M. Night Shyamalan's Amazing Fall From Grace
It’s an ancient story: one day you’re the shiniest, most magnificent trout in the river and the next day they’re gutting you with a fillet knife and tossing your head into a bucket of guts.
Welcome to Hollywood M. Night Shyamalan.
“The Happening,” which opened last week to an onslaught of gleefully negative reviews, never stood a chance. By most accounts the film is a middle-of-the-road thriller with some spooky moments and a rather mediocre twist at the end.
New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis captured the mood perfectly:
“A fine craftsman with aspirations to the canon, this would-be auteur has, in the last few years, experienced a sensational fall from critical and commercial grace, partly through his own doing — by making bad movies and then, even after those movies failed, by continuing to feed his ego publicly — and partly through the entertainment media that, once they smell weakness, will always bite the hand they once slathered in drool.”
The reviews for “The Happening” have been vicious. Here’s Ty Burr, film critic of the Boston Globe:
“M. Night Shyamalan has metaphors to torture. Actors and audiences, too. “The Happening” asks what would happen if Planet Earth decided to reject the species bedeviling its surface, and the best it can come up with is a slack, increasingly ludicrous B-movie about people running in terror from... wind.”
Here is Justin Chang of Variety’s scathing observation:
“One might charitably describe "The Happening" as a transitional work for M. Night Shyamalan. In an attempted rebound from the critical and commercial calamity of "Lady in the Water," the writer-director has scaled back most of his characteristic touches -- the contorted horror/fantasy mythology, the "gotcha" twist ending, even his trademark cameo -- instead serving up a patchy, uninspired eco-thriller whose R rating (a first for Shyamalan) looks more like a B.O. hindrance than an artistic boon. After an initial bloom of interest, the Fox release will likely wilt quickly in the summer heat.”
It’s hard to believe that “The Sixth Sense,” the highest grossing movie of 1999 ($294 million), was nominated for six Academy Awards, including best director and best picture. Those were the days when Shyamalan was the Moby Dick of fish swimming in the
So here’s the question. Is M. Night Shyamalan a bad director? Unfortunately for him there’s plenty of evidence in his body of work that “The Sixth Sense” was an aberration (kind of like Bucky Dent hitting that &$#@% homerun against the Boston Red Sox).
Shyamalan has one good movie (well, one great movie actually) and the rest, well, the rest are pretty terrible. Here’s the roll call (and it’s ugly):
Praying With Anger (1992)
An autobiographical film about a young Indian (Shyamalan) who was raised in the United States, but then returns to India on a college exchange. It’s one of those fish out of water stories that secured mediocre reviews and passed into the dustbin of Hollywood also rans without much fanfare. Film critic James Berardinelli called it “tedious because of its lack of originality,” but found glimpses of promise in the young director.
Wide Awake (1998)
A Rosie O’Donnell comedy vehicle (she plays a nun with a baseball jones). The story centers around a boy who loses his grandfather and then tries to find a sign from God that his grandpa is doing all right in heaven. It’s one of those heavy-handed tear-jerking comedies that don’t know what to do with itself. Film critic Roger Ebert gave it two stars. It says a lot that the film was made in 1995 and wasn’t released until three years later.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
There’s no doubt that “The Sixth Sense” is a brilliant psychological thriller. It stuck to the ribs of American culture to the point where the line “I see dead people” became part of the lexicon. The amazing thing about “The Sixth Sense” is where it came from. There’s no evidence in the two films Shyamalan directed beforehand that he had this kind of taut, spooky film inside him.
Shyamalan’s take on the superhero origin story. Ray Pride of Salon called “Unbreakable” a soggy follow-up to “The Sixth Sense.” He’s right. The film is plodding and dense and no one seems to be having a good time. It’s the kind of film audiences want to enjoy (and kind of do because of how much they liked “The Sixth Sense”), but ultimately the film is a let down.
Probably Shyamalan’s best film after “The Sixth Sense.” It’s an alien invasion movie at the micro-level – as the viewer sees the entire takeover through the eyes of a small farming family. Yet, the movie remains too small – too micro to please. In the end, “Signs” disappoints because the audience is expecting a better pay-off. There’s too much set-up. That’s why Variety’s Todd McCarthy called it “all smoke and mirrors.”
The Village (2004)
This movie is similar to “Signs.” It is so meager and small – that viewers are left with disappointment. It’s supposed to be a monster movie – but there aren’t any monsters. A.O. Scott of the New York Times said: “It is hard to think of another filmmaker so utterly committed to the predictable manufacture of narrative surprise.” That’s a poignant point about “The Village.” It’s carefully constructed twist feels like it was built in a machine shop.
Lady in the Water (2006)
A disaster. One of the worst movies of 2006 and the winner of two Razzies: for worst director and worst supporting actor (it was also nominated for worst picture and worst screenplay). The plot has something to do with a water fairy being found in a motel swimming pool. James Berardinelli called it “the biggest misfire of M. Night Shyamalan's career.” He’s right – until, of course, “The Happening.”
The evidence in place, we have no choice but to sharpen our own fillet knife and start scraping the scales off of Shyamalan’s hide. The evidence speaks for itself – and we see a bad director.