Spoiler alert: the big twist ending is that they are both M. Night Shyamalan.
It’s become fashionable (well, internet-fashionable) of late to bash M. Night Shyamalan. Actually I don’t think “bash” is a strong enough word for what the online community is doing to Night. This is more like we all showed up at his house like those creepy masked fuckers in the trailer for “The Strangers” and announced that we were going to torture him to death, just because he was home. (Note to self: do not go see “The Strangers.”) This is an epic gang-rape like that disturbing scene with Jennifer Jason Leigh in “Last Exit to Brooklyn.” This is the end of “Requiem For a Dream” plus the beginning of “Irreversible” times any random “Bum Fights” DVD. This is “Free Willy”‘s alternate ending, where Willy leaps into a colossal meatgrinder and the closing shots show a chain of Willyburger franchises filled with happy, bloody-faced customers chowing down.*
What I’m trying to say is, we are fucking M. Night, and we are fucking him hard and against his will. And I feel really, really bad for the guy. But not so bad that it’s going to stop me from being honest.
Shyamalan had the misfortune of bursting on to the scene with a confident, well-realized smash hit with one of those great word-of-mouth-building twists at the end. “The Sixth Sense” was a good picture, not really a great one; but “Bruce is actually a ghost!” was better for business than both the revelation of Keyser Soze’s identity and the free-swinging penis in “The Crying Game.” It was eloquent and logical in that “Twilight Zone” way, and the movie leading up to the twist was somber, creepy, and effective. It did huge numbers without alienating the geek community and it gave them A New Hope (the great brown hope?) to cling to. He was, in many quarters, The Next Spielberg.
Er… yeah. That didn’t work out, so much.
“Unbreakable” was – for me at least – the point where it became clear that something was up, that the man didn’t quite have it. Considered in isolation, it’s a bold idea: a superhero movie with nothing exploding and no brightly-colored tights; a comic book flick that is actually a drama and a mystery thriller. Interesting, right? And it sort of was, but it also sort of felt like Night was trying to clone the DNA from his successful first model, and just graft some other parts on so we’d think it was a different animal. But a mouse with an ear on its back is still a mouse. (Or maybe it’s a mouseketear. Ba-dump, kssshhh!) The strain didn’t really show until the ending, when Night tried to wrap things up in basically the “Sixth Sense” fashion – big twist, quick cut to black. Only in the context of a superhero story, that felt completely unsatisfying. Walking out of the theater, I felt like they had cancelled the movie after it was 90% done and made do with a freeze frame and explanatory title card in the editing room. “Samuel L. Jackson is the villain, aren’t you surprised? And uh – he goes to jail! The End!” Shyamalan was quick to announce that this was the first installment in a planned trilogy, which sort of alleviated the dismay but begged another question – namely, should this young pup really be planning to leap straight from his first surprise hit into a trilogy based on a sorta-cool idea and the goodwill of geekdom? “Unbreakable” didn’t do “trilogy” business though, so those plans were scrapped, and we were left with a curio piece that a few people swear by, but most of us find to be a noble failure.
And then… and then. Hoo boy. “Signs” is a divisive movie; I felt divided even as I was watching it. The direction was very sure-handed (probably his best effort) and certain scenes really pulled you in, in that “next Spielberg” way. My favorite was probably the scene with them listening to the alien sounds coming from the baby monitor – it’s simple, yet spellbinding; the kind of thing Spielberg is so great at and so few others can do at all. “Signs” was loaded with such suspense. It was the missteps in the plot that let it down: the cornball obviousness of the Joaquin Phoenix sub-plot, and the much-whined-about “water kills them, surprise!” twist at the end. When you both rip off the ending of “War of the Worlds” and also dumb it down about 5000 times, you may need a script doctor.
The less said about “The Village,” the better. For many this was the first “bad” Shyamalan movie, the one where the bloom was truly off the rose. For me it was merely more disappointing by a factor of two or three than its predecessors. The performances were worse and more wooden (in most cases) or just worse in general (in the case of Adrien Brody, who I usually like), and the twist was both obvious and stupid – not a good combination when the twist is what you built your reputation on. “The Village” felt like Shyamalan running in place and tripping over his own feet at the same time. “Lady in the Water,” which I did not see, was by all accounts a bigger failure – an epic mistake from a guy flailing around for some cred. An embarrassment, it was generally held. It was so hard to find a good review of that movie that I lost any desire to see it.
Now Shyalaman has “The Happening” coming out, and the knives are rasping against each other all ’round the internet. Rotten Tomatoes has it at 22%, an atrocious rating for a generally critically-acclaimed director (it even beats “Lady in the Water”‘s low mark by two points). This review posted on Ain’t It Cool News today is the kind of blood-spraying, entrails-hanging evisceration that Shyamalan just can’t afford. His career and his reputation as an artist are on life support; he needs people to keep the machines plugged in, soothe his fevered brow, maybe drive him to physical therapy once a week. Instead they’re sitting at his bedside and murmuring about what might be in the will. Not a good situation.
It’s hard not to notice the disturbing aspects of what is happening to Shyamalan. Every internet forum has fifty mouthbreathers on it who insist on calling the man “Shyamalamadingdong.” It’s a racist and xenophobic joke, and it’s also tired as hell – can we at least come up with another way to say “I have no idea how to pronounce the names of people from other countries or ethnic backgrounds”? The persistence of this bacteria of a joke carries with it a shadowy reflection of Stormfront.org. We don’t necessarily want to kill the darkies, but if the most arrogant ones can be publicly pilloried, that would be A-OK, wouldn’t it? I shudder a little every time it pops up (which means my visits to Fark.com involve me vibrating like an epileptic about half the time). And from another angle, it looks an awful lot like our general fixation on success stories that turn into hymns of failure. We love our celebs, and we love it even more when they trip over a heroin syringe and fall face-first into a vat of child porn and homemade sex tapes. We love to see these people get their comeuppance for being better and more ambitious than us. It’s completely fucked up.
So maybe we’re crucifying Shyamalan for some really sick and wrong reasons. But then again, maybe we’re crucifying him because his movies have started sucking out loud. It would sure be nice if Shyamalan would make something halfway decent and clear the picture up for me.
* Not an actual alternate ending to “Free Willy.” In my happiest dreams, however, this is the alternate ending to any movie starring Bill Pullman. Pullmanburger – service with a sneer!