With most any other director, you’d put this list “worst to best.” With M. Night Shyamalan, you order it “best to worst.”
The reason is simple—there’s not a ton of debate about Shyamalan’s best film. Unless you’re one of those intense Unbreakable fans who exist on the fringe, you pretty much know that the top film on any such list is going to be The Sixth Sense. It’s the thriller that made the Indian-born director a household name and anointed him as the next Hitchcock. But it’s the films he’s made since that dragged this once-optimistic outlook back down to Earth and into the muck. For as little debate as there is about Shyamalan’s best film, there’s a healthy, passionate debate on what his worst film to date has been.
Suffice to say, this has been a complicated decade for Shyamalan. He entered the 2010s as a pariah, fresh off the disappointment of ruining The Last Airbender’s live-action debut, and shuffled into the nearly as wretched After Earth in short order. But then, an odd thing happened—smaller budgets and an association with Blumhouse Productions began to salvage the director’s stock, first in the darkly comic The Visit and then in the genuinely thrilling Split. Now, as he completes his “Unbreakable Trilogy” via the release of the heavily hyped Glass, let’s reexamine the man’s entire career to date with this complete ranking.
Featuring great performances by Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment, along with a legitimately chilling atmosphere, The Sixth Sense was nothing short of a phenomenon when it hit multiplexes in 1999. Critical examination aside, it really is a truly frightening film, from the scene where Cole is locked in a box with an abusive ghost to the little moments—I always found the scene where all the kitchen cabinets and drawers open at once while off-screen to be particularly effective and creepy.
For better or worse, though, this is the defining film of Shyamalan’s career, and its success was a double-edged sword. It bestowed the “brilliant young director” label on him, but also pigeonholed his personal style as a writer to the extent that his next five features at least were all reshaped by the aftershocks of The Sixth Sense. Rarely has the danger of success been so clearly illustrated for an artist—Shyamalan crafted a great, effective, scary film that still holds up today, and then spent most of the next decade chasing that same accomplishment with rapidly diminishing returns.
Unbreakable is probably Shyamalan’s best overall script, and I can’t help but think that’s linked to the fact that for once, the story isn’t completely tied to his typical themes of faith or his own personal experience. Rather, it’s more like a genre meditation, and the thing he’s considering is “the superhero film.” This is interesting, because it’s not exactly how the film was marketed—rather, upon release, it appeared to be more of a supernatural thriller once again teaming Shyamalan with Bruce Willis, as in The Sixth Sense.
The actual film, however, is ultimately more of a drama, and a good one, if somewhat morose. It never gets the chance to fully explore the ideas of what Willis’ character is capable of, but the way it handles the slow realization of his “powers” is both unsettling and mesmerizing, as is the casting of Sam L. Jackson as the physically frail villain. It’s a type of pseudo-superhero film that no one had ever made before, which earned Shyamalan points for having originality on his side—what would you do if you’d essentially drifted through your whole life, unaware of the depths of your potential? That’s the question Unbreakable asked, and it’s probably the only other “objectively good” film in the director’s filmography.
I’m taking the unprecedented measure of breaking Signs into two separate entries, because rarely has such a promising thriller been so thoroughly and catastrophically derailed by its conclusion. There’s just so much good stuff in the first 95 or so minutes that it’s very difficult to rate accurately—including some great performances by Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix. Up until the moment it jumps off the rail, Signs is creepy and occasionally very frightening—just as scary as The Sixth Sense, if not moreso at times. The reveal of the first footage of the alien via a news broadcast in particular is just a masterfully directed sequence, cheesy though it may appear today. Perhaps the highest compliment you can pay Signs is that the majority of it is good enough that there are still people willing to attempt to rationalize one of the worst endings ever seen in the history of wide-released Hollywood cinema.
The director’s follow-up to the surprising success of The Visit is more deserving of the phrase “return to form” than that previous film was, succeeding as a legitimate thriller without the wink-and-nod comedy of killer grandparents. The story of a trio of young women abducted by a man with dissociative identity disorder and “23 personalities,” it features a powerhouse performance by James McAvoy as the antagonist and secondary protagonist, depending on which personality is currently in control. Beautifully shot and evocative of many of Shyamalan’s Hitchcockian influences such as Vertigo and Psycho, it’s an unexpected visual feast of the likes that the director hasn’t given us in more than a decade. Though the conclusion may not entirely pay off the arcs established for each of its characters, Split is mercifully free from a twist that is meant to be mind-blowing or redefining of the entire story in the closing moments. That alone is refreshing, in an M. Night Shyamalan movie.
Shyamalan’s new film, The Visit, is the least serious offering he’s ever given audiences, and this is for the best. Ostensibly a horror movie about kids being menaced by the creepy grandparents they’ve never before met, it’s in actuality a surprisingly funny horror-comedy that finds a degree of success on multiple levels. It features above-average performances from its teenage leads, and that’s really all it needs to coast to acceptability. Interesting, though, is the way the film seems to almost satirize the director’s previous storytelling conventions—it at times feels slightly apologetic, as if he’s come to understand (and perhaps even agree with) past criticisms of his pretension. Regardless, it’s the most entertaining film that Shyamalan has made in quite a while—not one that reaches for a profound goal, but a pulpy little picture that shares DNA in common with Devil but executes better, with better performances. Unfortunately, the studio marketed it as a serious horror film in the hope of reaping bigger box office grosses, so hopefully audiences weren’t led astray on what kind of film they should be expecting.
This is the dividing line between “effective filmmaking” and entries that earn a decent position on the list simply because they’re less bad than the ones further down. Wide Awake is actually a comedy of sorts, although an undeniably preachy one. It was made in 1995 but not released until 1998 (always a great sign), starring ’90s kid actor Joseph Cross as a Catholic school boy who goes on an intellectual quest to seek for the existence of God in order to feel more comfortable about the passing of his religious grandfather played by Robert Loggia. Sounds like a laugh riot, right? It also stars Rosie O’Donnell prominently as “Sister Terry,” a baseball-obsessed nun at the Catholic school who takes the protagonist under her wing. So yes, there IS in fact an M. Night Shyamalan comedy starring Rosie O’Donnell out there, and no, it’s not completely awful—although it is rather boring. Still, it’s almost refreshing to see today, and it presents the questions of faith and spirituality that Shyamalan has grappled with in most of his works, delivered in a straightforward, literal way. Still a year away from the release of The Sixth Sense at this point, it catches Shyamalan in a much more humble, less auteur-centric moment.
This is Shyamalan’s first feature, and by far his least-seen film. He stars in it himself, and for once that appearance doesn’t seem totally vain—more like a necessity, given that he was simply an indie filmmaker trying to make a name for himself. It’s a very personal drama, about an Indian-American young man who returns to India for a year and is reunited with his family. Shyamalan really seems to draw on personal experience all the time in his work, and this one simply feels like a series of diary entries as the American-born Indian runs afoul of different cultural customs that eventually lead to misunderstandings and violence. It’s a perfectly forgettable but competent little indie drama that earns a higher spot on the list simply because it doesn’t have any of the messiness you’ll see in pretty much every film from this point onward.
After the warning shot that was Signs’ batshit ending, The Village was the moment that Hollywood officially began reconsidering all the praise and expectations they had lumped on Shyamalan. It’s a frustrating film that still has some admirers out there today, mostly for specific elements such as its performances or its lauded soundtrack. William Hurt in particular is really quite good in The Village, but it’s also the point where critics and audiences had caught up to the expectation for Shyamalan-style twist endings. And the “twist” of The Village is so laughably obvious that it recasts your entire perspective of the film—what’s supposed to be a big revelation instead has the viewer saying “Yeah … and ... ?” But there’s no “and”; the film should just jump to a cutaway of the director shrugging at you. It’s like driving across country, only to have your car die 10 miles away from your destination and walking the rest. Or as Roger Ebert said, “To call the ending an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes.”
If The Visit and Split are what happens when a humbled M. Night Shyamalan is forced to come back down to Earth and work within a studio system, then Glass would represent the opposite. This is Shyamalan once again believing his own hype, which only encourages his worst impulses as a storyteller. Glass plays out like it was written by Shyamalan within the course of a single, raging caffeine bender of an all-nighter, all “ooh, and then, and then, and THEN!”—a free-form flow of ideas that don’t seem to have been run by anyone else, or checked for basic coherence. As our review observes, Glass isn’t really the “comic book movie” it’s been advertised as, so much as it is Shyamalan’s personal manifesto on how he’s a superior storyteller to those blockbuster comic book filmmakers. It manages to be both overstuffed, in terms of grandstanding and proselytizing, and simultaneously too lean in terms of the contributions from key characters, including Bruce Willis’s David Dunn and Anya Taylor-Joy’s Casey Cooke, who both feel reduced to sideline players. But don’t worry, you still get to revel in one of the completely un-foreshadowed, unearned twists that first taught audiences that Shyamalan was all too frequently in over his head. Ultimately, Glass should quell any hope for a genuine M. Night Shyamalan revival, because it reveals his ego can’t cope with the consequences of success. Give him an inch, and he’ll take a completely absurd mile.
It’s hard to know quite whether Devil should be fully included, given that Shyamalan didn’t technically direct it. He did, however, both write the film and executive produce it, and he’s repeatedly said he intends to direct a sequel, so I think it’s safe to say it’s more “his” film than director John Erick Dowdle’s. It’s a significantly more reserved, simplistic project than the Shyamalan movies that came before it, and one almost feels like it must have been a “recharging” effort—something quick and easy he made to get the bad taste of The Last Airbender out of his mouth. It’s really not a bad little horror movie by any means, simply one without much in the way of ambition. Its quirky little religious morality play honestly feels like a gorier episode of The Twilight Zone, and at a brisk 80 minutes it’s over before you have any chance to get bored. It’s below The Village because it can’t match it for style or performances, but with that said, it’s a significantly easier watch.
Okay, now we’re really starting to get into the rough stuff. After Earth is a plodding mess—how someone decided to hand M. Night Shyamalan a $130 million sci-fi action film in 2013, I have no idea. In terms of charting his relative worth as a name, it’s important to note that After Earth was the turning point in studios attempting to sell movies as “M. Night Shyamalan films.” As such, Columbia never even mentioned the director’s name in After Earth advertisements. He co-wrote the script with Gary Whitta, but it often feels like the movie’s creative direction belongs more to star Will Smith than it does to Shyamalan, who simply became a vessel for creating a nepotistic piece of promotion for the career of the listless Jaden Smith.
If you’re thinking of trying to defend the film, you might want to know that even Will Smith later called the movie “the most painful failure of my career” in an interview with Variety. Even the film’s would-be star thought After Earth was a slow, boring morass of confusing plotting, but like so many other Shyamalan pictures, it seems to have ultimately made a profit thanks to a foreign film market that all too often seems easily duped by films that bombed hard back home in the U.S.
Lady in the Water could very well be the “most Shyamalan” film the director has ever produced—very cold but very personal, of seemingly dire importance to him—and pretty much completely inscrutable (or insufferable) to everyone else. On one hand you have a fairly dopey fairytale about water nymphs and magical monsters getting involved in the lives of tenement dwellers, but upon any sort of closer examination the film increasingly seems like Shyamalan’s attack on anyone who ever criticized or wronged him. Its startlingly arrogant—he literally casts himself to play a misunderstood writer whose brilliant mind is destined to save the world before getting himself martyred. The writer-director of the film casts himself as a misunderstood genius writer and was then surprised when anyone found that self-serving. He also casts Bob Balaban as a stuck up, closed-minded film critic whose lack of vision endangers the group, essentially personifying every critic who ever wrote negatively about him into one of the film’s antagonists. It’s shocking to see a wide-release Hollywood feature with this degree of petty personal fantasy and transparency—it’s like a movie created from pages of Shyamalan’s diary.
If there’s a more profoundly stupid ending out there to an otherwise solid thriller, I have no idea what it might be. Seriously, if you know of a more insulting stupid ending than this, please share it in the comments, because I will hunt that thing down and drag it, kicking and screaming, into the light. To “spoil” the twist ending of this 13-year-old film, as I’m sure someone will accuse me of doing, the aliens are defeated by water. Garden variety H20 is deadly poison to the invading alien species. The alien species that walks among us, COMPLETELY NAKED, on a planet that is 71 percent covered by water. The alien species that flew across the galaxy to land on a planet where deadly poison rained from the fucking sky, without even clothing to protect them. An alien species that could be slain by a particularly humid day. That’s the conclusion Shyamalan gave audiences in Signs, one that recasts every assumption you’ve made in the 100 minutes leading up to the big reveal. Suddenly, you’re forced to assume that this must be some group of suicidal or mentally ill alien refugees, who journeyed across the endless vastness of space to land on a planet where any exposure to the most common substance will murder them. The ONLY thing that keeps this from being the worst entry is that it represents a segment of film that is only a few minutes long.
In 2010, there was probably a studio executive out there who said, “Hey, maybe the problem is that Shyamalan’s been doing his own original stories all this time. What if we gave him an adaptation of a popular property?” The only problem? They still let M. Night write the script.
The Last Airbender is like an achievement in degradation, systematically taking anything a viewer might have enjoyed about the anime and beating it with sticks until it stopped moving. The acting is absolutely atrocious, even given the number of child actors on board. Systematic whitewashing of the roles generated plenty of negative buzz heading into its release, as did a pointless, post-filming conversion into 3D that further leeched brightness and visual vitality from the finished product. It feels incredibly rushed, shoehorning in endless voiceover exposition in an attempt to explain or extrapolate on all the plot pieces the film doesn’t have time to show. It ends up feeling like a foreign-made product that has been haphazardly re-edited and translated into English. It is, as Ebert opined, “an agonizing experience in every category I can think of, and still others waiting to be invented.”
Well, here we are: Rock bottom. If you took the ending of Signs and extended it out to feature length, it would probably bear a striking resemblance to The Happening. It’s a languid, dreamlike film that was marketed as Shyamalan’s first R-rated feature, and although some of its imagery is disturbing, those scenes are just as likely to draw laughter because the tone and performances are so profoundly strange.
The acting in The Happening is like nothing else I’ve ever seen in a film. Regardless of who they are—Mark Wahlberg, John Leguizamo, Zooey Deschanel—every performer suddenly forgot everything they may have known about their craft the second they stepped onto the set of this movie. You’ll never see more listless, drained, but simultaneously wide-eyed performances than those turned in by Wahlberg and especially Deschanel, who has never been even close to this bad in anything else in her career. Their line deliveries are genuinely bizarre—it’s like they’ve been sucked of every possible expression besides “I am about to start crying.”
That’s without even getting into the premise, which involves the Earth’s plants lashing back at humanity via some sort of airborne toxin … a perfect setup for a film about people running away from the wind. I can’t even scratch the surface in this small space of how strange and poorly executed the film is. If you need any confirmation, just take it straight from Wahlberg’s mouth. As he said of the film, while promoting The Fighter: “It was a really bad movie … fuck it. It is what it is. Fucking trees, man. The plants. Fuck it. You can’t blame me for wanting to try to play a science teacher. At least I wasn’t playing a cop or a crook.”
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and his greatest Shyamalan-related wish would be to understand what kind of instructions he was giving Zooey Deschanel during the filming of The Happening. You can follow him on Twitter.