The Bumpy Ride of M. Night Shyamalan

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Fan Contributor Managing Editor Nick Nunziata discusses the up and down career of M. Night Shyamalan. From The Sixth Sense to Split, his career has been an interesting and rocky one.

The career of M. Night Shyamalan has evolved like one of his films. It begins with a great hook, takes you for a few twists and turns, and finds its way in the home stretch. Not to say that the filmmaker is closer to the end of his career than the beginning. In fact, based on current events he may actually be finding his lane and shifting gears. This may be the real M. Night Shyamalan we’re seeing right now and he’s in the midst of a renaissance.

Shyamalan has had the good and bad luck of becoming a major filmmaking voice in the era of social media and scrutiny of which the likes few have seen. During the great film school-fueled boom of the 70’s that brought us Spielberg, Lucas, DePalma, and others there was no internet and as a result, not nearly the awareness and access as there is now. One needs to only look at the careers of Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, and Shyamalan to see how differently that relationship evolves nowadays. While Tarantino has stayed the course and lived in a rather protective bubble Smith has been very available and influences by the ebb and flow of public opinion.

M. Night was heralded as the second coming of Spielberg. Here was a guy who had done some work in film who, when given the reign to unleash his own vision, had a sensation on his hands. The Sixth Sense was a phenomenon. It featured a major star playing against type, a sensational child actor, and a filmmaker with chops and something to say. Unbreakable followed, and then Signs and then signs of trouble.

No one is infallible and the film business is in many ways a machine engineered to create garbage. It’s very hard to make a mediocre film. A great one is miraculous. Focus groups. Too many cooks in the kitchen. Not enough cooks in the kitchen. Executives with business degrees trying to make creative decisions. So much can go wrong that it’s very hard to remember simpler times before we were all so informed, savvy, and opinionated. M. Night was an ATM for Hollywood. Audiences followed him where he took them. Doors opened. People wanted to work with him so much that everyone bought into the hype, Shyamalan included. No’s became a yes. A first-timer could never make a Lady in the Water. A The Happening. Even The Village, which was really the first warning shot that Shyamalan wasn’t airtight, was a tough sell for a major studio.

It’s easy to get swept in the current of buzz and people in every direction wanting to work with you. M. Night, a film geek who grew up in Philadelphia who shared his home movies on his DVD releases, had to be affected by it. A great book about the filmmaker’s tendencies, The Man Who Heard Voices, showcases the filmmaker going off the rails in the wake of so much freedom and power.

All the while, under the spotlight. The fans who helped make him a star turned on him. It seemed each new project he decided on took him further and further away from the zeitgeist. The Last Airbender. After Earth. It was painful to watch.

But perhaps it was all a test. Few filmmakers can survive an experience like The Happening. Neil Labute, a brilliant playwright whose early indie films made him a darling to critics and audiences will likely never shake the stigma of his The Wicker Man off. M. Night to his credit took a step back and saw the light.

Good storytellers can excel on any scale. Sometimes it requires having your toys taken away to realize that. Stripped of giant budgets, big stars, and a heavy marketing machine selling his work around his name, M. Night made The Visit. It’s a quirky, clever, and charming little horror movie. And it works. Now Split arrives and it too showcases a leaner, meaner version of the filmmaker at work.

This is M. Night Shyamalan’s wheelhouse. He’s punching in his weight class. And it’s not a punishment that he’s not making Steven Spielberg-esque movies. hell, even Steven Spielberg isn’t making those anymore. As his audience has grown up and matured so too has M. Night, and the filmmaker that has emerged from the ashes is frankly a more interesting one.

It’s refreshing. We were first conditioned to treat his work as a major event and then we became skeptics before fully jumping off the bandwagon entirely. It seems as if this prodigy has eased into a groove that works for us all. So few can exist under such a microscope and come out on the other side intact.

The ending of Split sets up a delicious possibility. Now it seems we have the right guy and the right time to make it sing.

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