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The Unbreakable M. Night Shyamalan

He’s been dubbed the next Spielberg, and he’s directed some of Hollywood’s biggest recent turkeys. With ‘Split,’ the filmmaker is delving deeper into horror.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The best sequence that M. Night Shyamalan has ever directed is the extended set piece near the end of Unbreakable when Bruce Willis’s supernaturally durable suburban avenger subdues a psychopath in hand-to-hand combat — a knockdown, drag-out battle between good and evil that’s at once fully tactile and richly metaphysical. The long-take shot of Willis’s David Dunn clinging desperately to the back of his adversary is filled with indelible details, like the villain’s bright-orange jump suit (a lone splash of color against the otherwise grayscale imagery), or the way that the drywall gets creased every time David is smashed against it, a strangely moving visualization of the toll that this fundamentally humble man’s amateur superheroism is taking on his body and soul.

The worst sequence that Shyamalan has ever directed (and this is a much more competitive category) comes almost immediately thereafter, when David is blindsided by the news that his best friend, Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), is a mass-murdering mastermind, a revelation that’s as prosaic as the earlier scene is poetic. There’s a clever conceit here, which is that David’s physical strength belies a lack of intellectual sophistication, just as Elijah’s brilliance is betrayed by his skeleton’s frailty, but when it comes to translating these ideas from images into words, Shyamalan’s filmmaking vocabulary regresses from eloquence into something hopelessly tongue-tied.

Considering the gap between the director’s gifts as a visual storyteller and his deficiencies as a dramatist — and his insistence on nevertheless serving as a writer-director on as many of his projects as possible — it’s appropriate that Shyamalan’s 12th feature film is titled Split. It refers to James McAvoy having the showiest multiple-personality role since Sally Field’s Sybil; after donning an ordinary-guy disguise to abduct three young girls (including Anna Taylor-Joy, hopefully not typecast in horror parts after The Witch), McAvoy spends the rest of the movie flitting between a dozen-plus alter egos, which run the gamut from childish pantomime to a surprisingly delicate drag act — mental illness transformed into a talented actor’s demented demo reel.

Non-spoiler alert: This being a Shyamalan production, Split builds to and pivots on a Big Twist. This fondness for narrative-redefining reversals is likely the director’s legacy, with the silver medal going to the fact that Shyamalan is the only contemporary Hollywood director to inspire an entire book — Michael Bamberger’s 2006 critical-biography-cum-expose, The Man Who Heard Voices — devoted to the idea that he might not simply be ambitious, driven, or megalomaniacal in the best auteur tradition but actually operating on another plane.

Covering the period before, during, and after the production of 2006’s Lady in the Water, Bamberger’s book depicts a precocious tyro in thrall to his own genius (and hubris). The thesis is that the world-beating success of The Sixth Sense — a genuine word-of-mouth blockbuster whose last-second “gotcha” ending prompted comparisons to Hitchcock — instilled the man whom Newsweek semifamously dubbed “The Next Spielberg” with a combination savior-martyr complex. Considering that in Lady in the Water Shyamalan costars as a writer who learns that (1) his work is going to change the world, and (2) he won’t live to see himself embraced as an icon, the suggestion seems apt.

Now, whatever else you can say about Lady in the Water, it’s got to be one of the most psychologically transparent movies ever made, with Shyamalan’s extended cameo a perfect emblem of his mounting behind-the-scenes anxiety. Starting with Bryce Dallas Howard’s eponymous, red-tressed character actually being named “Story,” Lady in the Water has a self-reflexive dimension; it’s a parable about protecting “Story” at all costs from those who would wilfully misunderstand her, including and especially a film reviewer played with hilarious contemptuousness by Bob Balaban, a stand-in for the critics (and Disney executives) who cited Shyamalan’s post–Sixth Sense output as an example of the law of diminishing returns.

As a vaguely Spielbergian fantasy about community and goodness and the importance of keeping hope alive amid the massing of dark forces, Lady in the Water is unconvincing. As an example of a director putting his — or rather, Warner Bros.’ — money where his mouth and mind were, it’s a vivid illustration of a split-down-the-middle sensibility. It’s genuinely fascinating to wonder if Shyamalan is a born entertainer hobbled by his own idiosyncrasies — Steven Spielberg with two left feet — or a disarmingly personal artist who’s drawn to popular genres that he tries to both honor and transcend, à la Brian De Palma (another longtime punch line whose Raising Cain gets evoked in Split).

The case for the defense would start with The Sixth Sense, which is still probably Shyamalan’s most fully satisfying movie as well as ground zero for some of his more unsettling obsessions. Many critics have cited the nifty act of misdirection in the film’s first scene, when Willis’s Dr. Malcolm Crowe is shot in his bedroom by a disturbed ex-patient played by Donnie Wahlberg: The above-the-title movie star gets laid low by the not-so–New Kid on the Block, and then we fade up on Bruce morosely licking his wounds a year later, unaware that he’s a dead man walking. What sticks upon repeat viewings, though, is not the sleight-of-act but the sheer terror of suddenly seeing Wahlberg standing stock-still in Crowe’s bathroom like a Kubrickian apparition out of The Shining.

As Ignatiy Vishnevetsky pointed out in a recent interview with Shyamalan, home invasion is a scenario that gets replayed again and again in the director’s work. Recall that the reason Willis swings into action at the end of Unbreakable is because he has a Dead Zone–style vision of a train-station janitor surprising a man at his door and tearing through the screen mesh in order to brutalize him. “I like your house … can I come in?” is the visitor’s query, and his subsequent Big Bad Wolf act extends to some extremely disturbing imagery of bound-and-gagged children and a dead woman chained to a radiator — tableaux that arguably exceed the neo-comic-book parameters of the story.

Home invasion plays out in a bigger way in Signs, which after the modernized ghost story of The Sixth Sense and the down-in-the-mouth Superman pastiche of Unbreakable was meant as a stab at sci-fi à la Spielberg — a sort of cross between E.T. and Jaws underlaid with some of Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s new-agey mysticism. For about an hour, Signs is impressively pressurized, entrapping lapsed priest Mel Gibson and his brood (including ex-baseball-star brother Joaquin Phoenix) in a rambling farmhouse while things go bump in the night (and in the cornfield) outside; the very familiarity of the set-up is weaponized by our expectation that Shyamalan will do something new and perhaps unfathomably scary with it.

But he doesn’t, or at least not really: Ironically for a movie that’s structured entirely in terms of set-up and payoff — a strategy explicated by Gibson in a long monologue riffing on the religious significance of the title — Signs bungles its money shots to the point that the Scary Movie franchise (not exactly known as a repository of biting satire) scored some deeply cathartic laughs at its expense.

What comes through strongly in Signs is the basic, elemental terror of knowing that something is trying to force entry into your living space, and even if it’s become harder in the intervening 15 years to connect with a story in which Mel Gibson’s Christian faith is tested and gloriously reaffirmed, his performance as a man trying to protect his castle is strong stuff.

The home-invasion metaphor was expanded even further in The Village, in which the residents of a secluded 19th-century township are menaced by a cabal of spiny, claw-fingered monsters who live in the woods and make frequent visits that send the villagers straight to their cellars. Released in the election-year summer of 2004, The Village was quickly interpreted as a commentary on the “war on terror,” starting with the idea that the monsters’ predations are color-coded (they are inflamed by all shades of red) and building to the entirely predictable, Rod Serling–ish twist that The Monsters! Are! Actually! Us! (or more specifically, Adrien Brody in a costume he found hidden under the floorboards).

In roundly castigating The Village for its toothsome pseudo-period dialogue and telegraphed ending, critics dismissed the slippery viability of Shyamalan’s allegory, which, as wonderfully analyzed by Michael Koresky, boils down to “20th-century radicalism begetting the search for 19th-century socialist utopia, which in turn produces 17th-century colonialist fundamentalism.” While Shyamalan’s attempt to use genre as a container for social commentary was by turns precious and pretentious, it also got at something sticky about the lengths people will go to protect themselves — and their children — from larger social and political realities, and holds up nicely as a piece of craftsmanship, especially the dreamlike montage of villagers huddled in candlelit basements, eyes cast upward to heaven, with nothing to fear but fear itself.

It’s considerably harder to try to go to bat for The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth; where the first repeats and magnifies the failings of Shyamalan’s other horror films (including some absolutely dreadful dialogue that seems to have been delivered either at gunpoint or under hypnosis by Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel), the latter two are blurrily impersonal attempts at making action-packed blockbusters (although After Earth does feature, however improbably, a frightening home-invasion sequence recalled by Jaden Smith in a dream). In these, Shyamalan’s stylishness seemed defeated by the CGI resources at his disposal.

This might be why 2015’s found-footage foray The Visit felt like an authentic lo-fi comeback. It was sweet and revealing to see ex-whiz-kid Shyamalan engineer a story about an aspiring teenage filmmaker (Olivia DeJonge) who uses her video camera to protect her and her brother from addled septuagenarians (including a truly Dirty Grandpa). Even if The Visit’s modest box office success was tied as much to the imprimatur of producer Jason Blum as its director’s faded reputation, its authentic scariness — with the horror tied once again to the idea of a cozy home rendered temporarily unfit for inhabitation — made it the rare “return to form” that actually fit the bill.

The same goes for Split, although its utter and complete Shyamalanness is a mixed blessing. The fully torqued intensity of McAvoy’s acting goes a long way toward making it seem like something uniquely dark and twisted is going on in a story that’s strangely derivative of the thrillers of Thomas Harris (right down to a poetic shot of a caged tiger borrowed from Red Dragon), and the gap between the script’s generally predictable beats and its wackier inventions is considerable. Split’s unevenness is, paradoxically, what makes it so fully of a piece with the bulk of Shyamalan’s work. And that goes double for the aforementioned big twist, which in the moment is so dizzyingly, nudge-your-seatmate absurd that it threatens to tear the whole viewing experience apart, even as it hints that Shyamalan is not only fully aware of his reputation as a one-trick pony but willing to go further with it than fans or detractors alike could ever guess — and that his commitment to his own cinematic universe is completely unbreakable.