WAYWARD PINES (2015)

Following After Earth, it almost looked like Shyamalan’s film career might have been over, as news soon came that he was retreating to the small screen. Wayward Pines feels like one of those projects where it would be easy to overstate the extent of the big-name producer’s involvement. Showrunner Chad Hodges developed the series for television, based on a trilogy of science fiction novels by Blake Crouch. In the same way that David Fincher and Guillermo Del Toro lent their names to House of Cards and The Strain, Shyamalan boarded Wayward Pines as an executive producer. Like them, he also directed the show’s pilot, establishing its look and offbeat tone. With its Pacific Northwest setting and shades of Americana, it’s like Twin Peaks by way of Shyamalan.

In the pilot, there are expertly framed images — like the low-angle shot of Matt Dillon’s character walking out of the Wayward Pines Hospital, or the crane shot over the shoulder of a man cleaning a hotel marquee — that remind you of what a keen visual sense Shyamalan has as a filmmaker. Plot-wise, Wayward Pines is interesting because although it was later resurrected for a second unnecessary season, the show was originally marketed as an “event series” that would wrap up its mysteries and tell a complete story in a single ten-episode season. The first season, in fact, covers the whole book trilogy, and while it plays its cards close to the vest at first, it eventually does something radical and refreshing for a Shyamalan project: namely, revealing its big twist halfway through the story, so that the twist sets up the whole second half of the story, instead of being a gimmicky undo at the end.

Dillon’s character, Ethan Burke, wakes up after a car wreck in a town where time seems to have no meaning and he’s unable to escape. Cryptic messages (“There are no crickets in Wayward Pines,”) are introduced and promptly resolved in the very next scene. We learn the secret of the town in Episode 5.

Shyamalan was instrumental in luring movie talent to the project; in addition to Dillon, the impressive cast list includes Carla Gugino, Toby Jones, Shannyn Sossamon, Juliette Lewis, Melissa Leo, Terrence Howard, and Hope Davis. Not bad for a network TV series.

In an interview with Collider, Shyamalan talked about how working in TV taught him to think on the fly and “let go of [his] preciousness.” That’s something that was desperately needed in his filmography, perhaps. It might go a long way toward explaining the sudden upturn in quality his movies would take after Wayward Pines. Whichever you way you slice it, this is the project that put him on probation. He was finally clear of director’s jail.

THE VISIT (2015)

The Visit is simultaneously Shyamalan’s ickiest film and the breath of fresh air that his filmography needed to right itself. It’s never less than entertaining, and that, in and of itself, was a victory for the writer-director at this point in his parole stint. Yet it’s also a movie that smears a diaper in your face, showing off Shyamalan’s basest instincts as a newly reborn exploitation filmmaker.

Going back to basics with a Blumhouse budget (which is to say, $5 million), The Visit saw Shyamalan abandoning the weightless special effects of failed blockbusters and instead just focusing on plot and character. Framed less as a found footage feature and more as an amateur documentary, the movie follows two kids who go to spend a week with their grandparents … only to grow alarmed as “Nana” and “Pop Pop” begin acting strange.

The kids have never met their grandparents before this because their single mother happens to be estranged from Nana and Pop Pop. She hasn’t spoken to them in fifteen years, but apparently, all it takes is a little online communication (that always ends well) for her to feel comfortable sending the kids to stay with them.

It’s not quite a plot hole, but it does feel like the script has to bend over backwards with this setup to maneuver us into place for the final twist. Thankfully, the kids are enormously likable and their freestyle-rapping charm, along with the committed performances of Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie as Nana and Pop Pop, goes a long way toward helping The Visit sustain the viewer’s interest more than any other Shyamalan film in years.

As a modern retelling of Hansel and Gretel (witness how the girl goes crawling into the oven to clean), it’s a better bedtime story than Lady in the Water. With lines like, “You’re not a Yahtzee master. That takes ten years,” it also feels like the isolated meme fodder of The Happening started to congeal here into cogent quips that Shyamalan could integrate into the movie better without losing the overall thread of coherence.

Critics have called The Visit “the most gerontophobic film ever made,” and it does trot out the elderly like sundowning circus freaks (or circus animals, if you consider how Nana grunts and snarls as she runs around on all fours). As others have joked, the tagline should be, “I see old people.” Tonally, the teary-eyed epilogue with Kathyrn Hahn’s Worst Mother Ever saying, “Don’t hold onto anger,” feels unearned, as if it didn’t sit comfortably with Shyamalan to resort to such cheap tactics without delivering a message. He was slumming it, going for illicit thrills here, but it mostly worked.

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