There are two types of people in the cinema-going world: those who like M. Night Shyamalan films, and those who don’t. It’s not an issue on which there’s much, if any, middle ground. With the possible exception of The Sixth Sense, his films, while mainstream releases, have a tendency to polarise in the manner of arthouse flicks: either they’re revelations, or rot.
I used to be one of the unenlightened. Watching Signs on the big screen, I snorted with laughter. The Village left me irritable – what the hell kind of ending was that, anyway? I’d been frightened out of my young life when Haley Joel Osment confessed to seeing dead people, but at that point, I didn’t even realise the films were by the same guy. Had friends not taken me in hand, my opinion might never have changed, but after The Village, they sat me down and asked, in exacting tones, exactly why I was disappointed.
After twenty-odd minutes of flustered debating, we hit upon the crux of my frustrations, viz: the film had been marketed as horror. Although the first half of the narrative fit this pattern, the character relations, plot twist and conclusion took an entirely different turn, which lead me to believe that the whole was a botched attempt. So, my friends asked. Was the problem with the film, or just with what you thought it was meant to be?
I opened my mouth, closed it again, and thought back. I’d gone in expecting to see a horror film, and so had watched for narrative markers appropriate to the genre. They’d been there early on, but then vanished entirely, which left the possibility that I’d been actively misinterpreting the film, imposing my own assumptions on how it should work, and judging it wanting. It was a strange realisation, but the more I considered it, the more it made sense. Hadn’t I thought the same thing about Signs? It was as if I – and, for that matter, Hollywood – had been looking for The Sixth Sense in every subsequent Shyamalan film, when they weren’t really horror at all.
With Lady in the Water, I made a conscious effort to ignore the marketing and test my hypothesis: to watch with no expectations and an open mind. Might I see something I’d missed before?
I could, and did. Near the end, I realised what should’ve been obvious all along: Shyamalan’s films are always about people. The pseudo-horror setting is simply his preferred vehicle for storytelling, a background mechanism designed to threaten, not the audience, but his characters. Thus menaced, the point of their reaction isn’t fright, but inter-development: how they draw together, and how they mend. Because healing, faith and self-acceptance are big themes in Shyamalan’s work. In both The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, supernaturally gifted protagonists come to terms with their powers, not in order to save the world, but to help the people in it. Quietly and with inner strength, the heroes of Signs and Lady in the Water regain their faith, two broken widowers made whole. And in The Village, a community of emotionally scarred people are forced to confront their injuries by the actions of three who are physically wounded: a dying man, a blind girl and her mad brother.
The subtlety of Shyamalan films simultaneously acts as their blessing and curse. Early scenes deliberately set up the false horror that, inevitably, constitutes their sales pitch, but the plots become introverted. It is as if the film is a train travelling towards a junction: the audience expects to travel one way, and instead is taken another. What we protest is a percieved error – turn back, turn back! – when, in fact, our course was planned from the outset.
Except for The Sixth Sense, which he didn’t produce, and Wide Awake, which he neither produced nor appeared in, Shyamalan has, at 37, written, produced, directed and appeared in all his films. Given the excellent characterisation, scripting, cinematography and production values, it’s hard not to be impressed. But more impressive still are the moments of beauty and revelation which characterise his work: the idea that even though we are all flawed, we can fix ourselves.