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M. Night Shyamalan Blows His Second Chance

Plus some other random thoughts about ‘Glass’

It’s funny, and utterly arbitrary, which filmmakers and actors we hope have a second chance. I’m not talking about people like Kevin Spacey, whose alleged sexual misconduct is beyond the pale — I mean someone who enjoyed early success, showed incredible potential and then seemed to lose the plot. Someone, for instance, like M. Night Shyamalan, who came to the world’s attention with 1999’s The Sixth Sense. A ghost story in which a mournful therapist (Bruce Willis) tries to help a boy (Haley Joel Osment) who swears he sees dead people, The Sixth Sense was a sensation — and that was even before anyone had seen a frame of film.

Back when it was just a spec screenplay being shopped around town in the late 1990s, The Sixth Sense was a script that every Hollywood executive wanted to read, even if he or she had no chance of turning it into a film. Twenty years later, I still vividly remember working at a studio and hearing my boss rave about how good the screenplay was — how this guy with the difficult-to-pronounce last name had sold it to Disney for millions of dollars and even gotten them to agree to let him direct, even though he was a nobody. Lots of promising projects end up being total disasters, but The Sixth Sense was that wonderful rarity: a much-hyped, well-made thriller that lived up to its buzz, becoming a Best Picture nominee and the kind of smart, mature, engrossing Hollywood movie that just about never sees the light of day.

The Sixth Sense came out on Shyamalan’s 29th birthday and completely changed his life, and there’s a part of me that wonders what his legacy would have been if he’d never made another movie. The Sixth Sense isn’t perfect by any stretch, but it’s a great, original story, and its commercial and critical success so came out of nowhere — only The Phantom Menace made more money that year — that it was always going to be difficult to follow up. But follow it up he did, continuing strong with Unbreakable and Signs before running aground with a series of ambitious failures, outright debacles and that goofy Last Airbender movie. Yet all the while, I rooted for him, believing that he could find his footing. Films like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, despite their flaws, weren’t being made by anyone else. As a moviegoer, I needed to believe in Shyamalan because I craved the kind of sophisticated mainstream films he was capable of delivering.

And in recent years, I thought my faith in him was finally being validated. The low-budget 2015 horror movie The Visit was a sleeper surprise and started the “Is M. Night back?” whispers. Then he backed it up with Split, a simple but very entertaining thriller about a serial killer (James McAvoy) with multiple personalities, each of them feistier than the last. Split was a big hit — not Sixth Sense big, but impressive — and it gave Shyamalan the opportunity to make a more epic movie, the final part of a trilogy that started with Unbreakable and had continued with Split. After years of dreading the latest Shyamalan disaster — which only served as further proof that The Sixth Sense was ancient history — it was exciting, frankly, to be excited about a new Shyamalan film.

I guess I’m just a glutton for punishment. Glass, his latest, is a failure, at least creatively — and it’s the kind of failure that makes you wonder why you bothered having faith in the first place. The movie has ideas and plenty of icy foreboding — it feels like it knows what it’s doing. But Glass’s biggest disappointment isn’t its execution or dumb story. It’s that, after working his way back into Hollywood’s (and audience’s) good graces, this is what Shyamalan decided to make. A comeback narrative was his for the taking, and he blew it.

The film stars Willis’ Unbreakable character David, alongside his nemesis Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson), as they become acquainted with Split’s Kevin (McAvoy). All three have been locked in a mental institution overseen by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who doesn’t believe they have superpowers. She studies delusions of grandeur, and she’s convinced these three men are poster children for the condition. That she’s wrong isn’t surprising — that the movie takes so long to disabuse her of the notion, unfortunately, is.

With The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, Shyamalan created a somber worldview that seemed diametrically opposed to the fun of the multiplex. Long before we had dark origin stories, gritty reboots and post-9/11 trauma, Shyamalan took popcorn stories seriously, giving us a haunted-house tale that was about the dangers of being a workaholic (The Sixth Sense) and a superhero film about what happens when people try to run away from their destiny (Unbreakable). You can argue with Shyamalan’s hushed solemnity — everybody whispers and broods in his movies — but his approach was striking. Where most blockbusters try to knock you backwards in your seat, his made you lean forward, drawn into what was happening.

Sadly, Glass is what happens when Shyamalan continues to try these techniques in our modern age, when just about every other film is based on a comic book and suffocating seriousness is the norm. (Even Marvel, which used to be pretty freewheeling, is growing more despairing with the sober Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.) There’s some action and suspense in Glass, but mostly there’s talk. Talk about whether our delusions are really superpowers. Talk about the importance of believing in superheroes. Talk about how comic books are like real life. Talk about how comic books aren’t like real life. Talk about why we’re obsessed with comic-book movies. Talk about whether it’s good we’re obsessed with comic-book movies. The characters talk and talk, and then they talk some more.

This wouldn’t matter if the talk were interesting — if Shyamalan had something to say. But where his early hits married popular genre ideas with emotional underpinnings, Glass is all empty profundity and pseudo-smart ideas. After distinguishing himself 20 years ago as a thoughtful auteur, Shyamalan finds his purported comeback taking place at a time when Christopher Nolan has cornered the market on smart-guy entertainment.

Plus, where Unbreakable was novel for dissecting comic-book lore, Glass’ similar treatises feel terribly passé. (You could argue that the Deadpool films are a more successful critique of the genre — and way more entertaining — than Glass’ characters’ endless ruminations about the nature of superhero storytelling.) If Glass were an essay — and, lord, it often feels that way — it would be one that’s heavily annotated and footnoted, overconfident in how mind-blowing it thinks it is. Glass is a movie in which Shyamalan wants to be the magician who keeps explaining how the magic tricks work because he’s smarter than us.

Either way, it isn’t the M. Night Shyamalan comeback I wanted, because it plays into his worst tendencies. Early in his career, the G-word was thrown around a lot about this writer-director. In a 2002 Newsweek profile of Shyamalan, Bruce Willis said of the filmmaker, “I don’t use that word casually, but I believe he has elements of genius in him — as a writer, as a storyteller and as a film director.” But when Shyamalan’s hit streak started to fade, his “genius” started to look more like ego and self-delusion. (I suspect he recognizes this — and is a little defensive about it. Staple’s wrongheaded dismissal of superpowers as delusions of grandeur sure feels like Shyamalan’s way of clapping back at his critics: See, I’m not arrogant — I’m just brilliant and you don’t get it!)

Like with superheroes, moviegoers choose to put our hope in certain filmmakers and actors. We relate to them, admire them and share their sensibility. Shyamalan’s early promise made me a fan, and despite all the subsequent duds, I never let go of my belief in him. Maybe I just wanted to convince myself that I hadn’t been wrong in sizing up his potential.

In Glass, Shyamalan completes his trilogy by ending on an inspirational note: We’re all superheroes in our own way. His films are often personal, but while suffering through this bitter disappointment, I wondered if there was something subliminal Shyamalan was trying to communicate. If we’re all superheroes, then we don’t have to put our faith in other people. Maybe that sentiment ought to extend to all of us who once thought Shyamalan was something special.

Here are three other takeaways from Glass.

#1. Has Shyamalan ever given a good performance?

Among the knocks against the writer-director — which include his propensity for twist endings — Shyamalan gets mocked a bunch for his insistence on casting himself in his own films. It’s fine that he loves Alfred Hitchcock — many, many people love Alfred Hitchcock — but his decision to include a Hitch-style cameo every time is often groan-worthy. (And, yes, he does it again in Glass.)

Shyamalan isn’t exactly a terrible actor. But he’s most certainly not a good one. Here he is in 2002’s Signs:

(By the way, his character isn’t calling Mel Gibson “father” because he’s his dad — Gibson’s character used to be a reverend.)

Now, let’s be fair: He’s gotten more comfortable on camera over the years. In Split, Shyamalan is perfectly acceptable:

The problem is that his cameos are connected to the public’s perception of him being cocky, and so they’re always a little grating. It’s not enough for him to write and direct his movies — he’s also gotta put himself in them? Who does he think he is? Orson Welles?

Still, I tried to determine if Shyamalan had ever given a good performance. And I decided he was decent on Entourage, where he plays … M. Night Shyamalan. In comparison to an egomaniacal jerk like Ari Gold, M. Night comes across as relatively normal as he tells his agent he’s got a brand new script he wants Gold to read:

He’s far more appealing here than in his own movies. Also, it’s worth checking out his recent episode of Norm Macdonald Has a Show, where he talks about dealing with failure and how he rejuvenated himself by working with brand new people. He comes across as surprisingly modest, even nerdy. It’s a good look.

#2. What’s Shyamalan’s deal with water?

In Glass, we’re reminded that, despite David’s powers, he does have a weakness: water. In fact, water is often something scary or harmful in Shyamalan’s films. In Signs, it’s water that finally kills the aliens. In Lady in the Water, the main character nearly drowns. When you enter M. Night’s world, beware: Water is out to get you. This led MEL’s own Dave Schilling to tweet:

Me, I wondered if Shyamalan might be hydrophobic. So I did some digging. As best I can tell, the answer is no — but he tried to make you think that something extraordinary happened to him once around water.

Writing for MEL, pop-culture critic Nathan Rabin reminded us about The Buried Secrets of M. Night Shyamalan, a disastrous promo film tied to the director’s 2004 thriller The Village that was meant to “expose” all the skeletons in his closet. Rabin describes Buried Secrets as “a bizarre vanity project that posited that the filmmaker’s movies were so uncannily authentic in their depiction of the spirit world because their maker had a direct connection to the ‘other side.’ Supposedly, Shyamalan drowned as a child and briefly died, before coming back to life with supernatural powers that informed hits like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs, rendering them simultaneously fantastical and semi-autobiographical.”

Of course, Buried Secrets was a hoax, but that little tidbit made fans think that perhaps there was some truth to it. Maybe Shyamalan has a fear of water? Maybe he can’t swim? I searched online and was unable to find any instance of an interviewer asking him about this. But because water is such a menacing force in his films, it feels weird that it’s not somehow meaningful, especially since his movies are personal for him in lots of ways.

Internet, if you’re reading this, someone please ask M. Night Shyamalan what his deal is with water. Dozens of us are curious to know the answer.

#3. Can you spot the fake Bruce Willis movie among these fake-sounding Bruce Willis movies?

People like to make fun of Nicolas Cage because he does a lot of just-for-the-paycheck acting gigs, starring in hacky straight-to-VOD thrillers with generic titles like Rage, Stolen and Arsenal. (I have no idea what The Humanity Bureau is, but apparently it’s a motion picture you can pay money to watch.) But Bruce Willis isn’t far behind: The 63-year-old actor does a ton of marginal action films and B-movie thrillers. You’re aware of him when he makes a Glass or Death Wish remake. But with lot less fanfare, he’s cashing in on his name by starring in a ton of junk.

So, it’s quiz time. Here are 10 movies, nine of which are actual Bruce Willis films. Can you pick the one that isn’t?

Acts of Violence: Three Midwestern brothers, a crime lord and an incorruptible cop are on a deadly collision course when the youngest brother’s fiancée is kidnapped by human traffickers. To save her, the MacGregor boys call on their military training — and the strength of family — to fight the most important battle of their lives.

Air Strike: Bruce Willis headlines this pulse-pounding epic about the courage of China’s citizens during World War II. As a U.S. Army colonel trains Chinese aviators to battle Japanese fighters, a hotheaded pilot begs to fly a powerful bomber that could stop the attacks.

Extraction: A former CIA operative is kidnapped by a group of terrorists. When his son learns there is no plan for his father to be saved, he launches his own rescue operation.

First Kill: A Wall Street broker is forced to evade a police chief investigating a bank robbery as he attempts to recover the stolen money in exchange for his son’s life.

Marauders: When a bank is hit by a brutal heist, all evidence points to the owner and his high-powered clients. But as a group of FBI agents dig deeper into the case — and the deadly heists continue — it becomes clear that a larger conspiracy is at play.

Pay the Ghost: A professor frantically searches for his son who was abducted during a Halloween carnival.

Precious Cargo: A crime boss tries to make off with loot that belongs to another thief.

The Prince: When his daughter is kidnapped, a retired assassin is drawn back into the life he gave up. To rescue her, he must confront his former rival.

Reprisal: A bank manager haunted by a violent heist that took the life of a coworker teams up with his ex-cop neighbor to bring down the assailant, initiating an explosive counterattack that brings all three men to the breaking point.

Vice: Julian Michaels has designed the ultimate resort, Vice, where anything goes and the customers can play out their wildest fantasies with artificial inhabitants who look, think and feel like humans. When an artificial becomes self-aware and escapes, she finds herself caught in the crossfire between Julian’s mercenaries and a cop who is hell-bent on shutting down Vice.

Okay, need a second? They all sound pretty terrible, don’t they? But which one is not an actual Bruce Willis movie?


Pay the Ghost.

(By the way, that’s a real movie, too. Nicolas Cage is in that one.)

How did you do? And, yeah, I know: I never would have guessed that Bruce Willis was in another movie called Vice that sounds like a cut-rate Westworld. But here’s the trailer … oh, poor Bruce: