After 20 years, M. Night Shyamalan hasn’t given up on twists
By TIM GREIVING | Special to The Washington Post | Published: January 17, 2019
In "The Sixth Sense," just before uttering the now-famous "I see dead people" line, young Cole (Haley Joel Osment) interrupts a badly improvised story by Bruce Willis’ Dr. Crowe.
"You haven’t told bedtime stories before," Cole says. "You have to add some twists and stuff."
Right from the beginning of his meteoric-rise-to-crash-to-reborn career, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan was winking at his audience about what would become a defining penchant: the twist ending.
"I talk about it in terms of revealing where you are in the story," Shyamalan, 48, said. "That’s all I’m doing, is saying: ’You thought you were in the second act, or you think this is what’s going to happen here’ -- because you’re so cognizant of story structure. But then you realize you’re in a different place than you thought -- in a different story than you thought, sometimes. And that’s fun by its nature."
This weekend ushers in a new Shyamalan film and an unlikely sequel to "Unbreakable," his 2000 slow burn that posited the real-world existence of superheroes. "Glass" reunites Samuel L. Jackson’s comic-book-obsessed Elijah (nicknamed "Mr. Glass" for his fragile bones) and Willis’ David Dunn, a security guard who survived a train wreck unharmed and discovers he’s super powerful -- and welcomes the central figure from Shyamalan’s recent "Split": a man with 24 identities, including a super nasty one, played by James McAvoy.
"Glass" has a twist at the end -- a few twists, really -- born from notes Shyamalan made in 1999, when he was still conceiving the characters and events of these three stories as part of a single film. The question he jotted down was: "How come no one knows about this?"
(Don't worry -- we won't spoil anything for you here.)
It’s been 20 years since the whopper finale in "The Sixth Sense" created a pop culture phenomenon and generated the need for "spoiler alerts." And in the intervening years, Shyamalan’s surprise endings have become a magnetic, polarizing choice -- often praised by fans as mind-blowing but derided by critics as gimmicks.
"Everybody who read the script (for ’The Sixth Sense’) said, ’Oh wow, that’s a great ending,’ " said Barry Mendel, a producer on that film and "Unbreakable." "The goal we set for ourselves was: How can we make a movie that would be a really, really good movie even if we took away that ending?"
In that, they succeeded. Shyamalan’s tight control of mood and suspense, and his somber portrait of grief and broken relationships as acted out by Osment, Willis and Toni Collette, helped the modest thriller garner six Oscar nominations, including best picture and best director. But the ending was so unexpected, so revelatory, that Shyamalan quickly became known as "the twist ending guy."
The director is a disciple of Rod Serling, creator of "The Twilight Zone," who held that title decades earlier through his twisty TV series and screenplay for "Planet of the Apes." Serling himself was influenced by American author O. Henry, famous for his startling conclusions.
"The Sixth Sense" "came at the end of an era where you could get away with something like that," Osment said. "I think that’s why people return to it as the idea of the twist, because secrecy and spoilers -- we’re so saturated with that stuff now, it really seems special in retrospect."
Of course, Shyamalan was far from alone in that device. In the years since "The Sixth Sense," Christopher Nolan has often employed them ("Memento," "The Prestige"), as have supernatural thrillers such as "The Others" and last year’s box-office hit "A Quiet Place." But no one filmmaker has been as directly associated, or saddled, with it.
As Shyamalan kept the last-act bombshells coming in subsequent films, they became the focal point of critical evaluation and the prism of audience expectation. For critics, the charm began to wear off around the time of "The Village" in 2004, which had an ending The Washington Post’s Desson Thomson described as "a nonchalant shrug."
Audiences weren’t shrugging, at least not yet. "Signs" (2002) had made a cool $227 million, and "The Village," which was billed on the strength of Shyamalan’s name, nearly doubled its $60 million budget.
"He’s always seemed like a brilliant 11-year-old to me," said "Village" star Cherry Jones. "He comes up with these wonderful, outlandish plots with these twists that pull you along, and then the ending, too, is almost like an 11-year-old’s dream ending. What he does captures people’s imaginations and holds them in the way that children’s fairy tales hold them."
Not "Lady in the Water." The 2006 fairy tale, which began as the director’s bedtime story for his daughters, lost Warner Bros. millions and was savaged by critics. Roger Ebert, in a brutal dressing-down, called Shyamalan’s movies "con games." In 2010, Ebert described "The Last Airbender" as "an agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented."
By then, all but the filmmaker’s die-hard fans had turned on him, as well.
Shyamalan, who was born to Indian immigrants and raised in suburban Philadelphia, has always been something of an outsider. After wrestling with the demands of a domineering producer on his major filmmaking debut, "Wide Awake," the auteur set out to write a spec script so spectacular that he could ensure a career of creative control.
The result was "The Sixth Sense."
"Night was really assured" on that film, Mendel said. "There were even times where I thought that he should be a little more safe and give himself an option in case his big, bold, one-shot idea didn’t work. He was like, ’Nope, nope, I’m confident this is going to work.’ And invariably he was right."
His confidence was interpreted as arrogance by some, especially after he cast himself in "Lady in the Water" as a brilliant writer whose book is prophesied as a world-saver. Bryce Dallas Howard -- who says she owes her career to Shyamalan after he cast her in "The Village" without an audition and who played the title character in "Lady in the Water" -- begs to differ.
"Night is not an arrogant person," she said. "Night is really creatively ambitious. Very ambitious. He will engage in a conversation -- he will talk through it, he will work through it -- but he might take a leap. The most important thing in the world is: You just don’t want to make something that’s ignorable."
Howard, who expressed pride in him for forging ahead despite his turn among critics, noted how rare it was for such a young filmmaker (he was 28 when he made "The Sixth Sense") to write, direct and produce original material. She wondered whether that placed a bigger target on his back, as his reputation for doggedness was perpetuated within the industry and reinforced by critics.
"Glass" continues Shyamalan’s long fascination with broken people -- characters carrying around pain and trauma. The "twist" climax in most of his films involves their healing and redemption, and, in this case, the potential power of wounded, ordinary people.
The question is whether the fixation on Shyamalan’s twist endings misses the fact that most of his films can be more like mosaics. He presents fragmented images -- shards of glass -- throughout the story and in the finale zooms out to reveal the whole picture.
"That is just a baseline thing of mine," he said, "a tacit assumption that there is a bigger picture at work and that bigger picture makes sense. It’s a feeling that, after all is said and done, the movement of energy is benevolent."