M. Night Shyamalan’s nervy cinema of wonders proffers the most rigorous aesthetic in American studio moviemaking. Warners is touting his latest, Lady in the Water, as “a bedtime story,” but every one of his blockbusters could have been billed as such. Pictorial and elemental, his films tend to be shot (most noticeably in Unbreakable) in unbroken single takes, granting each cut the effect of turning the page in a picture book. From plot point A to rug pull Z, his narratives don’t flow along as much as reveal themselves moment by moment: Try not to feel duped, but allow yourself to see the universe and, in confluence, the constructed movie world anew. His need for geometrical precision has resulted in overly tidy packages, yet the question must be addressed to those who bemoan his reliance on the “twist ending”: So what? Now that Gore Verbinski films pass as “clever” studio product, why are so many so eager to come down so hard on Shyamalan, whose insistence on creating such ethereal, confounding universes is premised on constant invention and revelation?
It’s what’s unseen that matters most to Shyamalan: Each of his films follows a psychospiritual quest of sorts, starting with his AFI-lauded debut, Praying With Anger (1992) and his Weinstein-shredded Wide Awake (1998). If the former’s biographical soul-searching (following a young man back to his Indian homeland) seems an odd precursor to the latter’s white-Christian-kiddie existentialism (a young Catholic-school student questions God after his grandfather’s death), the two provide a harmonious entryway into the religious schism of Shyamalan’s experience: Born in Pondicherry, India, but raised in an affluent Philadelphia suburb by two physician parents, he was enrolled in a private Episcopal school at an early age.
Working through the prepubescent psychology left over from Wide Awake‘s split carcass, The Sixth Sense finally settled down for that climactic, nearly epochal sleight of hand. Newsweek was soon dubbing him “The Next Spielberg,” thanks, presumably, to his blending of faith-based morality plays with creature-feature shocks. (Signs, the purest but also the clumsiest example of these twinned desires to terrorize and edify, flirted dangerously with conservative proselytizing.)
Shyamalan doesn’t necessarily want you to get lost in the legend: He often pulls back the curtain to reveal the Tinkertoys precariously propping up the whole. What was The Village if not a spectacularly deconstructed costume drama, in which the slightly hokey period garb and luxurious verbal anachronisms were revealed as, well . . . just that? Lady in the Water, similarly distrustful of its own awkward cadences, also literally calls itself out as a succession of fairy-tale tropes, characters, and story arcs.
Perhaps it’s because by age 36, Shyamalan feels as if he’s exhausted traditional means of storytelling: At 16, he had 45 short films under his belt. He has positioned himself in Hollywood as an idea man, but the reality is knottier; he decontextualizes the familiar, so that our experience of superhero action comics (Unbreakable), gothic ghost stories (The Sixth Sense), monster movies (The Village), and fairy tales (Lady in the Water), are thoroughly divorced from their genre myth anchors. The effect can be so alienating that it’s surprising his films have proven so successful (grossing some $2 billion worldwide).
The defiantly odd Lady in the Water might prove the litmus test, for tried-and-true Shyamalaniacs. The film’s tortured pre-production resulted in the dissolution of Night’s relationship with Disney, as documented in Michael Bamberger’s just-out The Man Who Heard Voices. Though not for children, Lady functions wholly on children’s logic. Tricky as it was to ascertain the fantastic grandeur within Unbreakable‘s realist, working-class Philadelphia, Lady asks us to submerge ourselves even further into Shyamalan’s headspace, in which nonsense words like narf and scrunt carry undeniable gravity. While his other films are predicated on explanations, this one stands apart by defying them; like a Jim Henson campfire story as told by Eyes Wide Shut‘s Victor Ziegler, the closer it gets to a workable solution, the less sense it makes. Thankfully, there’s pleasure to be had in such big-budget bluffing.