When I first noticed M. Night Shyamalan’s name on the poster for After Earth, I let out an audible groan I can’t explain. I didn’t see Shyamalan’s name, then think about his last couple of films, then react; it was a reflex. It was as if I was insulted and offended that Shyamalan continued to make movies when there seemed to be a near-universal consensus that he should have stopped, if not before The Village, then immediately afterward. Has there ever been a filmmaker, or even a public figure, who suffered a more dramatic fall from grace than Shyamalan? O.J. Simpson had to (allegedly) murder people, and Mel Gibson had to out himself as a deranged, hateful bigot to incur the kind of resentment and anger Shyamalan engendered just by virtue of making a few bad movies.
But Shyamalan did more than just make The Village, Lady In The Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender. Shyamalan made those films while simultaneously revealing the kind of unbearable hubris that brings down the wrath of the gods, or at least annoys the general public. He participated in a ridiculously self-indulgent “documentary” on the possibly supernatural nature of his genius, The Buried Secret Of M. Night Shyamalan, that was presented as a serious exploration of the great man’s artistry, before the cable channel that commissioned it was forced to concede that it was a silly hoax to promote The Village. Later, Shyamalan allowed adoring sports writer Michael Bamberger to write The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career On A Fairy Tale, an account of the making of Lady In The Water that depicted the process as a true artist’s righteous quest to prevail over the cowardice and small-mindedness of corporate suits. If that weren’t enough to squander any remaining good will, Shyamalan cast himself in Lady In The Water, in the sizable role of a genius writer with the capacity to uplift humanity through his work.
An intense, seemingly culture-wide schadenfreude kicked in, a reaction that seems, at least partially, like a corrective to the great gales of hype that greeted Shyamalan’s crowning as a boy genius. We were punishing him for being so full of himself—and for making such dreadful, self-indulgent, self-important movies—but we were also punishing ourselves for falling for his tricks. It wasn’t just a matter of not falling for a magician’s act once the illusions had been explained; it was a matter of not falling for a magician’s act once all the illusions had been explained, plus he’d been downgraded from the next Houdini to a Vegas hack.
I revisited The Sixth Sense for the first time in 15 years through a bifurcated prism. I’d seen it twice before and held it in high esteem, but was also watching with the director’s subsequent career in mind, which had to color the experience. At heart, the acclaimed, successful The Sixth Sense has a premise nearly as ridiculous as the killer trees of Shyamalan’s widely reviled The Happening: Child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) doesn’t realize he’s dead, even though the only person who returns his conversational volleys, or talks to him at all, is a spooky little child named Cole (Haley Joel Osment) who sees dead people. Even this admission doesn’t jar Malcolm into realizing that he’s dead, so he goes through the rest of the movie thinking he’s a living, breathing, totally non-deceased gent until he ultimately puts two and two together, and finally solves the mystery of his existence—or, rather, nonexistence. Malcolm ostensibly works with Cole the way he worked with his child clients before dying: asking questions, winning their trust, taking notes. But his methods—stalking a little boy through city streets, then confronting him when no one else is around—suggest the furtive machinations of a creep rather than a mental-health professional.
It would only take a little tweaking to make The Sixth Sense an out-and-out comedy about an idiot so oblivious that he doesn’t realize he’s dead, even though all of his conversations with people who don’t freely volunteer that they speak fluent dead are one-sided. Alternately, the film could suggest the pilot for a metaphysical reality show called I Didn’t Know I Was Dead. By all rights, The Sixth Sense should have been laughed out of theaters, like Shyamalan’s recent films. But audiences and critics believed in the film, and made it a massive pop-culture phenomenon for the following reasons:
1. The Sixth Sense has the somber, autumnal look and tone of a highbrow psychological thriller. Audiences took The Sixth Sense more seriously than its premise or Shyamalan’s subsequent filmography would warrant because the film presents itself as a cerebral exploration of grief and alienation, rather than a gimmicky mystery. Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography creates a free-floating sense of alienation, where every image feels touched by a profound, ineffable loneliness. The film’s downbeat mood is so hypnotic and sustained that it helps obscure the silliness at its core.
2. Bruce Willis commits. Willis is among the most transparent of movie stars: When he isn’t emotionally invested in a movie, audiences know it, and when he’s really not emotionally invested in a movie, he gives audiences permission to check out as well. But Willis never winks or distances himself from the material in The Sixth Sense. He commits deeply and is present for the other actors, particularly Osment, in a way that signals to viewers that that they, too, should commit to the film’s reality, no matter how preposterous. It also helps that Willis is among our least pretentious movie stars, so we expect his characters to be who they profess to be. Willis doesn’t seem like the kind of actor who will pull the rug out from under us, which is why he’s so successful at doing so.
3. The Sixth Sense is genuinely scary. The film’s PG-13 rating might be one of its greatest strengths, both because it forces the film to favor mood and inference over explicit violence, and because it helps facilitate the film’s almost subliminal shocks, the split-second imagery of mutilated bodies and damaged corpses that only Cole can see.
4. Shyamalan accomplishes an impressive act of misdirection, focusing viewers on Osment’s electrifying performance so they don’t notice he isn’t the film’s real focus. It isn’t until the end that we realize that the important action is occurring not within this supernaturally gifted little boy, but within the seemingly normal adult psychologist. We’re so focused on trying to solve the mystery of Cole that we don’t realize where the real mystery lies.
5. Osment is brilliant: haunted, damaged, fragile, and absolutely riveting. There’s an authenticity to his performance that lends the film a gravity it otherwise does not merit.
6. The Sixth Sense’s emotionally authentic depiction of childhood loneliness and the fraught but strong bond between Cole’s single mother, Lynn (Toni Collette), and her fragile, disturbed son make The Sixth Sense’s supernatural elements more effective.
7. The film works metaphorically as an exploration of the isolating loneliness of being a strange, bullied child—the sense that you’re different on an existential level, not just personality-wise. And while the scenes of Malcolm haunting his ex-wife and wondering why she isn’t sassing him back—or acknowledging his existence in any way—might seem silly in light of Cole’s secret, the very real pain and sadness Olivia Williams brings to part of Anna Crowe lend them a symbolic power. Sometimes it can feel like one partner is so disengaged that he or she might as well be a ghost; The Sixth Sense renders that feeling literal and concrete.
But The Sixth Sense didn’t become the second top-grossing film of 1999 (behind only Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) and make Shyamalan’s career because it worked on a metaphorical level: It worked because it scared viewers, who went back to see it even after they knew the twist at the end. I was one of those people who went back, and was just as impressed the second time around. Watching it now, less so. To the list above, I should add one final reason for the film’s success: novelty. When The Sixth Sense came out, Shyamalan was an unknown quantity. He’d made two films previously, the student film Praying With Anger and the 1998 flop Wide Awake, but no one saw either, so his aesthetic and predilection for twists was unknown at the time of The Sixth Sense’s release.
The same wasn’t true of 2000’s Unbreakable, which reunited Shyamalan with Willis, and was feverishly anticipated. Shyamalan no longer had the element of surprise.
Unbreakable begins with a screen conveying the following information:
There are 35 Pages and 124 Illustrations in the average comic book.
A single issue ranges in price from $1.00 to over $140,000.
172,000 comics are sold in the U.S every day.
Over 62,780,000 each year.
The average comic collector owns 3,312 comics and will spend approximately 1 year of his or her life reading them.
This introduction feels particularly perverse in 2014, when comic-book movies are the dominant form of pop culture, and studios expect audiences to know the complete histories of the Green Hulk and the Red Hulk, and to be able to discern between Paste Pot Pete and Dr. Bong in a police lineup. But even in 2000, when comic books were nowhere near as dominant as they are today, it seemed pandering, clumsy, and unnecessary to open a film with the information that comic books exist and are popular, particularly among comic-book fans. This is particularly unfortunate, since part of Unbreakable’s appeal is that it’s a comic-book movie that goes out of its way to avoid all the trappings of comic-book movies, including being based on a comic book. Beyond conveying unnecessary information, this introduction tips the film’s hand; it’s like The Crying Game opening with factoids about penis-tucking.
The film opens in 1961 by introducing Elijah Price, a child born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a rare disease that causes extraordinarily brittle bones and renders sufferers unusually vulnerable to the wear and tear of everyday life. Even in the womb, Elijah was already unusually fragile. He’s born with broken arms and legs to a loving mother who invests in him a love for comic books, which quickly morphs into an obsession, and then a dangerous pathology. In comics, Elijah finds escape, meaning, and an identity outside the one the bullies at school have provided him: “Mr. Glass,” the boy who shatters.
This cursed infant grows up to be a sad teenager, then an eccentric adult, played by Samuel L. Jackson with a shock of Frederick Douglass hair, a pair of crutches, and an air of haunted dignity that does not at all mask his clear insanity. Comic books have become Elijah’s reality, and reality is a shabby imitation of the wonder and derring-do found in comic books.
In the present, David Dunn (Willis), a security guard riding a train back to Philadelphia, hides his wedding ring when he sees that the attractive woman he’s seated next to has a sexy tattoo on her midriff, indicating she might be receptive to his advances. He isn’t a sleazebag, necessarily, in that he does at least seem to be separated, en route to divorce. But he’s also unmistakably a horny dude trying to hook up with a hot stranger. That’s a really interesting place for a hero’s journey to begin, particularly a superhero’s journey.
Unbreakable stresses David’s everyman aspects, to the point where he becomes a bit of a loser: He can’t keep his marriage together; his wife, Audrey (Robin Wright), clearly does most of the parenting of their troubled son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark); he works an unglamorous job as a security guard at a stadium. But David’s life of quiet desperation begins to change when he survives a train crash that kills every other passenger on board. He emerges without a scratch, to the shock of his doctors and family. It’s then revealed that David has never been sick or injured in his life, and has survived a series of tragedies that would destroy a lesser man.
Unbreakable is the most melancholy superhero movie ever made. That extends to David’s dawning realization that he isn’t like other people, which fills him not with confidence, but with sadness and dread. David treats his specialness as a heavy, possibly even unbearable burden that will separate him from the rest of humanity and change his life in ways that aren’t necessarily positive. His specialness is a crown of thorns, not a super-fun jet-pack.
David’s survival brings him to the attention of Elijah, now a dealer of high-end comic-book art. He calls David and Joseph to his store, where he freaks them out with his theory that comic books represent a form of cultural anthropology that alerts us to the existence of human beings with superhuman powers and the capacity, and obligation, to help humanity. Elijah clearly thinks David is one of these special creatures, but David rejects the idea, both because superheroes aren’t real (or so they would have you believe) and because he isn’t sure he wants to be one. But Elijah keeps haunting David and his family, and with Elijah’s relentless prodding and an insistent push from his own son, David begins to test his physical capabilities to see if Elijah is right.
As with The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan uses long takes and artful, deliberate compositions to create a sense of mood and loss. Unbreakable isn’t just serious, it’s downright solemn, an earnest, breathtakingly sincere attempt to re-create the superhero movie as a quietly epic tale of self-realization. That strategy works shockingly well, in part because it plays to Shyamalan’s strengths as a visual storyteller. The film’s most powerful stretches are generally the ones least reliant on dialogue, like a sequence where Elijah disrupts a comic-book store just by virtue of his unblinking presence and defiant refusal to leave. Jackson doesn’t utter a word, but his look of unhinged rage as he hurtles toward an endgame only he knows about says all that needs to be said.
Unbreakable only really falters in an ending where David shakes Elijah’s hand for the first time and realizes, thanks to his telekinetic superheroic powers, that Elijah is the lunatic behind a series of large-scale accidents only David survived, which Elijah engineered to force David to realize and embrace his destiny as a superhero. It isn’t a bad idea, but it plays out in a way that undermines the hypnotic power of what comes before, with David more or less just wandering away after learning Elijah’s terrible secret, followed by a closing caption indicating that he alerted the authorities to his discovery. It’s refreshing to see a superhero movie that doesn’t end in an epic brawl high atop some gleaming metropolis, but it’s hard not to feel that an ending where the hero calls the authorities to arrest the villain is ridiculously anticlimactic.
Shyamalan’s follow-up to The Sixth Sense doesn’t have a strong wrap-up, but its shrug of an ending only slightly dilutes the power and originality of Shyamalan’s vision. Elijah’s world is now our world. He’s no longer the freak; all of society is seemingly obsessed with mutants and freaks in spandex costumes with crazy names and milquetoast alter-egos. There’s a pleasing symmetry in this comic-book true believer being played by a man who’s now synonymous with the comic-book movie boom. Yet for all the superhero movies that followed Unbreakable, many starring Samuel L. Jackson, there have never been any that look or feel like Unbreakable. Time has been kind to Unbreakable in a way that it hasn’t to The Sixth Sense. Shyamalan’s follow-up to his big breakout survives the subsequent cratering of his critical and popular reputation, and today stands as his true masterpiece.
With The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, Shyamalan discovered an oddly durable formula: Bruce Willis plays a dude who takes the entire film to realize his true nature. But while Willis was the perfect star for Shyamalan and a wonderful grounding force in both their collaborations, it’s probably best that they stopped working together. Otherwise, Unbreakable might have been followed by a series of movies in which, over the course of the narrative, a protagonist played by Willis comes to the slow-burning realization that he is respectively, a werewolf, a 1982 Rollie Fingers Topps card, a snowmobile, an online dating website, and the Kid Rock song “Bawitdaba.” (All these plots sound better and more interesting than Shyamalan’s last five films.) But seen today, the one-two punch of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable confirm that Shyamalan was once a talented filmmaker. In fairness, he might still be capable of turning out another Unbreakable. But he was never quite as talented as he’s always imagined himself.
Up Next: Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel