It has been well-established by now, that there are at least two individuals who go by the name of Manoj Night Shyamalan. The first is the maverick auteur, the Hitchcock of modern times, the writer-director of stunning films like “The Sixth Sense” , “Unbreakable” and “Signs” . Following the release of the latter, it is widely believed that aliens abducted said auteur and carried out horrific genetic experiments on him, turning him into the second Shyamalan, the peddler of cheap thrills, the maker of pseudo-profound commentaries on society( The Village) and fourth rate fantasy penny-dreadfuls like The Lady In The Water. This second Shyamalan liked to feud with Hollywood studio bosses who wouldn’t let him cast himself in key roles.
There are those, of course, who believe that the two Shyamalans are merely figments of the gullible public’s imagination, and that the real Shyamalan is the third one, the figure who has carefully cultivated an air of mystique about himself, with wild rumours ranging from the Hitchcockian (apparently a big black bird can be seen following him around), to the conspiratorial (they say that Shyamalan drowned in a childhood accident, and this one is really a ghost. So there.)
But I digress. No matter which Shyamalan you take to be genuine, I for one would choose to dwell upon some of his earlier masterpieces rather than curse him for his current sorry state.For me, Shyamalan reached his pinnacle as a writer and a director with “Unbreakable”. I know this might seem strange, given the long shadow cast by “The Sixth Sense”. The story basically involves a crippled comic-book collector(Samuel L. Jackson) trying to convince a security guard with a bad marriage(Bruce Willis) that he is, in fact a superhero. But as I shall elaborate, “Unbreakable” had quite a few remarkable things about it, which made it into a cross-genre, quirky-yet-believable SF film.
The first was the mythological aspect of the script. Shyamalan put forth a very compelling argument for comic-books as a sort of unbroken historical chain of information. At the time I saw the film, I was not the comic-book maniac that I am now. But when I saw the film again recently, some of the more daring statements about the art of comic-books resonated strongly with me. If you’ve ever read the so-called “Silver Age” superhero comics of the 60’s , you’ll know exactly what I mean. Take a character like Captain America for example. The story arcs of this hugely popular character have functioned as a virtual barometer of public sentiment over state policy down the years. While the Captain punched Hitler in the 40’s , in the wake of the outrage over Watergate, the Captain lay down his shield and helmet in shame. This was a masterstroke at the screenplay level, one which elevated it beyond the realm of the conspiracy theory or the urban legend. Coupled with the spooky dialogue delivery of Samuel L. Jackson, an inspired casting choice for the role of Elijah the cripple; the overall effect is chilling indeed. Elijah has been born with osteogenesis imperfect, a rare condition which causes his bones to be extremely brittle. He believes that there must be someone at the other extreme as well, someone who is invulnerable, unbreakable.
The second aspect was that of Shyamalan’s endlessly fascinating usage of light and space. The first scene of the film involves the birth of the Elijah character on a train. The claustrophobic nature of the train, accentuated with a huge mirror, serves well the template for the moment where the doctor announces that the baby was born with broken arms and legs. Also, late in the film, there is a scene where Bruce Willis, who is afraid of water, is almost drowns while struggling with a huge tarpaulin. The technical work and visual artistry on display here is simply staggering. Shyamalan is one of the great indoor directors of our time. He has a highly acute sense of the power exercised by the four walls, of the paranoia and the primal fear which can be depicted indoors(Signs is an excellent example of this, too, as is The Sixth Sense…remember the famous sequence featuring the young Mischa Barton playing a dead girl?)
I didn’t really like “The Usual Suspects” despite the most famous plot twist in cinematic history. The reason being, a)You feel kinda cheated about the previous two hours and b)The “twist” doesn’t really chime well with the remainder of the plot, and is as such not integral to the ethos of the story. Five smartass minutes do not a movie make.
This is where “Unbreakable” works wonders. As I don’t want to spoil the story for first-timers, I won’t discuss it at length, but I will say is that the “twist” is, in this case central to the cascading mythos of the whole film, as well as being thoroughly satisfying on its own. The third aspect, then, is the ubiquitous Shyamalan twist which was better than ever before.
While Shyamalan’s film haven’t been typically known for exceptional performances(I think Mel Gibson’s performance in Signs was perhaps the best of the lot), Jackson and Willis bring in their experience into play, turning in solid outings. And who better to play an ‘unbreakable” man than Bruce Willis? The scene where Willis tries to lift increasing amounts of weight to try and test his limits is comical, with a dangerous undertone, something which Willis pulls off quite well, in the end.
Alas, this brilliance was to be short-lived, and the other two Shyamalans would soon take charge, leaving in their wake whispered dialogues, insipid plots, multiple Razzie nominations(and two wins, for Worst Director and Worst Supporting Actor for Shyamalan in “The Lady In The Water”) and bemused critics.
So, the jury is out on when the first Shyamalan decides to grace us with his presence once more. Watch this space for updates.