Tag Archives: M. Night Shyamalan

SPLIT: SPOILERS AND SPECULATION

What follows may seem like the ramblings of a madman, but I assure you: They are completely sane and rational (kind of) and you probably won’t find them all that crazy once I am done making my case.  Please understand and be warned, HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.

DC and Warner Brothers should really sit down and have a long talk with M. Night Shyamalan. They should ask him how it is that he can be two for two making superhero/supervillain movies while they are batting a solid .000 when it comes to superhero movies following the end of the Nolan Batman trilogy. Fox should also jump in on this to make it a full round table discussion about how to craft superhero drama, especially if their attempt to enter this blossoming genre with LOGAN fails. Disney Marvel can skip the round table portion of this discussion—CIVIL WAR and DOCTOR STRANGE are proof positive that they get it—and get down to the business of letting Shyamalan handle one of their lesser known characters and turning it into a tight, smart, tense film. Maybe he can direct the inevitable PUNISHER film.

With just two films, Shyamalan has established his very own superhero/supervillain universe. It’s a gritty place, full of heartbreak and tragedy. These people are us, just slightly removed. His heroes and villains are broken people just trying to get by or struggling to realize their place in life. All of this is typical fare to a person who reads the funny books once a week. His world is grim, but real. It’s everything that DC wants their movieverse to be and everything it will never be, simply because Shyamalan is beholden to no one when it comes to the creation of this universe. At this point you’re saying “sure I get how UNBREAKABLE was a superhero flick, but SPLIT? How are you going to sell me on that?” Well, let’s see if I can. Here goes nothing.

In UNBREAKABLE Shyamalan gives us one man’s quest to find a real life superhero. His name is Elijah Price and his journey leads him down many dead ends and drives him to do terrible things to prove his theory correct. He finds what he is looking for, a man named David Dunn, and creates (the world’s first?) superhero through a series of engineered meetings and challenges where Price slowly becomes Dunn’s mentor. Primarily so he can justify his genetic predisposition to broken bones and his nickname “Mr. Glass.” Our hero, now a out and out superhero armed with psychic abilities, invulnerability and a new found sense of purpose promptly turns in his new arch nemesis before he can hurt anyone else. The film is about broken, damaged people trying to find their way in life, to find purpose in suffering and tragedy. Our hero is broken but unbreakable and his antagonist is fragile but also dogged in his determination, just as unbreakable in his own lunatic way.

Fast forward 16 years to SPLIT. If UNBREAKABLE is introducing us to the kinds of heroes that populate M. Night’s superhero universe, then SPLIT is his introduction to what sort of monsters might be cut from the same cloth as David Dunn’s Night Watchman/Specter-type character. SPLIT is the origin story of new villain, one physical and terrifying. We watch, in disbelief, as Kevin—a man with 23 separate personalities— struggles to control his life after several of his identities go rogue. These multiple personalities give rise to a new kind of human, one that would fit well on the pages of a book from Image comics or one of the darker Marvel or DC titles. This monstrous evolution is known as The Beast by those who seek to free him from the dark recesses of Kevin’s fragmented mind. The Beast—representing man’s darkest, rawest, most primordial untapped potential— comes to lead the broken, who he claims are more evolved because of their suffering, and to punish the rest of the world. In the end, the Beast takes two shotgun blasts—point blank— from our heroine and then escapes. As the movie gets ready to roll credits we find that he has been given the nickname Horde by the media. The movie sets up multiple personality disorder as the key to unlocking untapped human potential, a theory promoted by a psychologist treating Kevin and other people like him. Her theory is simple, we are only limited by the constraints our minds put on us. We are only human because we believe that we are and when we can reach beyond that, anything is possible. She is essentially Charles Xavier.

It seems that the source of Shyamalan’s heroes and villains comes down to severe trauma. This trauma allows them evolve past the normal constraints of human biology. The film ends with the Beast and his other personalities preening over their victory, preparing for whatever comes next. Just prior to that though we get what is really exciting to me. There is a scene in a diner that closes on David Dunn pensively watching the news feed describing what Horde has done. You can tell that he is strongly considering his next move, which most likely would be to hunt down this new creature and bring it to justice.

The third film in this sequence should be just that, Dunn racing to find or stop Horde, who has sought out help from Mr. Glass a la Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter. Or perhaps he seeks out the other patients being treated by his doctor, who served as a kind of Professor Xavier to Kevin and his mental brethren. His evolution is due to her belief that such a thing was possible and he may now see it as his duty to help others reach that same potential. Either way Dunn has to stop him before he gains enough power or followers to really do some damage to the world at large. This all makes sense if you look at UNBREAKABLE and SPLIT as part of a larger series of films commenting on human nature and drawing parallels from comics to life. SPLIT  serves as a perfect middle-of-a-trilogy film in this regard, especially when you look at how the villain wins in the end. This wrong must be righted and it is up to Dunn to do so. The possibilities to continue this into a third penultimate film is incredible. As is the fact that Shyamalan has managed to create multiple films that serve as both dramas and to create a wider superhero/supervillain mythos.  DC and Warner Bros. REALLY need to schedule that sit down with him as soon as possible, they might learn a thing or two.

Split (2017)

A while back I wrote that I was excited for M. Night Shyamalan’s latest phase of his career. Some people thought that perhaps the film that filled me with such excitement, The Visit, might have been a one off. I pointed to his very good show on Fox, Wayward Pines, and to the fact that he’s been tapped to bring back Tales from the Crypt to network television. Shyamalan’s latest film continues this trend of excellence and re-affirms my previous thoughts about his career. He is back and he is at the top of his game with another batshit crazy gem.

Split —which opened Friday—is showcase of talent. Shyamalan is showcasing his masterclass film making abilities. Strong framing, slow camera movements and a solid use of his traditionally muted color palate help to turn this into tight and claustrophobic feature designed ramp up the tension and create anxiety in the viewer.   In short, Shyamalan crafted a thriller that takes viewers on a strange and terrifying journey. The plot is simple, on the surface at least (I may be reading way too much into the film, please see the next article I post for more on that), a man with multiple personalities kidnaps a gaggle of teenage girls from a mall parking lot and holds them hostage as offerings to something known as the Beast.  They have to find a way out of the situation before the Beast shows up to consume them all. That’s all the film is, seriously. And from that simple premise, Shyamalan delivers us a tight, almost claustrophobic character study. We get to know the girls (trigger warning: there is a sad and disturbing subplot of abuse that is used to allow us to understand the headspace of our main heroine. It goes to some very dark places and is rather uncomfortable to watch), we get to understand the personalities at play and we get to meet the doctor who serves as a caretaker to these personalities. As things spiral out of control, we come to like all of the characters here and I personally left the theater conflicted. I knew I should hate the monstrous character that McAvoy played but between his performance and Shyamalan’s plotting and directing, I felt sorry for him and at times I even found myself rooting for him—just a little though, and definitely not for all of his personalities.

I’ll let that sentence serve as a segue into what I really came here to say, James McAvoy is—to my mind—one of the very best actors working today. I did not come in to the screening with that opinion. I left with it. His performance in this film is nothing short of Oscar-worthy. He won’t get a nod, obviously, but you should check out this film to see what amazing chops this guy has. He is incredible and he steals every scene he is in. His performance is one of utmost subtlety and —simultaneously—incredible soul searing intensity. Each person he is playing is completely different from the next, and there are 23 separate personalities for him to choose from. It’s incredible. It’s insane. It’s all of those things at once and in the hands of a less capable actor it would be absurd. McAvoy however is a next level actor and does not just manage the role, he completely owns it. It’s a performance that needs to be seen—multiple times I think—to believe.

What a Twist! M. Night Shyamalan’s Career is Back from the Dead

shyamalan-1When you mention the name M. Night Shyamalan*, people have several varying reaction: everybody remembers those famous words, “I see dead people.” Or they fondly think “Swing away, Merrill.” Others recoil as they consider The Village, The Happening, The Lady in the Water (which I still don’t think is a terrible movie, but hey I am just one person) or any of his recent films from After Earth to Avatar. Most people would probably say, “Oh he’s the twist guy right? The one that thought he could be Hitchcock?” Whatever the case, whatever the thoughts or memories, no one would say that M. Night is a still a relevant Hollywood director, or even a worthy talking point. I am here to not only say that he is in fact still very much a relevant director, I also think we are about to see a resurgence and reinvigoration of his career.

shyamalan-2We recently published a positive review of The Visit. That review was more than warranted, it was brief to avoid spoilers, but I’d argue that in its brevity it did not do the film justice at all. M. Night took the found footage genre and found a way to breathe new life into it. Add that with the recent Mark Duplass starring Creep, Eduardo Sanchez’s Exists and Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek and I am hopeful that found footage might even stop being a gimmick and become a serious medium for telling a story, but I am digressing here. The focus is on M. Night Shyamalan and the fact that I think, I feel, that he is back championship form. Made on a $5 million budget, The Visit is beautifully filmed, well directed and at times genuinely creepy. It is a thriller and a mystery in the vein of some of Hitchcock’s lesser films (more in line with high quality episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, maybe), which means it is still far superior to a lot of dreck that has made it’s way into theaters lately. I sat there and watched this film and remembered why I loved this director after his first three films (and yes I absolutely did and still do love Unbreakable. Totally underrated.). Here, for the first time in years, he is in total control. He moves you with these broken kids, victims of divorce, trying to make peace for their broken mother and in doing so heal themselves. He gives them, and all the characters appearing in the film, quirks and personalities and qualities that just work. Again, the film is not as strong as his early oeuvre, but you can see his confidence returning. That confidence is in full bloom at the end of the film, as he ramps up the horror and provides a startlingly, and satisfyingly, gruesome conclusion to the tale.

shyamalan-3I also recently enjoyed Wayward Pines, a show that Shyamalan produced and directed the pilot episode of. Again I was struck by the confidence that the show exuded. Now to admit my own bias I have read the entire series by Blake Crouch and enjoyed them very much, and I was hoping the series did the books justice. Shyamalan did the series justice and more as producer, creating a show that I heard many people talking about the day after. So what gives? Why this sudden return to form? Well I think the only valid reason we can point at here is scope and budget.

shyamalan-4Prior to The Last Airbender and After Earth, Shyamalan’s films cost between $40 -$75 million. His first three films are arguably his best, so what happened with The Village and The Happening and The Lady in the Water, where the films were panned almost universally? Scope, my dear reader, our brave auteur started to entertain bigger ideas, bigger plot twists, bigger events. Shyamalan is at his best when he is controlling a small portion of the universe. Each of his films to score highly on Rotten Tomatoes takes place in a single locale or a small isolated location, even Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense while taking place in a city limit the action to only a few locations, locations that add to the plot, instead of distracting from it. The same held true for Hitchcock himself, his best films, the ones with the most suspense, take place in a single locale or small localized setting (Rear Window, Psycho, The Rope all come to mind immediately).

Once Shyamalan started expanding his ideas to include mythologies, world spanning events, or literal heroes’ journeys, his stories started to fall apart and his unblinking eye style of shooting began to feel tedious. For me this was especially true of The Happening, a film which could have been so bad it was great but instead turned into a grating subpar steaming pile of drek (it could have also just been absolutely great, if treated with the same small scope/limited viewpoint as Signs). With The Last Airbender and After Earth, we have a similar failure to juggle plot and scope and action. The more money he was given, the more he tried to do. You can applaud him for that, but while attempting to do interesting things  I feel very strongly that he lost sight of what makes him so great. Small, tense situations with great characters and an unblinking eye observing them. It’s what made each of his first three films work so well and what drives The Visit. Speaking of his latest, he takes his unblinking eye style and gives it his protagonists, a brave choice and one that could easily have made the whole endeavor campy or hokey. However, by utilizing the found footage style, Shyamalan manages to find that flair, that small, close, tense feeling that had been lacking of late. By keeping the film on an isolated farmhouse, he once again returns to his roots and focuses on crafting a character driven horror thriller. The Visit works on almost every level, and I personally hope it indicates a return to form for one of the most interesting filmmakers of the 20th century.

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*When you hear his name you probably wonder how he can still be making movies after so many critical stinkers in a row, but the fact is that according to boxofficemojo.com almost every one of his films has been profitable.