M. Night Shyamalan's new film, The Village, begins with one of the director's trademark spooky conceits: a preindustrial village separated from the world by a forest full of monsters. It's an apt metaphor for Shyamalan's own hermetic universe. He lives outside of Philadelphia with his wife and children and insists on shooting most of his films within a day's drive. His movies have their own internal schemas, their own calling cards, their own signature sound effects. And the oh-so-polished presentation leads to the nagging question: Is M. Night a filmmaker or is he a marketing plan?
To understand the Shyamalan phenomenon, turn to his high-school yearbook. In a photograph doctored to look like the cover of Time magazine, M. Night is wearing a bow-tie, cummerbund, tuxedo top, and sneakers. The headlines above the photo read "Best Director" and "N.Y.U. grad takes Hollywood by storm." Born in India and raised in an affluent Philadelphia suburb, M. Night grew up ensconced in the world of regulated suburban achievement: polo shirts, test prep, and college stickers covering the rear window of the Volvo station wagon. He may have wanted to be Spielberg, but money would be the measure of his success.
Wasting no time, Shyamalan graduated NYU early. At the age of 21, he was writing, directing, and producing his first film, Praying With Anger. He played the lead, an Indian-American college student who discovers the spirituality of India. Released in 1992, the movie grossed a meager $7,000 dollars. He next wrote and directed a movie called Wide Awake (1998) for Miramax. It was the story of a sports-loving nun, played by Rosie O' Donnell, who helps a boy find God after his grandfather dies. The rough cut was too treacly even for Harvey Weinstein (a soft-touch for little kid movies, especially foreign ones), who unleashed a legendary speaker-phone tirade that humiliated Shyamalan and made O'Donnell cry.
Shyamalan now had two bombs to his name and supported himself by screenwriting. There was, however, one chance to turn things around—a long shot. M. Night was in pursuit of the screenwriter's holy grail: the perfect script, one so redolent of profit, star-friendly roles, and greenlight power that the studio executives simply could not turn it down.
Not only did Shyamalan write that script—The Sixth Sense (1998)—he also realized that he had written that script. He flew to Los Angeles, rented a suite at the Four Seasons, and gave the final draft to his agents on Sunday, telling them to auction it off on Monday. Disney offered him $3 million and promised him he could shoot the film. On the Philadelphia set, Shyamalan somehow transformed himself into a disciplined director. He made the film very simply, with long, soothing takes. He coaxed a good performance out of Bruce Willis by essentially requiring him not to act, while Haley Joel Osment turned in one of the greatest natural performances by a child actor. The movie wasn't like a Spielberg film, except for the feeling that you should call your mother afterwards. The closest influence was Hitchcock: the point-of-view editing, the emotional close-ups of actors, the fixation on detail, and the eerie score. It also adhered to Hitchcock's definition of terror: "If you want the audience to feel the suspense, show them the bomb underneath the table." We knew the ghosts were coming to chat with Haley Joel, and that's why we were under our seats.
The Sixth Sense became one of top 10 grossing films of all time, and what does M. Night do with his newfound power? He stays put in Philadelphia, refusing to move to L.A. and play ball. He creates a local film industry around his productions. And most importantly, he begins the process of burnishing his legend. When a reporter asks him what he wanted his name to mean in the future, he replied, "Originality." Access to his scripts in progress is extremely limited, lest anyone reveal their secrets.
M. Night could not control the audience, however, and he was unhappy with the poor performance of his sophomore thriller, Unbreakable (2000). He vowed to inject more emotion (and box office) in his next effort. Again, Shyamalan made the talk show rounds, promising another twist ending and cultivating auteurish tics such as putting himself in the movie, just like Quentin, just like Hitchcock. The result was Signs (2002) and a teary Mel Gibson. It became a modest hit, but only after it was adopted by Christians as movie about the power of faith.
An uncomfortable pattern was emerging. M. Night was making fragile, sealed-off movies that fell apart when exposed to outside logic. Viewed from the theatre lobby, the twists in both Signs and Unbreakable seem like rejected Twilight Zone episodes. Think about it: A fragile comic book collector (Samuel L. Jackson) believes that his mission in life is to discover a real superhero, so he starts killing huge batches of people in airplane crashes and train wrecks in the hope that there will be a miraculous survivor? Signs is even flimsier: An intelligent alien species that is killed when doused with H20 decides to invade a planet that is two-thirds water? Without a believable plot, Shyamalan was exposed as a high-class purveyor of old-fashioned movie scares.
Then there are Shyamalan's directorial calling cards. Each of his thrillers runs exactly 106 minutes. (Asked why, he claims that each time it has happened by sheer coincidence.) As for his own acting appearances, Slate's David Edelstein has said that Shyamalan's Signs cameo was so creaky the director should have fired himself. He's shrouding himself in a counterfeit version of the auteur theory, which says that great directors reveal themselves by their tendencies, their tics. But is a twist ending an auteurist tic or just a way that Shyamalan gooses the audience again and again? There is a fine line between the auteur and the repetitious hack.
Shyamalan's sentimentality is a trickier issue. No one likes to be a cynic, to be the one laughing when Mel Gibson, as an ex-minister in Signs, has a lugubrious conversation with his wife as she lies dying in a car accident. But no one likes to be cheaply manipulated, either. My guess is that when he writes these wrenching scenes of father and daughter, or husband and wife, Shyamalan is striving for some universal and lucrative language of cinema, something that will have them crying in Bangkok and in London. It's as though he looked at Titanic and said, "I can do that sort of thing, too."