VVoices: Best M. Night Shyamalan Film

Signs - M. Night Shyamalan Cameo

VVoices is a free-to-read Vague Visages critics survey. In the seventh edition, contributors write about the best M. Night Shyamalan film.

Caroline Madden (@crolinss), Signs

Signs is a striking blend of the science fiction and domestic drama genres that intertwines writer and director M. Night Shyamalan’s flair for the supernatural with a deeply felt spirituality. The silly plot holes be damned because Signs is an exhilarating piece of filmmaking. Its strength lies in the family at the heart of the story. Ignoring his problematic baggage, Mel Gibson gives a vulnerable performance as Father Graham Hess, a former preacher who loses his faith after the death of his wife. With his deep, crinkly voice and robust physical presence, the character tries to be the rock that keeps his family safe from the fearsome outside world, but he cannot keep the dam from breaking. Gibson also captures Hess’ emotional struggle to find peace and forgive the man who killed his wife (Shyamalan as Ray Reddy) with a moving tenderness. Joaquin Phoenix shines as a listless ex-baseball player named Merrill who helps his brother raise his niece Bo and nephew Morgan (Abigail Breslin and Rory Culkin, respectively). The actor brings a humorous warmth to the role and authentically portrays how panic can escalate in the face of impending doom. Signs culminates in a terrifying final sequence where the Hess family hides in their isolated farmhouse after aliens touch down. Shyamalan imbues his invasion horror with a palpable tension that deftly captures post-9/11 anxieties and paranoia. The narrative interweaves old-fashioned thrills with sentimental melodrama and existential ideals on fate and destiny with exceptional finesse, making it one of the director’s finest films.

Katharine Coldiron (@ferrifrigida), The Village

Joaquin Phoenix as Lucius Hunt and Bryce Dallas Howard as Ivy Elizabeth Walker in The Village

The Sixth Sense is probably M. Night Shyamalan’s best movie by American standards. It has involving dual storylines, extraordinarily good scares, charismatic stars and a twist that explains the audience has been fooled without making the viewer feel shame. It’s tidy yet emotionally rich, beautifully hued and sharply shot.

But American standards are remarkably unartistic ones for cinema. From a wider view, The Village is the superior film. The main reason is its exceptional use of duration, which American artmakers tend not to understand terribly well. Andrei Tarkovsky, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Pedro Costa and Chantal Akerman all know how to draw a film out to excruciating lengths in order to render an emotional punch harder and more precisely than in a shorter, faster-moving film. And so, apparently, does Shyamalan, if The Village is any proof.

It’s possible to see the famous twists in his screenplays as evidence of a deliberate choice to play with duration: you wait the whole movie before you learn the answer, and your emotions lift in the sudden updraft. But in The Village, the atmosphere is far more important to the viewer’s experience of the film than the twist is — a total reversal from The Sixth Sense. Daily life in the village is depicted in extraordinary, optimistic detail. The mystery of that life continues to deepen across the film, but the itch of it lessens, because one can grow more invested in the characters and events than in figuring out why they are living like this. Few scenes have ever left me so breathless as Lucius’ declaration of love to Ivy, after such a long time trying to interpret Joaquin Phoenix’s laconic performance. The twist, the mystery’s resolution, gave me satisfaction, but it was faint, beneath concern about how the relationships would resolve.

Shyamalan also steps more successfully into poeticism in The Village than in any of his other films, and indeed than most American filmmakers ever do. A blind girl saving the life of her beloved, specters invented for security becoming fearful realities, the fate of poor Noah — it’s all very Greek, very grand. In its own time, audience expectations of The Village sank it, but out of that context, the film shines. Its ambitions seem smaller than its accomplishments, instead of the other way around, and as with many films that leverage duration as a strategy, it rewards the viewer’s patience with outsized sorrow and joy.

Bill Bria (@billbria), Unbreakable

Angst in superhero stories is a common element, with the protagonist who finds themselves imbued with superhuman powers struggling with their responsibility on how to use them. Melancholy, on the other hand, is not often a note struck in comic book films, which is just one of the reasons M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable is still a novelty decades later. The fact that the 2000 film is a stealth superhero story — it’s full intent only revealed in the final moments — allows the bulk of the movie to be something else entirely, a film noir-ish character study of two people who are hopelessly broken (making the movie’s title suitably ironic). While Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson) is physically broken, born with a brittle bone disease, David (Bruce Willis) is emotionally shattered, reckoning with the fact of being the only survivor of a deadly train crash while his marriage falls apart. While Shyamalan would go on to make more risky films that are high-wire acts of craft, Unbreakable is early proof of the filmmaker’s deft ability to fold in layers of meaning and resonance, tying high-concept ideas to character, structure and cinematography. Unbreakable is a deconstruction of superhero tropes without announcing itself as such or even considering that theme as its primary function. Shyamalan steeps the film in multiple genres including horror, and the blend of all these tropes and elements being so smooth results in the director’s best work. As with all of Shyamalan’s great movies, Unbreakable proves that the man has uncanny storytelling superpowers all his own.

Dipankar Sarkar (@Dipankar_Tezpur), The Sixth Sense

The Sixth Sense Movie Film

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense is a precisely structured suspense drama that seamlessly metamorphoses into the territory of horror. It’s a ghost story of contemporary characters layered with cleverly constructed twists. The unhurried pace deftly helps in building the anticipation and hooks the viewers until the end of the film. Shyamalan consciously sticks to minimal cinematic techniques and proves the fact that filmmaking is all about dexterity in telling the tale. The final revelation is built around some of the nuanced techniques of smart screenwriting. The masterful strokes of Shyamalan rest on the fact that he topples the viewer’s expectations to reveal an entirely different way of playing with anticipations. Audiences are left with the choice of characters with whom they would like to have a rapport.

Kelly Mintzer (@KellyMintzer), The Village

Adrien Brody as Noah Percy in The Village

M. Night Shyamalan’s movies are divisive. If there is one unifying strand of common DNA to his varied body of work, it is that each film has ecstatic proponents and deeply venomous detractors. To love any Shyamalan film means opening yourself up to countless hot takes about why you are, all caps, WRONG, but I love The Village regardless. I understand the critiques; it’s a bait and switch movie that perhaps does not fully earn its pathos. But god, it’s ambitious. The monster movie component is genuinely nerve-rattling and tense. Adrien Brody, Bryce Dallas Howard and Joaquin Phoenix all give nuanced and committed performances. Shyamalan builds a perfect haunted forest, one that feels complete and realized, out of place and out of time, so when the actual triangulation comes, it is both jarring and entirely convincing. The film clips along at a steady pace, and the ultimate reveal is complex and moving, in a way that doesn’t feel shoe-horned in for shock value. The Village works as both a deeply personal drama and a haunting piece of folk horror. What more could you ask for?

Mark Seneviratne (@sene_mark), Lady in the Water

Lady in the Water Movie Film

As a boy, M. Night Shyamalan’s films were some of my favorites. This is part of the reason why I never want to rewatch Lady in the Water. In 2006, I was 12. We were on holiday in Malaysia, a detail which is irresistible to this memory. The shameless, incoherent stack of fantastical elements and the dry seriousness of the film, routinely panned at release, I remember as actually being quite magical; the same dark vision I had fallen for in Shyamalan’s previous films — bold, wild and dreamy. Looking at the “Critical Reaction” section of Lady in the Water’s Wikipedia page now, I do remember the director casting himself as the writerly hero, but I don’t remember the “arrogant, self-assured, and passive” film critic portrayed by actor Bob Balaban. After years of rewatching Signs, The Village, Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense, my reluctance to re-watch Lady in the Water tells me I’m afraid. I might have to agree with the film’s skeptics if and when the time comes.

Dominic Erickson (@Erickson_Dom), The Village

Bryce Dallas Howard as Ivy Elizabeth Walker in The Village

The Village, the tale of a small 19th-century commune testing its strength against forces within and beyond its wooded boundaries, is more than deserving of a retrospective watch. In the decades after 9/11, it has become apparent that the ideals of the town, and its future after the curtain closes, are not unlike the world today. While the dialogue is a healthy blend of old yet comprehensible language, the ending is where the screenplay shines. The performances are uneven (Bryce Dallas Howard — great, Adrien Brody — not great), but Roger Deakins as cinematographer and James Newton Howard as composer elevate the film to bold heights. The Village not only belongs in Shyamalan’s Best Hits, but a place in the best allegorical period pieces of the 21st century.

Please e-mail qvh@vaguevisages.com if you’d like to contribute to future surveys.