Early reviews of Glass, the first big movie of 2019, have mentioned how writer-director M. Night Shyamalan was once seen as the next Alfred Hitchcock or Steven Spielberg. For at least a three-year stretch at the turn of the millennium (five, if you count the two years after Signs, but before The Village), Shyamalan stood as a worthy successor to the throne of populist filmmaking, capable of delivering high-concept thrills in an intimate, character-based way. Maybe the world at large needs reminding of his erstwhile crowd-pleaser status, because it’s been a long time since he graced the cover of Newsweek magazine. Among cool kids, there’s a rather revisionist tendency now to discount the years of widespread appeal Shyamalan enjoyed before he became a critical punching bag and a laughingstock among audiences during movie trailers.

More than any other living filmmaker, perhaps, Shyamalan is one who has experienced the extreme highs and lows of mass popularity. Some rate him a cinematic one-hit wonder. If you were basing that solely on the global name recognition of The Sixth Sense, you might be right. Others reckon him a two-hit wonder, with everything after Unbreakable being a mixed bag … but if you’ll forgive the subliminal Signs pun, that doesn’t quite hold water, either. To really come away with a full appreciation for the arc of Shyamalan’s career and how it went wrong, then right again, you’d need to take a deep dive into his filmography. 1999 was the year he broke through to the cultural mainstream; the first sign of trouble came half a decade later, with a TV movie called The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan.

Twenty years. Twelve movies. One “event series” on television. Let’s board the quality roller coaster and take a long ride through Shyamalan history.

It’s important to note up front that this isn’t a ranking of Shyamalan’s films. Nor is it a list examining every single project he’s ever been involved in as a writer, director, producer, and actor (sorry, Stuart Little fans). Rather, this is a chronological analysis of his main filmography: his directorial work since 1999, along with a few other projects where the Shyamalan “brand” can be regarded as an essential part of the creative force.

In each section, spoilers are fair game for the title being discussed, so if you haven’t watched something, skip to the next section as we make our way toward the finish line of Split, the movie that sealed Shyamalan’s comeback and brought us to where we are now, nervously awaiting the release of Glass. Along the way, specific patterns will begin to emerge: Shyamalan’s films often have a psychological component to them (it can’t be a coincidence that he married a psychologist), and throughout his body of work, there’s an overwhelming preference for contained settings. There’s also a recurring interplay between belief and doubt, whether it be belief in the supernatural or extraordinary, or even just belief in oneself.

If you missed the Shyamalanathon at the Alamo Drafthouse, there’s no better time than the movie wasteland of January to start staging your own Shyamalanathon at home. Without further ado, let’s trek back through the peaks and valleys of M. Night Shyamalan’s career.


Nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, Shyamalan’s breakthrough hit is the benchmark by which all his subsequent films have been judged. The Sixth Sense is not his first movie, but it might as well be, given the relative obscurity of his two previous features. As ‘90s twist endings go, I always preferred the one in The Usual Suspects, but several years ago, The Sixth Sense actually beat it and topped a poll of the greatest movie twists of all time. It also contains one of the great movie quotes of all time, which has been repeated and parodied ad nauseam ever since the movie’s release.

That line, “I see dead people,” is delivered by a little boy named Cole Sear with the bedcovers tucked up under his chin. He’s speaking to a child psychologist, Malcolm Crowe, who doesn’t realize the significance when Cole further explains, “They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.”

Even if people don’t remember the character names, they’re sure to remember the precocious child actor, Haley Joel Osment, as well as the head-spinning twist that Bruce Willis’s character was dead all along. If you go back and watch The Sixth Sense now, it seems painfully obvious that Malcolm is dead. 21st-century viewers have been trained to spot clues and develop Reddit theories; if the movie were released circa 2019, people would probably figure out the twist and be live-tweeting it before the credits rolled.

It’s not just a few random clues that are sprinkled throughout The Sixth Sense. With his wife and Cole’s mother, Malcolm moves through a parade of non-interactions—not to mention the whole subplot where he’s watching a young gentleman caller pursue his wife right under his nose. The movie constantly telegraphs the twist for us so that when it finally lands, it feels organic, in line with everything we’ve seen before. That’s what makes it such a good twist: because it’s been hiding in plain sight all along. It doesn’t try to alter the foundation of the movie so much as re-contextualize the buildup of previous scenes using available information. The problem, perhaps, with later Shyamalan films like The Village is that they would try to outsmart the audience, withholding information and springing a late twist that didn’t jibe with what the audience knew (or thought it had been sold).

There’s more to The Sixth Sense than its twist ending, of course. James Newton Howard’s score is wonderfully moody, and the idea that ghosts just want to make peace is something that has informed the twists of other horror movies like The Ring. Rewatching Toni Collete play a mother caught in the middle of a supernatural situation she doesn’t understand, it’s hard not to think of her awards-worthy performance in Hereditary last year, either. As a sacrificial lamb, her character in that movie stood purposely uninformed, but general audiences reacted negatively to that on opening weekend.

There’s a theory that the twists in Shyamalan’s films only work if the audience learns them the same time the main character does. Whether or not that’s true, the twist in The Sixth Sense is one that flows naturally. For better or worse, he’s been chasing the wonder of that moment ever since.


Compared to The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable is more of a cult classic. It seems strange to think of a movie that way when it grossed a quarter of a billion dollars worldwide, but that was almost two decades ago and it was only after Unbreakable underperformed at the domestic office. Today, if you started accosting random strangers on the street — or even casual filmgoers outside the evening multiplex — you might not find as many people who could solve the Unbreakable hint on your movie crossword puzzle.

On the other hand, if you got a bunch of hardcore cinephiles together in a room, Unbreakable would surely garner the most votes for “best Shyamalan film.” It’s a movie that’s grown in stature since its initial release, so much so that it’s easy to forget it holds a 69% Tomatometer score (which puts it in good company, considering that the retroactive score for Tim Burton’s Batman only crept up over 70% a few years ago).

I first saw Unbreakable at a theater in Manhattan on Thanksgiving Day 2000. It was right after watching the Macy’s parade file through Times Square, where I often visited the Midtown Comics shop. I remember my toes were freezing from standing out in the cold that morning … and then I sat down to watch this chilly drama about a real-life superhero named David Dunn. True to form for an M. Night Shyamalan movie, there was a twist at the end, one that felt mildly clever and appropriate to the dynamic established between Dunn and his weak-boned character foil, Elijah Price.

For a 19-year-old, the movie wasn’t an instant classic. Chalk it up to Unbreakable’s muted color palette, which only comes alive at odd moments, like the one where we’re looking straight down from the ceiling at a carpet with yellow circles and purple and green squares (three important colors, as it turns out, in the Shyamalan shared universe). Otherwise, the look of the movie is perhaps intentionally drab, to reflect the inner life of its main character. Shyamalan recently tweeted about this vis-a-vis Glass, saying: “As the characters believe in the comic book world the primary colors in the film become more dominate [sic]. As they stop believing they fade to a monochromatic world.”

The Dunn of Unbreakable has spent much of his adult life trapped in that monochromatic world. Once a promising athlete, he sacrificed his football career to be with the woman he loved, but now their marriage is crumbling and he finds himself undergoing a mid-life crisis of sorts. Maybe that’s why Unbreakable’s reputation has improved with age: because its audience needed to grow up before it could fathom the melancholy of a middle-aged security guard.

Whatever the case, this is the soul of Shyamalan’s filmography. It’s a story about a man awakening to his true potential, and another man who believes so strongly in that potential that he’s willing to perpetrate crimes to prove his own ideas. Dunn is the hero in hibernation; Price is the villain whose self-assured intellect belies a basic fragility. In a way, maybe these two characters can be seen as different aspects of Shyamalan’s artistic personality, which would only grow more fractured (or split) as the years wore on.

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