M. Night Shyamalan’s career has seen some of the most aggressive highs and lows of any filmmaker in history. Beginning his career with a six-time Oscar nominee and the second highest-grossing movie of the year, things looked as bright for Shyamalan as they did for Spielberg when Jaws was released. Following up The Sixth Sense with two other hits, both critically and commercially, he was pretty much guaranteed a spot in film history, with Roger Ebert calling him a “born filmmaker.”
Of course, everyone knows what happened next. Shyamalan released a string of critical failures, his box office magic waned, and he became known more as a cautionary tale than as the man who created one of the best horror films of all time. In recent years, his fortune has turned, however, and he managed to recapture his original spark somewhat with The Visit and, to a much greater extent, Split. With his upcoming movie Old, Shyamalan has the opportunity to permanently turn the tide in his favor, assuming he doesn’t fall back on old habits.
At this point, the most cliche criticism of the filmmaker would be complaining about his insistence on the use of twist endings. Perhaps creating one of the most memorable twist endings of all time with The Sixth Sense left him determined to outdo himself, to middling results.
While the inclusion of a twist ending wouldn’t be a killer, audiences and critics simply don’t want another film created solely around a twist ending, like The Village. Sometimes it’s alright to dazzle the audience with what’s already been established in a story and not rip the rug out from underneath them just because it’s easy to do.
One of the most glaring fundamental issues that critics began to notice with Shyamalan’s work was his oftentimes wooden and strangely quirky dialogue. What at first seemed like clever and understated writing choices began to look like someone who didn’t know how people actually speak.
There’s no better example than in The Happening, where, through a mix of bad dialogue and confusing direction, it’s nearly impossible to tell if each character’s lines are supposed to be for dramatic or comedic effect, even if it was intentional.
A major issue with his recent work has been what appears to be an unfocused and cluttered narrative, miles away from the walled-off, tightly constructed stories he was first known for.
With films like The Last Airbender and Glass, it seemed the filmmaker didn’t know how to pare himself down and instead skipped over moments that would have been important and retained plenty of wasted scenes that just serve to bloat the films.