Overrated hack or underrated auteur? Fedor Tot explores the twisty filmmaker's output to mark the release of Knock at the Cabin
To some, he’s a true entertainer of the American cinema. To others, he’s a cheap circus huckster, getting by on weak twists and shoddy plotting. But for this writer, M. Night Shyamalan is a great auteur, underappreciated even by his admirers. For well over two decades, here is is a filmmaker who has locked deep into American existential crises and fears, motivated by a spiritualism that is unique to his works, whilst also remaining fully and unashamedly fun to watch.
The Philadelphia-raised director has certainly had his misfires (and colossal misfires they are), but when he’s on song, few directors are quite as adept at the basic filmic necessity of telling stories, happily and skilfully manipulating audiences for the fools we are. To coincide with the release of his latest flick, Knock at the Cabin, I've combed through his filmography in its entirety to sort the flops from the first-rate…
15. Avatar: The Last Airbender (2010)
There are some heavy stinkers in Shyamalan’s back catalogue, but none that whiff quite as bad as the live-action adaptation of the much-acclaimed animated series. The opening directly references the martial arts classics of the Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers studio, but anyone hoping for a modern riff will be sorely disappointed. Aside from white-washing the cast (the series is set in an Asiatic world) in the year of our lord 2010, the film is just plainly uninteresting, rifling through exposition at breakneck pace, without ever pausing to wonder why we should care. It’s also horrendously ugly, and that’s a sin one can’t forgive.
14. Wide Awake (1998)
Between this bizarre faith-based family comedy (his last before the critical and commercial breakthrough of The Sixth Sense) and co-writing credits on Stuart Little and She’s All That, there’s an alternate universe in which Shyamalan eked out a small and largely forgettable career writing Cheaper by the Dozen sequels and directing multiple episodes of after-school Nickelodeon sitcoms. Still, you can already see the themes of grief and faith that Shyamalan would grapple with for much of his career in this somewhat autobiographical film (like the young protagonist, he too went to a private Catholic school). Unfortunately, it's all handled without grace, subtlety, or crucially for a comedy, humour.
13. Praying with Anger (1992)
Made whilst the director was still in university, Praying with Anger bears many of the hallmarks of a first-time director-writer taking on deeply personal material, broaching the subject of his birth country for the first and thus far only time in his career. Here, Shyamalan stars as an American-raised Indian returning for university, and the ensuing cultural clashes that come with it, many resulting in violence. Although there are flashes of inspiration and good cinematography, it is ultimately too dramatically inert to make much of an impact, despite all the good intentions in the world.
12. After Earth (2013)
Between this and The Last Airbender, it is ironic that a director so gifted with the outlandish and imaginative appears so anonymous with the most outwardly fantastical and big-budget of his Hollywood output – though at least here he has the excuse that this is more of a Will Smith nepotism project than anything else. After Earth is not terrible, but neither is it very good, with Jaden, on his first camping trip with daddy outside of the luscious Smith family mansion, forever looking as if he’s about to burst into tears if his chai latte isn’t delivered right this second.
11. Split (2017)
Split arrived after The Visit, and together with that film coincided with an overall upswing in acclaim for the director after a few years in the doldrums. It suffers partly from being the middle part of a trilogy (with the much better Unbreakable and Glass either side of it), but benefits from its small scale and claustrophobic setting, with Anya Taylor-Joy and a multiple-personality James McAvoy doing battle. McAvoy’s performance, however, tries a little too hard to showcase his skills, coming across as desperate to impress the audience: being as handsome as James McAvoy is already impressive enough.
10. The Visit (2015)
The hard edges of handheld digital cinematography gave birth to the found footage horror movement, and with it some of the more interesting formal experiments in mainstream cinema in the 21st century. Shyamalan deploys it here with jet-black humour, using the seemingly objective reality of the documentary at the heart of the film to subvert expectations about performing family roles, the fear of ageing, and making amends before its too late. It doesn’t quite land with as much impact as his best films, but this is still an effective and stylish found-footage attempt.
9. Signs (2002)
The triple bill of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs represents, for most critics, Shyamalan’s peak as a director: three stylistically ravishing films dealing with faith, grief and mourning. I don’t necessarily disagree. Signs is an exceptionally well-crafted film, showcasing the director’s great sleight-of-hand and thematic visual richness (the Spielbergian comfort of home set against the creaking fear of the outside world). The performances are great, too, with Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix turning in some of the best work of their career. And yet, for this writer, at least, there’s something a little too polite about Signs. Shyamalan can, and would, get more unhinged, and all the better for it.
8. The Sixth Sense (1999)
The film that kicked off Shyamalanamania. Again, as with Signs, this is an excellent and moving meditation on mourning, with an almost-career-best performance from Bruce Willis. The Sixth Sense is arguably a victim of its own success, with “The Twist” becoming a meme of its own. Whilst that may mean a lack of mystery going into the film for anyone who doesn’t live under a rock, it does at the very least allow the film to stand on its own two feet. Without said twist, it remains a first-class ghost story, subsuming itself deep in the collective folkloric psyche – what are ghosts, after all, but a recognition of our grief and inability to move on? This is a close reckoning on deep-seated beliefs about faith, no doubt influenced by the director’s upbringing, raised as a Hindu who went to Catholic school, with all of these multi-faceted ideas about God(s) swirling inside his young mind.
7. Glass (2019)
The main reason Shyamalan has never jumped on the Marvel/DC circuit is, I suspect, because he actually likes and appreciates comics for what they are. His sincerity as a storyteller is one of his greatest traits, and sincerity is an absolute no-go in the modern superhero production line, even if that same sincerity is occasionally what undoes him. Glass, the conclusion to his superhero trilogy, is a fascinating attempt to grapple with the industrialisation of fantasy storytelling. If it is deliberately on-the-nose (with Samuel L. Jackson’s Mr. Glass literally shouting out the themes step-by-step at times), it is only because the industry trusts its own audience so little it also spells out its themes, step-by-step, with dialogue designed to be shared and retweet ad nauseam on social media. A gleefully pleasing takedown.
6. Old (2021)
Old is Shyamalan at his slickest: a well-oiled, outrageously entertaining thrill-a-minute mystery, his style now honed and firing on all cylinders. Thematically, we once again return to one of Shyamalan’s favourites: our fear and unwillingness to reckon with our mortality, as our cast find themselves stranded on a beach where they age years in a few minutes. With everyone lurching between panic and soul-searching, there’s space for both high-flying thrills and contemplative thought, and Shyamalan finds space to muse on Promethean pharmaceutical ethics, familial divisions (an echo of similar themes in The Visit, Signs and elsewhere), and the necessity of faith and optimism in dealing with the big questions.
5. Knock at the Cabin (2023)
Shyamalan has entered the 2020s in a rich vein of cinematic inspiration: Knock at the Cabin may be one of the few book-to-screen adaptations in his filmography, but it turns to many of the same thematic concerns that are ever-present in the director’s work: the curse of absolute belief, narrative control, and sacrifice. Here, he fragments it through today’s zeitgeist, with the far-right, cults, and conspiracy theorists all meshing together. This is Schrodinger’s Apocalypse – it doesn’t matter where it’s real or not, it matters that it is, and this is the central question the audience has to contend with. Brilliant, discursive stuff, mapped onto a superb suspense picture.
4. Lady in the Water (2006)
Lady in the Water’s magic trick is to provide us with a fantastical and supernatural story, set within an ostensibly “real” world, and have our characters wholeheartedly and unquestionably believe in this fantasy – that of a water spirit who needs to be sent back to her home. For many, Lady in the Water is evidence of the director’s outsized, bursting ego – casting himself as a writer set to change the world after his death, and placing a bumbling, arrogant film critic called Mr. Farber (after legendary critic Manny Farber) as comic relief. But this is yet another film where Shyamalan’s stylistic clarity and sincerity work to rather glorious effect. Few directors are as effective at using the camera for emphasis in tone and narrative, and few are as deeply in tune with the human necessity to create fiction as to make sense of the chaos of the modern world. That sincerity, however, has always read as arrogance and pretension to the cynics of today. More fool them.
3. The Happening (2008)
Much derided on release and ever since, I am here to tell you that The Happening is one of the most misunderstood artworks of our time. It operates both as absurd B-movie hokum, the kind invented to get away with minuscule budgets – the villain is wind! – and also as a psychologically realistic portrayal of how our atomised, capitalistic existence might handle climate collapse. It is, in any respect, a better evocation of such events than the risible and smug Don’t Look Up, and ahead of its time to boot. Shyamalan’s conceit is to portray climate collapse as part of a suicidal death drive (an allegory so obvious, most viewers completely missed it at the time), whilst also depicting how the dichotomy existing at the heart of our lifestyle is capable of both helping and hindering us in times of crisis, particularly in regards to the mass population displacement we can expect to see, where small nuclear families, cut off from wider communities and the chains of solidarity that protect us, might just scrape through but will have to tear apart any outsiders to survive.
2. The Village (2004)
If much of Shyamalan’s work returns on some level to the idea of storytelling as a means of reckoning with the human condition, integral to maintaining hope in such a chaotic landscape, then The Village is perhaps the dark flipside to that view: what happens when the keys to the stories we tell are controlled by a select group of people with ulterior motives? Derided again on release of overhyping its twist, this still remains one of Shyamalan’s best works, working with the narrative building blocks of America itself, a country built on stolen native land, given to self-mythos as a way of coping with its inherent ugly contradictions. This is also one of his most classically beautiful films, with Roger Deakins’ cinematography creating a luscious, damp, earthy world of greens and browns, at once both physically real and strangely fable-like.
1. Unbreakable (2000)
When we’re introduced to Bruce Willis in Unbreakable, sitting on a train, conversing with a passenger, Shyamalan opts to use the seat as his editing suite, framing action and reaction by sliding back and forth, either side, all in an unbroken take – externalising in-camera the central fact of Willis’ protagonist: that he is literally unbreakable. It’s a moment of cinematic showmanship that is both goofy, stupid, and so obvious it actually turns into genius: a hell of a way to set up his best work. Again, we’re working with the director’s twin obsessions of faith and storytelling, asking us, as ever, what the purpose of our innate obsession with narrative is. He is helped in this manner by a career-best performance from Bruce Willis, who found in Shyamalan somebody willing to use him as something other than an all-action everyman. Here, we find a hushed, melancholy interiority to Willis, already present in The Sixth Sense but raised here to operatic levels. Sincere, meaningful, and stylish: everything the modern superhero industrial complex chooses not to be.
Knock at the Cabin is released in UK cinemas on February 3.