Dear M. Night Shyamalan: More Movies Like The Visit, Please
Dear M. Night,
It’s been a rough stretch. You haven’t had a true hit for 13 years and audiences rightfully started reprimanding you for the precipitous drop in the caliber of your work since Signs. Sure, some people turned out for The Village in 2004 and The Last Airbender in 2010. Each one managed to pull in more than $100 million at the box office, but the former kicked off your sharp decline in quality and the latter marked your critical low point, generating only a 6 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Six percent! M., that is not cool.
There was a run there at the turn of the millennium where you were, as the title of your 2000 film would suggest, unbreakable. Your name was at the top of the movie poster and you earned strong critical praise in back-to-back-to-back original features (the rarest of studio-sanctioned Hollywood birds), and those movies brought in hundreds of millions of dollars. You were featured in a 2006 American Express commercial about your imagination! But by that time you were two flops deep and on your way to five in a row. And why? Because you got way too big for your britches and started acting more like a messianic messenger than a director. Your new movie The Visit is your big chance to prove you’re worth the price of admission and to start entertaining people again—and we think you’re actually up for the task.
So far critical response to The Visit is looking good, and we haven’t been able to say that about an M. Night joint since 2002. Some say it’s “a scary fun-house ride that expertly blends jittery tension and laugh-out-loud humor,” while others call it “frightfully fun, with Shyamalan relentlessly toying with us and cramming in horror genre references.” And The Village Voice is really over the moon, declaring the movie “the best studio horror flick in recent years, combining the but-what’s-in-those-shadows? immersion of The Conjuring … with the crack scripting and meta-cinematic surprises of Shyamalan’s best early films.”
During a chat at Comic-Con International in July, you noted that despite the tone presented in early trailers, The Visit was “a very dark comedy mixed with horror” as opposed to a flat-out scary movie. “For me, it’s always a mash of genres, and it’s in the mashup that makes it interesting,” you said. “They’re all dramas masquerading as genre movies for me.”
It seemed suspicious, but there I was at a screening laughing out loud (at intentionally funny jokes) and shrieking (with fear) in equal measure. Finally, a Shyamalan production that felt fun again, that made me jump out of my seat with surprise instead of shrink into it with boredom. I honestly think it’s the best time I’ve ever had at one of your movies (I’ve got a horror bias, after all) and you did it all by going back to the basics.
Listen. It’s easy to see how things went wrong. You were the king of the big-screen Twist! and unquestionably one of the most daring dreamers in Hollywood, only shooting stories that you’d cooked up in your own head and wrote and directed yourself—the exceptions being Airbender and After Earth. (You directed and wrote screenplays for those movies but did not conceive of the stories.) And yes, you had a formula: Philadelphia man endures a tragedy (likely a family member in a devastating accident) and must rise above a very strange set of circumstances to protect the ones he loves. Themes of paternal devotion, heavy-handed commentary on the importance of family, and a moral compass in the form of a hyper-intuitive, pure-spirited child are also typically in play.
(No, seriously. Besides Praying with Anger in 1992, you can trace this format from Wide Awake in 1998 clear through to The Happening in 2008. And we’re pretty sure the only reason it stopped is because you went off-world for his last two movies, which is where things got really hairy.)
And working with a formula isn’t a bad thing! Wes Anderson keeps making movies about paper cutouts come to life and Noah Baumbach tells stories exclusively about malaise-stricken adults who act like children, and people can’t get enough of them! The problem isn’t having a modus operandi. It’s losing faith in your cinematic voice and trying to communicate with someone else’s, or even worse, clinging to your darlings so tightly that you think your Message is more important than making good movies. At a certain point, watching an M. Night movie turned into taking your moral medicine instead of enjoying a piece of entertainment.
You were at your strongest when you acted locally even if you thought globally. The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs all told stories no bigger than a household and did so with themes that resonated through our shared human experiences of home and family. You wrote about generally ordinary people forced to endure extraordinary circumstances, but the focus was always on how the protagonist related to their loved ones after the unspeakable occurred, with a precocious child thrown in to guide the hero along. They had mushy undertones but they were good movies with defined intentions. But then it’s like you decided you were too good for intimate stories about people and instead started making movies about the human condition. And then it all unraveled.
The Village was about a guy in a village, but then you semi-killed that guy and made it about the world and some monsters and an intermittently blind girl. Lady In the Water started out being about a bereaved man whose family was murdered, but then you threw in a water nymph and some things called “Scrunts” and a parallel reality called The Blue World. On both occasions, Bryce Dallas Howard deserved better. Next came The Happening, otherwise known as the only movie I’ve ever regretted paying for. It was a hackneyed allegory about humanity’s effect and the environment and the antagonist was, literally, the wind. Wind! The real villain, though, was that terrible script, which you used to force Mark Wahlberg to run around like a moron screaming “Give me a second!” while his dumbstruck face filled the frame.
But that was before things got really bad. For your next move, not only did you leave Pennsylvania, you left Earth entirely, and ditched any semblance of the close-quarters family portraits that made your name. The Last Airbender was bafflingly terrible, and you may not have come up with the story, but you sure did write and direct the thing. The Happening may be the only movie I regret, but Airbender was only watchable because it was hard to tear my eyes away from the catastrophe unfolding on the screen. Then came the Smith family’s passion project After Earth and, well, you know what you did. The bright side of these two projects is that they were both so far afield of what M. Night Shyamalan stories actually look like that we are willing to chalk it up to a fugue state. Promise you won’t do that space bullshit again and we promise not to bring it up.
The bigger your scope got—a village, then all of America, then all of the cosmos—the more fully your movies got crushed under the weight of all those story layers you like to pile on, and when that happened, your signature twist couldn’t live up to the grand aspirations of the movies around them. In that same conversation at Comic-Con, you acknowledged you were a very involved, very hands-on director, and considering you are the complete creative force behind your movies, one might venture to guess you’re a micro-manager on set.
“I’m harsh with all the actors to protect the characters,” you said. “If they’re coming from a less than thoughtful place—charm’s not going to work. Affect is not going to work for me.”
This isn’t an inherently negative quality. The Davids Fincher and O. Russell are famously challenging to work with, and as an auteur you have the right to protect your art. But that persnickety approach only works if you have the focus to execute your vision, and every time you take your stories beyond the front door you loose hold on your narrative. Tightly controlling a handful of actors on a limited set is hard enough. Bloating your stories with more characters and grand allegories and sprawling environments mean you lose your grip on the big picture as you try to manage every little thing.
But now, just when you seemed set on choking the life out every movie you’d ever make again, you’re releasing The Visit. You traveled back to Earth (and back to Pennsylvania, to be precise). You winnowed down your cast to five principle characters and stuck them in a farmhouse together. People who like sounding smart would call it a “bottle movie.” You made the primary conflict about a single mother coming to terms with the broken relationship she has with her parents, and made the incredibly wise decision to upgrade the precocious children from supporting players to leading roles. You work so hard to instill a sense of wonder in your audiences, to remind them of what it was like to see the world with surprised eyes, and by letting us experience The Visit from their perspective, we were able to fully empathize with their hopeful inexperience, just like you want us to.
“Why I often have children at the center is because for some reason that’s the moment in my mind that we kind of stop believing in things and we become more grounded. And that’s sad,” you told me. “Maybe in these stories they are the ones that can see things properly, and the adults aren’t listening. They’re awakening us to possibilities.”
It’s been a long time, M. Night, but you have finally re-awakened us to your possibilities. You took your genre-mashing sensibilities and made a really funny, really freaky little movie with the themes and skewed humor and charm of your early projects, and for the first time in years the twist was totally worth it! The last third of the movie was a little long, but you kind of always do that, and things got so swept up in crazy we didn’t even mind!
It was reported at the beginning of last year that you would soon reunite with Bruce Willis for project called Labor of Love about, naturally, “a Philadelphia book store owner who loses the love of his life in a tragic accident.” The project has since been back-burnered, but you claim your follow-up to The Visit will maintain an intimate focus—and will be set in Philadelphia. That is such a relief! We are in short supply of major movie directors willing to tell original stories during this era of sequels and superheroes, and it’s nice to know that we can still count on you.
Whatever you’ve got planned for the future, though, just remember: No space. Like, ever again.
Originally posted here: