Welcome to “Hollywood Mysteries”, my essay series about things that BAFFLE me in movies and tv. No, I’m not going to be writing about the Black Dahlia, or Bob Crane or George Reeves, or that kind of Hollywood Mystery. I’m going to write about crazy production decisions, no brainers that got fumbled, people who lost their fastballs suddenly, that sort of thing.
First up? M Night Shyamalan.
Nowww you get what I’m talking about! Click ”Continue reading” to read my take on the story of “The Man Who Heard Voices”.
M Night Shyamalan was one of these directors that began as a child with a Super 8 camera and made something like 45 home movies before he could walk and talk. He also made two smaller, film festival/limited release type movies, “Praying With Anger” and “Wide Awake” before being introduced to the world at large.
That introduction was “The Sixth Sense”.
Greenlit by Disney from his spec script, the “Sixth Sense” would gross almost $700 million worldwide, get nominated for several hundred Academy Awards, and eventually wind up on AFI’s 100 years… 100 Movies 10th Anniversary Edition (89). And if anything, I think this movie is UNDERrated.
You see, the two things that Pop Culture remembers about this movie are the catchphrase “I see Dead People”, which wound up making AFI’s 100 years… 100 Movie Quotes (44) and the “Twist” which would undoubtedly be number one on AFI’s 100 years… 100 Plot Twists, if such a thing existed. Honestly, though? That’s short-changing it. Selling it short. The last time I re-watched this movie, I was watching Osment’s final scene. The one where he and his mother are stuck in traffic in the car, and he sees the bicyclist, and he finally confesses his secret to his mother. She doesn’t want to believe him, but then he tells her about seeing his grandmother (her mother), and the mom (Toni Collette, in a great performance no one credits this flick for, even though she scored an Oscar Nom, too) starts crying, and he starts crying, then I start crying, the dead biker is crying, everyone’s crying… and I realized… If this movie ended right here. NO TWIST. It’s still a GREAT $#%&ing MOVIE.
I’ve never seen the “Cider House Rules”, but I have an incredibly hard time imagining that Osment didn’t get jobbed out of an Oscar for his performance in this movie because of his age. I can’t imagine Michael Caine being better than this. Sorry.
And then the infamous Twist comes, and BAM!! Suddenly, the movie is catapulted into legend. A solid A film, capped off by the biggest shocker since “Psycho”, which turns the whole thing into an instant pop culture phenomenon. “Greatness”, written and directed M Night Shyamalan. He’s nominated, but doesn’t win for Best Director (Less of a beef with that than Osment’s loss, “American Beauty” is also one of my favorite films ever), and the World is his oyster. He was 29 years old.
So what does he do? Well, he follows it up with “Unbreakable”. Again starring Bruce Willis, “Unbreakable” is a Superhero movie of sorts that follows a man with special powers who is reluctant to use them for the greater good because he’s a family man. He’s coaxed into action by Samuel L Jackson, who actually gives one of the best performances of his career, here. He’s not as “over the top” as we usually associate with him. “Unbreakable” was a solid, engrossing story, with two excellent performances by two big name actors that really kept you involved and interested until BAM!! ANOTHER TWIST… And I didn’t see that one coming either. Suddenly, for the second time in a row, Shyamalan takes a movie that was earning a certain, very good grade, does the extra credit problem, and winds up with an A. I mean, the last five minutes of this movie move the score up from like a B, B+ right into A range. Now, it’s no Sixth Sense… that movie is an A++, but it’s still rock solid. I love it.
At this point in time, I (and everyone else in America) began to watch out for M Night Shyamalan movies.
His third major film was “Signs”, an alien invasion movie starring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix. Retroactively, pop culture has downgraded this movie, but at the time, it was Shyamalan’s third straight “at least excellent” film. Gibson plays a widower who is raising his two kids on a rural farm. His brother, Phoenix, lives with them. When mysterious crop circles begin to appear in their crops, Gibson worries for the safety of his family. Slowly, an Alien invasion is revealed, and the farmhouse is visited by unwelcome guests from outer space.
Revisionist history sometimes includes this movie as one of Shyamalan’s ”Lame” movies, but that’s not correct. Once again, M Night got great performances out of his two leads and the two kids - Abigail Breslin (the future “Little Miss Sunshine”) and a random Culkin. The “Invasion” is revealed incrementally, and along the way a serious amount of tension builds. I haven’t re-watched this flick in years, but I still remember laughing pretty hard at Joaquin Phoenix in a tinfoil hat sitting with the two kids. Atop it all, Mel Gibson (before he turned into crazy Jew-Hating Woman Bashing Mel) gave a great, vulnerable performance as a man who had recently lost his wife and is obviously not over it.
The reason people bash this movie now is mainly because of the “Twist”. It’s…. not that great. Imagine the twist endings of Shyamalan’s movies to this point as an Olympic diving competition, and the first diver would pull off some miraculous, flipping spinning whirlygig and then split the water without a ripple and the crowd would go nuts and the judges would leap to their feet holding up 10s. The second diver would pull off something almost just as miraculous and everyone’s still going bananas as the judges hold up another round of 10s. Then the third diver gets up and does a simple somersault into the pool and the crowd just has some polite clapping while the judges hold up 6s and 7s. Now, I don’t blame Shyamalan for trying to do it, here. I mean, to this point, everyone in the world’s been slurping his johnson over the twist endings to his movies. Wouldn’t you try to include one if you could? It just didn’t work. It didn’t hurt the movie any… some random viewer nowadays without any context would probably think that the ending was just fine. But, for the first time, everyone had gone into this movie not just as a movie, but as an “M Night Shyamalan” movie. There was an expectation of a twist! (Which in and of itself is a challenge… I mean, how are you going to fool an audience who goes in thinking “You’re not fooling me this time”?)
The lame twist ending to Signs aside, it was still an exceptional movie in my opinion. So at that point in time, Shyamalan’s first three movies had graded out (Again – my opinion), A++, A, A-. He had written all of them. He was 32 years old. I mean, if he walked away from writing and directing right then, I think we’d have all been saying things like “Can you imagine if Shyamalan kept directing? How many great films he would have made?”. In 2002, he was right at the top of my list of favorite working directors, I mean, number one. And including him in the all time greats like Spielberg and Scorsese and Hitchcock? I seriously thought it was only a matter of time.
I had no idea how quickly the wheels could come off. Frankly, I still can’t believe it. That’s why it’s a “Hollywood Mystery” to me.