Something of the M. Night

I have something of a love hate relationship with the films of M. Night Shyamalan. It started as love, but turned sour with the portentous Signs. After the execrable Lady in the Water I vowed to have no more to do with his work, but thanks to the influence of The Actual Girlfriend I seem to have reneged on that promise.

The Happening (2008)

The film that M. made after Lady and a masterpiece by comparison. Mark Wahlberg plays science teacher Elliot, who escapes from Philadelphia with his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) and Jess, the daughter of his best friend, when the USA’s east coast is attacked by a mystery toxin that causes people to first freeze in place and then commit suicide. At first the toxin is thought to be a terrorist attack, but this explanation is soon displaced by the theory that plants are fighting back against mankind, whose predations have endangered their environment. Elliot and his dependents must escape from the affected area, surviving both the toxin attacks and the desperation and ignorance of their fellow humans. In ways this reminded me very much of Hitchcock’s The Birds, only with plants in lieu of avian adversaries. It is very much a message film – humans stop shitting in the nest, or you will be taken care of – and to my mind a little too obviously so, to the point that the message distracts and detracts from the overall effect of the story. There are some genuinely creepy moments, with the first, unexplained attack (in NY’s Central Park) and the realisation of what is happening, that the larger the group of people the greater the danger. Creepy moments aside though, there isn’t much scope for action when the villain of the piece is wind-blown toxins, and so to liven things up we are subjected to such things as Elliot’s encounter with gun wielding home owners and a mad old woman (Mrs. Jones) living on her own. Elliot on occasion lapses into dialogue that sounds risible, as if somebody wondered if this should be a comedy but couldn’t commit, and at the end there is the suspicion that we are being told love will save the day, even when for most it so obviously hasn’t. I liked this film, but at the same time I have no desire to see it again and feel that locked up inside this narrative is the potential for something far more substantial. There were interesting things here, but the film didn’t really run with them, instead using them as window dressing in a lukewarm apocalypse movie.

The Visit (2015)

While their mother goes off on a cruise with her new boyfriend, fifteen year old Becca and thirteen year old Tyler go to stay with the grandparents they have never met (mother Loretta fell out with them over fifteen years ago when they didn’t approve her true love choices). The children intend to make a video documentary about their stay, thus providing a credible pretext for the found footage nature of the film. And soon they learn that Nana and Pop Pop are quite odd, with arbitrary rules that have to be followed and strange behaviour patterns. Leaving their camera hidden at night reveals that things are even worse than they suspected, and that their lives might be in danger. This is pretty much an old fashioned, by the numbers, children in peril horror film, and I’d bet that most viewers guess what’s going on long before the film’s protagonists. There are moments of genuine tension, with the cooker scene a high point of dread, and overall it’s watchable enough, though I think the subtext might put mental health care back a decade or so. With hindsight, it feels like the director was channeling the Mrs. Jones character from The Happening when he cooked up these grandparents from hell. On balance I’ll give it a thumbs up, but at the same time I can’t say that I really cared about any of the characters, from the irresponsible mother to the Home Alone kids and the homicidally batty grandparents, while the preachy little codicil about loving your parents was a saccharine end note I could have done without. I don’t expect to watch it again, or remember much about it in a year’s time.

The Village (2004)

A film from the time when I was still an M. Night groupie, and like most of his early work still interesting. The village of the title is Covington, a Pennsylvania community isolated from the rest of the world and with monsters lurking in the woods that will kill anyone who attempts to leave. When her betrothed is badly injured, Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard) is given permission by the elders to attempt to cross through the woods and obtain medical supplies from another town, but to succeed she must confront the monster. Spoiler time, so if you haven’t seen the film, don’t read on – subsequently we discover that Covington isn’t a village out of the time of The Crucible but a community that has cut itself off from the modern world and clings to the illusion that they live in better, simpler times. And so from monster movie we go to a reality displacement piece which brings to mind the work of Philip K. Dick. I like this one a lot. There’s a strong cast that includes Sigourney Weaver, William Hurt, and Joaquin Phoenix, all turning in deft performances. The story is interesting, with the shift coming as a surprise (or at least it did when I first saw the film at the cinema on release), and its execution is suitably restrained, with the elders entirely rational in the way they act, instead of embracing madness and tyranny as so often happens when we get depictions of a closed community. The predominant mood is one of sadness, a sense that these people have been hurt so much they felt compelled to turn their backs on the modern world as the only way of easing their grief. And, with vivid strokes of red and yellow against a predominantly autumnal backdrop, Shyamalan paints with a compelling palette. On the down side, the central premise doesn’t hold up I think, with the idea that the world could also be persuaded to turn its back on Covington a stretch too far, but it’s moments like these suspension of disbelief was made for. And I didn’t feel that the reasons for their isolation, the conscious choice, made not just for themselves but also for the children, to live outside the modern world were effectively examined; instead it felt like their rightness was something taken as a given, even when Ivy tries to leave. And so, we have what I consider an interesting and worthwhile experiment, but not quite achieving its full potential or ambition.

Unbreakable (2000)

This is my favourite M. Night Shyamalan film and one of the most intelligent dissections of the super hero trope we have had from Hollywood. After he survives a train wreck, David (Bruce Willis) is drawn into the web of comic store owner Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson), who has a theory that he is the embodiment of the super hero ideal. It turns out, as he looks back at his past, David has walked away unhurt from several incidents that would have killed most people and , with Elijah’s encouragement, he tests his abilities, finding that not only is he virtually unbreakable, but has super strength and can “sense evil” in other people. He takes on a more proactive role, rooting out the wrongdoers, but in doing so he discovers Elijah’s secret agenda. This is a super hero movie in the loosest sense of the term. David doesn’t wear a costume, other than his poncho, and instead of the vibrant colours of Marvel/D C product we are confronted with a washed out, rain heavy schemata that is as moodily effective as it is bleak and downbeat. Both Willis and Jackson are superb in their respective roles, making the characters seem real but at the same time conferring an almost archetypal quality on them, so that they come to represent the hero and his arch-nemesis. The language of the comic book is woven into this film, concepts that came from Greek myth and were captured in Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces here filtered through the sensibilities of two very modern art forms. And yet at the same time it remains a very human and accessible film. Elijah is a victim of illness who embraces madness as a panacea for what ails him; David, more than anything, wants to rekindle his marriage and earn the respect of his young son. They are real people in a film with real concerns, and I loved it.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

This was Shyamalan’s first big success and a brilliant film, even if it doesn’t resonate with me in the way that Unbreakable does. Bruce Willis is perfectly cast as Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist treating a young boy called Cole (Haley Joel Osment in a career making performance) who claims to see dead people, and at the same time dealing with issues of his own, including the realisation that his marriage is in jeopardy. The interchanges between doctor and patient are engrossing, with the viewer drawn in and willing Crowe to succeed, but along with Crowe we slowly and assuredly move to the knowledge that Cole really is communicating with the dead, and that Crowe’s job is not to cure the boy but to help him use this ability to do some good instead of pissing himself with fright every time a corpse calls in to chat about the bad old times. And this of course leads to a revelation about Crowe himself. With Toni Collette superb as Cole’s mother Lynn, a woman close to the end of her tether, unable to accept from her son what she knows is impossible, this was a brilliant three hander of a movie, with a supporting cast that elevates it even further. I’m guessing that everybody knows the plot twist that forces us to re-evaluate everything we’ve witnessed, to look at each scene again with new eyes, but the strength of the film is not in the plot twists but in the depth of characterisation and the very human dilemma at its heart. We can know everything there is to know about the plot surprises, and yet still gain immense satisfaction from watching the film a third, fourth, fifth time. It isn’t a one trick wonder, but a sustained and powerful work of the imagination that resonates long after the end credits have run, with Shyamalan playing with all the old clichés of the ghost story genre and somehow making them seem magical and new. A big thumbs up from me.

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2 Responses to Something of the M. Night

  1. I agree about Unbreakable. It’s such an underrated film. xxx

    • petertennant says:

      Loved it. Not as obvious as “Sixth Sense” and with more substance than any of Shyamalan’s other major films, at least those I’ve seen (still missing out on “The Last Airbender”, so if anyone thinks that was good, please shout out).

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