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Trouble In Belief: The Films of M. Night Shyamalan

Written by on May 29, 2013 

What foremost seems to unite the films of M. Night Shyamalan are belief and, to a more personal extent, faith. Due to their frequent toiling with the supernatural, that seems a given: belief and faith are simply a natural part of such narratives, in their application forcing the protagonist to overcome an initial skepticism — both as an arc and a means of grounding silly concepts in something resembling reality. Yet Shyamalan’s films dig deeper than just that, making these intertwined facets essential as in his favored conflict between emotions and rationality.

It’s a compelling, rightfully applied idea that many overlook in favor of simply scorning his works, nearly all of them open-heart attempts to display dependency and understanding as two connected pieces each of a different color. With his new film, After Earth, opening on Friday, we’ve decided to look at Shyamalan’s career from this perspective, in doing so hoping to expose maligned pictures for their true strength.

Note: Due to its seemingly complete unavailability, his first feature, Praying With Anger, will not be discussed.

Wide Awake (1998)

Shyamalan’s little-seen, little-acknowledged, not-really debut (check note above), while absent of the genre classification that’s instantly noted with his name, is still certainly a forebearer of many narrative obsessions.

Faith/belief is at its most overt here as a fifth-grader looks for God after the death of his grandfather (played by Robert Loggia, of all people). A spiritual crisis for a ten-year-old instantly seems rather strained, but it makes sense upon noticing the exact child at Wide Awake‘s center, one who’s essentially in the limbo of precociousness: containing knowledge but not having enough experience to properly apply it.

Seen through the flashbacks of his grandfather — as well as interactions with caring, if too preoccupied parents — death comes with natural acceptance from adults, but is always one of the initial steps in creating doubt, even disbelief in youth. Though, as previously mentioned, the “genre” elements are absent here, God as an invisible force trying to be grappled with throughout is certainly in line with the ghosts, threat of wood-monsters, and killer air found in his filmography; it’s the deviation from a spooky sense of place that makes this an even more fascinating item in his filmography.

Despite a clear three-act structure — enabled by title cards informing the months and their corresponding step in the child’s quest (seemingly an omen of the act of storytelling being very upfront in his work) — the film’s flaws show in its mostly episodic nature, seeming to repeat its questions of belief rather than have a distinct vertical development. But, at the very least, Shyamalan’s sensitivity is still very apparent, and will find itself only developing once his further titles adopt genre mechanics.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

What seems to be truly overlooked about Shyamalan’s second feature, still his most popular, are the particulars of Bruce Willis’ role as child psychiatrist Malcolm Crowe — in short, how he’s essentially a bullshit artist. The film’s opening, unanimously considered the “set up the twist” part, actually reveals something much different and far more important.

Consider that Crowe is being rewarded for work that we, the audience, never actually see any of. As he and his wife’s reflection are cast in a trophy, they drink champagne and he basks in a seemingly unearned glory. Yet, when confronted with a former patient who wants “what was promised” to him, he instantly launches into an act — calming his voice, faux-sympathetically arching his eyes and asserting him that he was “very smart and unusually compassionate.” It’s a facileness to which Donnie Wahlberg‘s character is instantly used to, and violently reacts against.

In building off his last film, the child-adult relationship comes more directly to the forefront because, if anything, the afterlife for Crowe is an enforced atonement — and on a path of inevitable belief, his only company in the world is a child.

While the previous work didn’t show what was by any means a technical slouch, it’s in The Sixth Sense that Shyamalan announced himself as a formalist, one seemingly under the guise of genre requiring certain flourishes. (Many of his choices border on ostentatious, be it frequent camera movements or oft-mentioned red color motif.) In a way, he comes off as a combination of Hitchcock and Spielberg: a desexualized master of suspense.

Unbreakable (2000)

Shyamalan’s next feature — coming before the comic book film dominated international markets and somewhat validated a “geek is cool” cultural mantra — continues to show a conflict between belief and skepticism. In this case, belief’s danger is seen in Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson), who takes fanboyism to the level of religious fundamentalism, constantly affirming the pop storytelling of comic books as not vulgarity but a mirror to the world. This is best noted in one of the film’s more amusing scenes, as he angrily argues for the artistic merit of an original comic book sketch, remarking to a clueless dad that this is in fact an art gallery and not a toy store.

But pop served with the portentous further extends to Unbreakable as a whole. Shyamalan is continually trying to elevate its comic book origin story with even more carefully planned camera movements and symbolic colors, as well as further proof of his Spielberg inheritance in the somber family drama involving separation and, his clear favorite, emotionally confused children.

Still, the mirroring of Shyamalan and Elijah’s beliefs comes into sharper focus with its source of skepticism: Bruce Willis‘ David. There seems to often be a distance between the camera and him, a space that gives the sense of one uncomfortable in their own life, and furthermore in accepting his gift / greater role.

Though he ultimately does so as the hero, David moves towards Shyamalan’s side, accepting the fantastical while accepting it as something that couldn’t possibly be explained in full. This exemplifies why Elijah is his arch-nemesis: he sees it all as a reaffirmation that he’s “not a mistake” — that essentially everything lines up into a rigorous order, or can somehow be explained.

Signs (2002)

As with Wide Awake, belief finds itself very blatantly manifested in Signs‘ religious surfaces. As a former reverend, Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), who lost his faith over the death of his wife, must confront otherworldly events that challenge his new notions of a cruel, random reality. Hess, however, comes off as the only real adult at the center of the film’s narrative, despite his brother, Merill, wonderfully played by Joaquin Phoenix, often awkwardly trying to fit some patriarchal role — seen best when frequently reassuring his niece and nephew about “the nerds” behind recent phenomena.

Upon mentioning this, one can sense Shyamalan laying the seeds of The Happening, well represented in both Phoenix’s character and performance, these marking a clear predecessor to Mark Wahlberg’s goofball; really, there are equal levels of believability in their respective roles as former professional athlete and high-school science teacher.

Yet he, along with the other members that form this family unit, is essentially isolated through rural living, managing to receive information primarily from their television. The newscasts are met with initial skepticism from both the family and townfolk (a bookshop owner is convinced it’s a marketing ploy to sell soda).  Eventually, though, they become a form of complete fixation, which in turn — with the son Morgan’s alien textbook (coincidentally showing a home resembling theirs being decimated) and the signal picked up from a baby monitor — show a narrative assembling out of everyday pieces, a family gathering around said pieces as if they were a new bible.

It becomes something that Hess cannot avoid, which is why the aliens’ eventual physical manifestation is a double-edged sword: proving that, occasionally, something is both as simple as it initially seems, yet also showing that faith can be resurrected through the unexplainable.

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