Favorite SP Critics    SP Blogs & Such


Cinematically Thinking
   The Sham in Shyamalan
   by T.B. Meek

When M. Night Shyamalan belted out The Sixth Sense back in 1999, the film-going public reveled in the psycho-thriller’s chilling somber ambiance and big twist ending that critics wisely didn’t give away. It earned Shyamalan an Oscar nod and a wave of kudos. It was pandemic: M. Night Shyamalan was going to be the next big thing. Newsweek even went so far as to place the soft-featured director on its cover, dubbing him “the next Steven Spielberg.”

But six years and four films later, things haven’t quite worked out that way -- best attested by the tepid reaction to Shyamalan’s latest, The Lady in The Water. Critics widely panned the film and in its opening week; it only secured third place in the box office tallies. By week three it had fallen from the top ten. Not exactly a Jaws or E.T. blockbuster by any stretch.

Where did things go wrong?

They didn’t, or rather Shyamalan didn’t evolve as a filmmaker. Each of his films is reduced from the same broth. They are one trick ponies, relying on an arduous set up for the big payoff at the end, and with each new endeavor, the build up has become increasingly languorous and preposterous, with the payoff more and more a groan from the gut than a brow raised in wonderment and admiration.

The Sixth Sense is, for now, Shyamalan’s magnum opus. Like Pulp Fiction you can watch it over and over and be dazzled by the film’s ingenious conceit, each time finding a new facet of revelation to further your appreciation. Unbreakable (2000) too, while not as well engineered, had its own merits, and serves as testimony to Shyamalan as a filmmaking force: he jumped into the superhero rat race with fresh material—not a recycled comic book or TV series from twenty or thirty years back—and did it without invoking an overwhelming spectacle of computer generated FX.

With Signs (2002) though, the wheels began to come off the Shyamalan machine. The film, an unofficial retooling of War of the Worlds, demanded a big scope—after all we’re talking about a worldwide alien invasion—but Shyamalan eschewed the broad and again kept the action tightly based in his beloved rural Pennsylvania. The slight result didn’t even constitute camp, it was a big idea delivered with a peashooter. Spielberg would later make the big screen retelling of the H. G. Wells’s survival saga and that would be as close as Shyamalan would come to Spielberg.

But beyond his penchant for certain artifice, there were other signs that Shyamalan was losing focus as a storyteller. He had risen quickly in the filmmaking food chain to a level where there were no checks and balances. He was on his own and lost sight of how to deliver a complete entertainment extravaganza that would punch the suspension of disbelief button and wash over the viewer from frame one.

There were other distractions too.

Perhaps it was Hitchcock that inspired Shyamalan to appear in his films, but by the release of Signs, Shyamalan had inserted himself as a full-fledged character, playing the distraught neighbor of Mel Gibson’s fallen priest. (The ironic footnote being that both characters were seeking redemption, something that the two real lifers must surely be desperate for after their recent media depictions). In The Village (2004) he receded to a bit part (probably because an East Indian-American in Shaker garb would look rather silly), but in Lady in the Water, he gave himself a pivotal role as a writer who is foretold to write a book that would influence world leaders and change nations. The context of that eerily—almost in a M. Night Shyamalan sort of way—echoes Newsweek’s prognostication.

The reasons for Shyamalan’s inverted Phoenix are multi-faceted, yet clear. First off, he can’t act, and directing himself in his own material only exacerbates matters—a lesson Quentin Tarantino learned early on. Then there’s his incessant need to tell a human tale, even if it has little to do with the beast at hand. The touches of human character and their flaws Shyamalan added to The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable are masterstrokes that further the story, but with Signs and Lady in the Water, such secondary and tertiary intricacies consumed the screen and detracted from the main event. Signs was less about gangly men from outer space taking over our planet than it was about a faith crippled former priest and a once promising ball player, failed and bitter. And in Lady in the Water, if Paul Giamatti’s Cleveland Heep, a melancholy schlep running from an unhappy past and obviously slumming it as an apartment complex super, isn’t enough to clog up the screen with wheezy emotion, there are five or six other colorful characters (especially Bob Balaban as the cocksure film critic and Freddy Rodríguez as the gym rat who only works out one side of his body) with their own set of dysfunctions. Intriguing character study perhaps but little about them folds in with Bryce Dallas Howard’s water nymph or the wolf beast made of grass that stalks her. Shyamalan wants to shroud the film in the grandeur of myth and lore, yet in doing so in such a disconnected and circuitous fashion, nothing adheres.

The revelation that Bruce Willis’s languid seeker of truth in The Sixth Sense is actually a dead soul among the living is an inspired and well-engineered twist. In Signs however, the big punch to thwart marauding aliens was a glass of water and “swing away”, and in The Village, lore about demons who lurk in the surrounding woods (“those we don’t speak of” -- cheesy giant scarecrows) turned out to be mind control mechanism to maintain a puritan enclave where the citizens partied like it was 1775, when it was really 2005 beyond the thicket of trees. Pretty silly stuff when you stop to think about it. And it gets even sillier in Lady in the Water. Grass wolf dogs named scrunts and mermaids called narfs? (How long did someone sit around to come up with those names and what were they smoking?) All this hooey we learn from an elderly Korean woman who says the legend is an old East Asian bedtime story. The irony here being, that as hard as Shyamalan tries to layer in ethnic/cultural flavor, the more innane things become. There is absolutely nothing Asian in the utterance of narf or scrunt. Not that I profess to be an expert in han gol but there is no rhythmic poetry to those words as one might find when ordering a bowl of bi bim bap and soaking up the native speak in a Korean restaurant. Say them a few times, and scrunt and narf sound like words kids concoct to define fecal matter and flatulence.

And if that’s not enough to invoke pause, then consider a narf building a cavernous abode at the bottom of a hotel styled pool right smack-dab in the middle of a housing complex compound. The existence—let alone the logistics of the construction process—of such is inconceivable, almost like a skating rink in the backseat of a Mini Cooper. And Shyamalan seems to know this. He never shows us the room situated at the bottom of the pool, instead we get Cleveland swimming to the bottom of the not-so-deep deep end, then opening the drain cover (12 x 12, if that) and the next thing you know, he’s in some never ending, underwater labyrinth. It’s a sloppy spectacle that blows any suspension of disbelief right out of the water. One could spend hours wracking their brain about such matters (such as why the narf must wait for an eagle to take her to “the blue world,” when Cleveland could just toss her in his car and drive her the two hours to the seashore) but that would be putting far more thought into the film than Shyamalan did.

Shyamalan’s next film will be critical. Even though he’s lost commercial and critical favor, folk still associate him with the intricate story telling wizardry of The Sixth Sense and not his most recent Splash cum freaky mystery dud. He’s got one more shot, and he should weigh it wisely, because if he keeps going as he has, his enigmatic flameout will be a footnote to The Sixth Sense.

-- T. B. Meek


SolPix Film and Friction
2020 Pennsylvania Ave, NW
Suite 443
Washington, DC 20006