Essential List of Crafty Movies from M. Night Shyamalan03.12.2020, 11:39
You may have seen The Sixth Sense, but not the full load of clever thrillers from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan. They nearly all share a love of tapping into our fears and ideas about the strange and supernatural. They are normally well-conceived to hold our attention and usually involve a clever twist to make us question the limits of the story’s reality, and ours too - what we thought we knew or expected about them.
Most of them are set in and outside of Philadelphia, since Shyamalan was raised in Pennsylvania.
While not all the movies have found success, his work has been influential in raising the bar for many psychological explorations. They also share a crafty trait: they each toy with, or even subvert, an audience's expectations, in their own way. The camera lens becomes a perspective we can't necessarily trust during the course of the narrative.
'There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.' (Shakespeare)
This quote is also relevant to watching some of his later movies. There is a similarity, perhaps, with the sci-fi books of Philip K. Dick, in that reality is very often something constructed by its characters.
Also, it could be said that his obsession with the supernatural or imaginative has been what has held his films back from being deeper or ‘greater’, but, even so, being a witness to this obsession, within the context of their ‘ordinary’ realities, certainly makes for interesting films.
So check out the following movie list, which doesn’t include every title he’s made. You can read about others on Everipedia. You can also play a game of trying to locate him in each movie, since he likes to make a minor appearance in every one, maybe just for fun.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
Bruce Willis plays a rather too-calm child psychologist trying to help a boy out in this spooky movie famous for the line ‘I see dead people’. Who will be helping out who in the end? All will come clear...
A farmer played by Mel Gibson finds crop circles are a result of alien life. A gripping series of events unfolds as this movie cleverly taps into our long-lasting cultural obsession with planetary invasion. It's a War of the Worlds-esque sci-fi horror film which found strong box office success and a positive reception overall. An underlying theme about faith relating to the central character provides some extra depth.
Bruce Willis plays a different character this time and an interesting one too. He’s the only survivor of a train crash. There is a concept relating to comic books, but the film and events are so entrenched in real life it’s impossible to detect this aspect until we, the audience start to observe the clues and connections and the notion becomes less implausible. When we meet Samuel L Jackson’s hyper-intelligent character Mr. Glass, things only get more interesting.
If you sometimes wonder what a ‘realistic’ comic book character background would ever look like, then this is it.
The Village (2004)
A village lives in fear of unknown, unseen creatures living beyond its border.
Perhaps one of his most divisive films, also in terms of the effectiveness of its twist ending. However, there have been more recent attempts to review this film again more favorably, and appreciate its deeper parallels more.
Lady in the Water (2006)
"A fractured fairy tale about a water nymph who comes to a Philadelphia apartment house to deliver an important message." An interesting, at times thrilling film with another intriguing premise, but which unfortunately proved too whimsical (and 'egotistical') to go down well with the critics. You'll have to make up your own mind, since we can now review the film as part of a wider canon of Shyamalan's movies.
The Happening (2008)
A fun thriller about an apocalyptic threat to humanity which 'arrives out of the clear blue sky with a series of violent, inexplicable deaths spreading across the country.' Stephen King was said to have liked the film, but most critics certainly didn't. Audiences however, actually seemed to have enjoyed the film. Let's call it what it is: a popcorn movie.
After Earth (2013)
Possibly not the right project for M. Night Shyamalan to get involved with, but for whatever reasons the box office was not kind to this one. However, some critics did like it for a stoic 'fable' of a (real life) father-and-son relationship needing to trust one another in this sci-fi setting.
The Visit (2015)
It's a thriller from the perspective of 'found footage' like a faux documentary, and it works. That's because Shyamalan uses this device effectively to push buttons and exercise or explore the potential of film to unlock reactions and subvert expectations. It also keeps comedy and horror at a close distance.
Well-liked and received, it's been said this one was a return to solid ground and better territory for Shyamalan and a career revival or rejuvenation.
Another return to form. A clever and highly tense thriller, and possibly the darkest of all M. Night Shyamalan's works. Elevated by the impressive acting of James McAvoy, who steals every scene, in that we’re all wondering what he will be capable of until the very end.
Not the most comfortable of movies to watch, by any means. However, it’s a lesson in tension, in acting out psychosis, and the inner struggle with demons that may - or may not - be actual demons. As the psycho-babble underpins, this film memorably explores this theme, and the quotation (at the start of this article), itself a dangerous idea about how evil can manifest.
Following on from Split, this also ramps up the tension, but (fortunately) proves more watchable and intelligent, and lets us know what happens after the long time since Unbreakable. It’s less uncomfortable to watch than Split, but also has to fit in three massive characters all in one story. Something clever will most likely govern them all. Again, the whole 'real-life comic-hero' concept is the theme that has created the reality all the unfortunate characters find themselves in, and you should really know this before watching 'Glass'.
You can make up your own mind about whether M. Night Shyamalan has - so far - truly succeeded in 'humbling' an audience with his depiction of supernatural events and possibilities. Or are they all just clever 'hokum' to provoke his viewers, or perhaps his - blinkered - witnesses? At least, you should start trusting your own reality less, or start to construct a better one.
His next project is apparently 'Old' based on a graphic novel exploring some more outlandish themes, including rapid ageing. Let's see if it can play with the audience as much as his previous films have managed.
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