both horror and comedy, the film centers around two young teens who are on a five day visit with their grandparents whom they’ve never met. When the grandparents exude bizarre and disturbing behavior, the children find themselves in even more danger than they realize. The Visit strikes a near-perfect balance in tone, something that Shyamalan has admitted to struggling with throughout the editing process of the film, and was widely regarded as Shyamalan’s greatest effort since Signs. While one film might not make up for the fall, it was refreshing for the director to finally find himself back in good graces with both critics and audiences.
As Shyamalan’s next movie, Split, draws near, I’m beyond delighted to see the positive reception from audiences and critics alike at early screenings of the film. Though I can’t see it for myself until January 20th, early word-of-mouth suggests that M. Night Shyamalan is back in a big way. I always knew he would be.