The Battle for M. Night Shyamalan’s Artistic Soul

Summer’s here, and that means it’s time for another outing from Hollywood’s youngest brand-name director, M. Night Shyamalan. Time for the inevitable twist endings. Time for the race to be the first to post message board spoilers. Time for the haters and the die-hards to duke it out. But most of all, it’s time to find out whether Lady in the Water will show the artistic growth we’ve all been waiting for, or if we’ll continue to watch a talented filmmaker’s potential drift away.

If you look at the trajectory of Shyamalan’s last four movies, the ones that have made him rich and famous, you probably won’t be optimistic. His first big hit, The Sixth Sense, was marketed as a suspense-thriller, but was actually a stylish, thoughtful, and surprisingly spiritual character drama. Then Unbreakable was perceived as a suspense-thriller follow-up to Sixth Sense, but boldly took a sensitive and intimate approach to reconsidering the superhero narrative. Then Signs was marketed as a suspense-thriller follow-up to the previous two entries, but its core idea could be summed up much more simply: “Oh crap, space invaders.”

The Village
trailer: quicktime

TV shows jump the shark. M. Night Shyamalan jumped the alien.

By the time he got to 2004’s The Village, the best and worst of times for Shyamalan were evident. What was far and away his most poorly reviewed movie still managed to gross over $250 million worldwide. But more than just being his least acclaimed movie to date, The Village reflected the battle for Shyamalan’s soul.

The movie was essentially built from three competing stories. One was a melodrama surrounding the troubled love affair between a young blind woman and the man her sister wants to marry. This is further complicated by a mentally unsound man whose love for the blind woman proves to be dangerous. The second story was of monsters that lived in the woods surrounding the village, posing a constant threat in spite of their peace treaty with the humans. The third story was the high-concept twist that enveloped and colored the whole thing. No spoiler alert here, but as Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times, “Critics were enjoined after the screening to avoid revealing the plot secrets. That is not because we would spoil the movie for you. It’s because if you knew them, you wouldn’t want to go.”

For much of the first two acts, The Village actually looked pretty good. Thanks to Shyamalan’s always strong visual craftsmanship and a heartfelt performance from Bryce Dallas Howard, the romantic drama that dominated the early going was effective. But the subsequent barrage of empty spooks and twists felt not only dopey and uninspired, but like a contractual obligation. As the compelling drama became an afterthought to the lame monster fable, it was not difficult to see a parable to the filmmaker: Shyamalan’s dramatic gifts had dissipated in favor of his more touted Rod Serling-esque gimmickry.

So here we have a still very young filmmaker of considerable visual and dramatic talent held hostage by a lesser filmmaker of cheap thrills, both tragically inhabiting the same body. The mystery, then, is whether Lady in the Water will be any different and whether anything can push the man back in the right direction. The answer, like the director’s recent work, appears to be mixed.

Lady in the Water
trailer: quicktime

There’s some good news and reason for hope. For one thing, Shyamalan is working under a new studio. He has always publicly catered to making money for the studios, but Lady in the Water marks his first departure from the Disney umbrella. Unlike before, he won’t be working under top-level producers like Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy, Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum, or Scott Rudin. Now at Warner Brothers, he will be producing alongside Sam Mercer and Jose L. Rodriguez only, two producers who have almost exclusively handled his projects.

Shyamalan has assembled a good team for this effort, as well. Bryce Dallas Howard was the biggest silver lining to emerge from The Village. Working with the director a second time could prove more fruitful with a better movie. Getting to work opposite Paul Giamatti instead of an uncharacteristically stiff Joaquin Phoenix in The Village can only help matters even more. And behind the camera, the director will be working for the first time with cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Shyamalan has collaborated with world-greats before, like Roger Deakins and Tak Fujimoto, but Doyle’s work in Asia (Hero, 2046) has made him perhaps the best in the world, and of the American directors Doyle’s worked with, Shyamalan could be the first who is able to really challenge him.

Furthermore, Shyamalan claims Lady in the Water originated as a story for his children. Given his solid work on the screenplay for Stuart Little, and the absolutely blissful commercial he recently directed and starred in for American Express, perhaps a bit more of the inner child is exactly what his work needed. The first teaser trailer, which framed the movie like a whimsical and kind-hearted fairy tale, was a good sign. And let’s not forget that, whatever his weaknesses, Shyamalan is almost beyond question the best director of child actors in the world.

The bad news is that the good news seems most likely to be wishful thinking. When the full trailer came out, so too came the monsters, the panic, the usual haunting score. It only goes to show both audiences and studios that when it comes to Shyamalan, you get what you pay for. As long as his movies make money and he earns huge paydays for them, it’s unrealistic to expect him to change his ways.

Hope as we may that Lady in the Water will mark a big change, it almost certainly won’t. Perhaps at least it will fail catastrophically, forcing Shyamalan to reinvent his career. After all, he won’t even turn 36 until August. It would be great to see what he could do with a top comic book adaptation, or working from someone else’s script entirely. But as long as Shyamalan the director is forced to work with Shyamalan the one-trick conceptualist, the prognosis is negative.

And as the message boards and critics obsess over the twists and spoilers of his next movie, the rest of us will act as wallflowers, watching the flashes of talent and ingenuity go to waste, waiting for the emergence of a great director.