by Paul Deeter
This article is a continuation of Part One's ranking of M. Night Shyamalan's filmography (10-6). I encourage readers to start with the first 5 ranked features before reading this post. The original article, which prefaces his career and provides some background for his films including Old (2021) can be read here. As for the rest of the list, enjoy.
The rest of the list, which include quite a bit of Shyamalan's early work was very hard to compile. In fact I found myself dipping back and forth between my rankings for more than a few films here, and I took the time to rewatch The Sixth Sense and do some research on Unbreakable, both films that I probably haven't seen in over a decade. Without further ado, here are my top five Shyamalan films of his career to date.
5. Unbreakable (2000)
Unbreakable is a strange case of a film that managed to disappoint to some upon release, while simultaneously sending Shyamalan on the fast track to headier, high quality projects. This film, a year after the release of his debut film The Sixth Sense in 1999, was seen as somewhat of a sophomore slump for a few reasons. The premise follows David Dunn (played by Bruce Willis, quietly excellent here) and his baffling survival from a train accident that took the lives of every other passenger. Shyamalan insists the film was mis-marketed as a thriller, while it's later considered a superhero origin story. However, the ending of the film would give Shyamalan the early reputation of being a master of twists, and the film was a wide success despite a lukewarm response from critics (currently the film sits at 70% on Rotten Tomatoes.) The movie works as a progression of the directors on screen use of metaphor and visual nuance, for example: Shyamalan and cinematographer Eduardo Serra chose several camera angles to simulate the look of a comic book panel. Various visual narrative motifs were also applied. Several scenes relating to the Mr. Glass character involve glass. As a newborn, he is primarily seen reflected in mirrors, and as a young child, he is seen reflected in a blank TV screen..." This theme would continue quite effectively in the film's sequel Split, which used framed angles of divided backgrounds to emphasize the protagonist's personality. I'd say the visual color palette is top-notch here as well, focusing on blue-grays and dark lighting without frustrating the viewers. The movie's theme of the action hero works well because of the lack of visual effects, and action that doesn't rely on choreographed flair but feels weighty and real instead.
I loved a scene where David, when he first discovers his precognitive sense of detecting criminals rescues a family from being held hostage by their psychopath father. His break in and rescue is so amateur and messy that he barely makes it out alive, and the whole sequence feels real and down-to-Earth, unexpected in a film about larger than life characters. This on top of a solid antagonist established by Samuel L. Jackson as Mr. Glass was enough to franchise the film into a trilogy, despite taking years to develop its sequels. This is a phenomenal feature, surprisingly wise for a sophomore feature, and it may change in ranking from one day to another. It's almost unbeatable.
4. Split (2016)
.... BUT, it's sequel, Split is just a bit better. After years of conceptual development Hell, Split came out as an unexpected sequel to Unbreakable with a stinger that ties the two films together and sets the platform up for Glass. The story of Split follows a man legally named Kevin, who's performance by James McAvoy is considered maybe one of the finest horror performances of all time. When I say legally named Kevin, I'm establishing a character who goes by many identities due to a split-personality disorder. Kevin could be Barry, the one seemingly in control of the 22 other personalities, or he could be Dennis (the obsessively anal kidnapper of the three teenagers) and sometimes he's young 9-year old presence Hedwig, the innocent and oblivious one. Of course, being a 90-minute thriller, we don't get to see every personality, but that would be boggling to say the least. Kevin does receive treatment by a concerned therapist, but in spite of that holds three teenagers hostage in a bunker, one of which (played by Ana Taylor-Joy), has a bigger purpose beyond her own understanding. Kevin sees this inevitably, and it plays into the larger picture of heroes and extremely powerful individuals beyond comprehension. A follow-up and twist on the characters of Unbreakable, but something additional Split has going for it is a true, terrifying villain. Inside all of Kevin's identities hides a true almost demonic evil: The Beast. All hope is lost if The Beast comes out, for this is the identity that is not just a change in presence, but a true supervillain with unstoppable powers.
This film works best when it focuses in on James McAvoy's complex portrayal of Kevin, and Barry and Dennis, etc. There's a few moments, including an unnerving therapy scene where the audience is not entirely sure just what personality is present. There's no true visual change to his identities, just slight change of expressions, the way his eyes speak for him or his tone alters a tad in voice. It's an absolutely brilliant and truly nuanced motif that doesn't cheat or take the audience's intelligence for granted. Unfortunately, the film would probably rank higher if not for some of the hammy scenes that come forth in the film's conclusion, reminding us this is less of a character study and more of a supervillain tale. But that said, the performance never wavers, and it's a shame that the Academy never gave McAvoy the fair opportunity for gold that he does so well to deliver here. Be that as it may, the film was a box office smash and held number one in the box office for three weeks. It's considered Shyamalan's best work in over a decade, and rightly so. This is an incredible thriller, even outside of its placement in the trilogy.
3. The Sixth Sense (1999)
The Sixth Sense was the start of something new. The beginning of a hot new presence in the horror community, M. Night Shyamalan hit the scene as a horror talent to watch, despite earlier work and student projects prior. This is considered Shyamalan's feature debut and is not just the front-runner for biggest box office smash from the director, but also his most nominated film to my surprise. In 1999, this film was nominated for 6 awards by the Academy, including Best Picture which was almost unprecedented for horror films. Shyamalan also received a Best Director nomination, part of which put him on the map as a name to watch. I think The Sixth Sense is and will maybe always be most people's favorite Shyamalan feature, or at least his most defining. Before The Happening and Lady in the Water, it was impossible to imagine a talent like this having any misfires. This film is full of secrets, visual clues and one of the top three greatest twist endings of all time. It's a movie with three solid performances, including Toni Collette as young Cole's mother (arguably overlooked.) The leads are of course Cole (Haley Joel Osment) and Malcolm played by Bruce Willis (with hair!) Malcolm enters the scene as a child psychologist who picks up a case with Cole, a kid who cannot find peace from the many ghosts that he is able to see. Malcolm is maybe his only ally, he believes Cole can see the dead and tries to help him cope with his ability and help other spirits with unfinished business on Earth.
And here's where the film gets its true strength. Osment's performance, while at the time considered a bit silly, holds up very well as a young talent who went on to nail other major roles. Willis is also special, his quiet and contemplative performance here and in Unbreakable rooted him as an actor far more talented than just the action scene. And then there's the famous twist. Shyamalan's biggest twist of all time and one that works incredibly well for those unfamiliar with the spoilers of the film, Malcolm is revealed in the final scene as a deceased presence all along. The clues come in subtly, starting with an introduction where he's shot in a home invasion by an adult ex-patient of his. Then there's brief flashes of reflections in items like a doorknob, where only Cole is visible while Malcolm does not show up in the image. And the biggest clue, is the one that makes me feel the most profoundly ignorant: Malcolm is never featured talking to anyone except Cole. He sits next to his wife who remains silent beside him despite his attempt to communicate. He never talks to Cole's parents or any other adults. The film never cheats this trick. And it works so well.
The one thing I could argue about this film, having rewatched it a day within writing this article, is that the film is never truly as scary as his other films. There's some big jumpscares but the movie is mostly creepy over being horrific. That's not a complaint, and some of the tear-jerker scenes made me cry even years later. But his scariest film, has got to be the next entry.
2. Signs (2002)
Signs is perhaps the last Shyamalan film with near universal acclaim, and left the director off on the almost perfect note of being a director to watch. My father made a comment on the first part of this post I'd have to agree with, there's maybe no other director in history with more expectations thrown on him in his early career than before him. Three box office and critical hits of the horror genre, and not just that but three different films thematically as well, Shyamalan was bowling a turkey at this point. Signs is a sci-fi horror, with emphasis on the latter, and it follows ex-priest Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) and his family's survival against an alien invasion that besieges the entire planet. The small town setting focuses on Graham's family with a star-studded cast including his brother played by Joaquin Phoenix, his young son and daughter (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin.) The film works up the scares from as soon as the opening credits; I attest in an earlier article that the title sequence is one of the best of the twenty first century. The movie is paced brilliantly, we never truly see the aliens until a giant scare in the second act when an alien crashes a Brazilian birthday party. That scene is easily my biggest jump reaction in a theater of all time. There's a real sense of fear that builds up, a mix of fear and paranoia. As the family becomes more afraid, Graham's fear is tested with an element of disbelief: he stepped away from the altar when he his wife died in a horrible car accident.
Graham, despite being played by the mostly intolerable Mel Gibson, is a character with a sensational arc. I'm not religious and one could scoff at the religious redemption his character seems to take, but I felt very melancholic through his journey. In fact the use of melancholy almost outweighs the fear, the sense of losing grip on a family after a loss, the brief flashbacks that unveil the accident that took the mother, and so on. I think my favorite scene comes in the middle however, when Graham and his brother sit by a TV which shows a live tracking of extraterrestrial lights over a town. As they discuss their past, the lights remain on air and the sense of a media-quieted frenzy reminded me of the dread felt by the country post 9/11. When the unknown is almost impossible to grasp, a country sits behind its camera with uncertainty of what could happen. I may be looking too deeply into this, but as a young kid when the events of 9/11 happened, this scene resonated with me, and still does to this day. Sometimes all you can do is hope.
The Village (2004)
I know I'm not in the majority on this one, outside of my friend and co-writer for the site, Jordan who teaches this movie in his class, but I think The Village is a masterpiece. In fact, I think The Village is M. Night Shyamalan's best film ever, and it's his most misunderstood film as well. In similarity to the marketing issues over Unbreakable, this 2004 quasi-thriller is not the horror movie it was marketed as, instead this film is a truly beautiful drama of profound scripting and narrative. Bolstered by a sweeping romance between Bryce Dallas Howard as Ivy and Joaquin Phoenix as Lucius, the movie is focused on telling a tale of heartbreak over horror. Ivy is a blind woman who falls for Lucius, in a town surrounded by otherworldly (but never truly shown) creatures of the night, known as "those we do not speak of." Due to a moment of dark jealousy on behalf of a simple-minded townsfolk also in love with Ivy, Lucius is stabbed. In a village apparently set in the 1800s, the access to the right (modern) medicines are beyond them, so Ivy must journey out despite her inability to see, to find access to the right cure. It is she who is brave enough to venture out, and also is unable to see the town's truest secret: they are living cut off from modern society.
This is arguably one of the director's weakest twists, and it would disappoint most critics until some reanalysis favored the film years later. It was not universally panned, but The Village did not get the fair shake it did in 2004. The movie proves to me, that Shyamalan is a prestige director. The film's use of forbidden colors, (yellow = good, red = danger) is a great balance to the muddy monochromatic village setting. The dialogue adds some heart-wrenching beauty to the young romance; a line about Lucius insisting 'he will dance at their wedding' practically seals their marriage while they flirt. The ending (post the modern day twist) is a beautiful moment of relief but also keeps the viewer glued enough to desire more beyond the credits. The horrors are limited and mostly offscreen but manage to build a lingering sense of suspense that leans the film into the thriller territory. The Village is one of the finest 'non-period period pieces' of the twenty-first century, and years later it remains M. Night Shyamalan's greatest achievement.