As trailers for The Happening first began to ramp up in anticipation of its June 13 opening, I marked my calendar and confessed, “You had me at Shyamalan.” M. Night, that is, a man who elicits more disdain from the masses than devotion.
A recent New York Times article mapped Shyamalan’s “decline” through his films’ box-office earnings subsequent to The Sixth Sense, stating, “Since then, the numbers have been going in the wrong direction.” The Guardian noted “lapses of personal and aesthetic judgment” exercised ever since Shyamalan had audiences seeing dead people. Hosts of others have derided the filmmaker as a talentless auteur-wannabe who hinges each of his works on a gimmick that is easier and easier to spot, and internet rumors suggest that yanked press screenings across the country signal The Happening is cut from the same cloth as its forebears. I am, however, the sort of person that sees a dog-pile and instinctively reaches in to pull the guy out from underneath and dust him off. So (imagine crack of knuckles and stoic inhale) here goes nothing …
To begin with, I have a little theory about Shyamalan’s fall. Like an otherwise artsy band who garners commercial success on the strength of one atypically radio-friendly song, with The Sixth Sense Shyamalan established a base of moviegoers who have since strained to find the same sort of big-box-office spookiness and twists instead of recognizing what each subsequent film has actually had to offer. Had Unbreakable been the peg on which he’d rested his hat, for example, he’d have audiences who set their expectations in the right directions.
Unbreakable channels Shyamalan’s biggest asset, his distinctive sense of cinematic atmosphere. If Shyamalan is indeed a brand, this is his trademark. And if the Shyamalan trademark were embodied in a person, it’d have to be … Christopher Walken, forcing an uncomfortable silence before speaking very slowly two inches from your nose as he urges you to find something beautiful in the dead bird he holds in his fist. Well, that may be an imaginative leap, but you get the picture. It’s about an atmosphere both disconcerting and riveting – scenes embrace long silences; strange, stilted timing in the dialogue ventures somewhere close to poetic; unusual perspectives tighten claustrophobically or pan in methodical sweeps; whispers of a musical score (usually by James Newton Howard) lurk in the background. The effect is a Poe-like aesthetic that joins eeriness and loveliness with the deftness of a Goth wedding.
More eerie than lovely is the psychic cultural relevance to Shyamalan films. In Signs, news of unimaginable terror takes over every hour of every television channel and the minds of fixated viewers. The film was already underway when the 9/11 attacks occurred. In Lady in the Water, one individual is destined to rise to prominence and provoke change in a war-addled, largely passive society. Sounds like a campaign slogan to me. And when authorities recently rounded up children in prairie dresses and granny braids from a Texas compound, oblivious to the outside world, I had to wonder if their elders had donned Bigfoot suits and bellowed from the perimeters at night to scare them into submission à la The Village. It would seem that despite the fantastical elements of his films, Shyamalan has a finger on our pulse and a foot in our future.
Shyamalan, I’m sure, likes the idea that his surreal tales skim reality, future, or present. That was the premise of Unbreakable, that comic books are born more from the actual rather than the imagination. Well, that’s the tagline, anyway, but, like all Shyamalan movies, what it seems to be about is not really what it’s about at its core. It’s safe to say pretty much all of Shyamalan films are about the same thing: A tortured individual finds a way to connect with others and heal (or vice versa), thereby empowering that character to achieve his or her destiny.
Meh, maybe it’s hokey, maybe it’s sentimental, but, sue me, I like it. Especially when said character makes this epiphany to the crescendo of a Howard score — David in Unbreakable climbing out of a pool to overwhelm the orange-suited psycho, Lady in the Water’s Cleveland sobbing overdue professions to his murdered children over the body of a reviving Story, the quirks of the Hess family coalescing in Signs as Merrill swipes a baseball bat at water glasses to conquer the little green man in their living room. There’s something infectious about it, giving an otherwise spooky movie some heart … and me a little hope that my irrational fear of bathtub drains will somehow, someday, help me save the world. For this alone, I extend a helping hand and say, “Now shake if off, Mr. Shyamalan, and go give ’em hell with The Happening.” •