The Spool’s film-by-film exploration of intriguing directors returns with a journey across the career of Philadelphia’s one-of-a-kind thrillmaster.
M. Night Shyamalan was one of the filmmakers of the late 1990s and early 2000s. He debuted as a director with the not commercially available coming-of-age drama Praying with Anger in 1992. His questioning-kid-searches-for-proof-of-the-afterlife dramedy Wide Awake was left to languish on the shelf by convicted rapist and former movie producer Harvey Weinstein before being unceremoniously dumped onto screens for a brief run in 1998.
And then, in 1999, The Sixth Sense: a masterful thriller anchored on fine work from Haley Joel Osment, an all-timer performance from Bruce Willis—who would go on to be one of Shyamalan’s key collaborators—and a twist ending that didn’t only shock, it enriched the film—adding new layers to a revisit. 2000 saw Shyamalan re-team with Willis and bring his fellow Pulp Fiction alum Samuel L. Jackson aboard for the well-loved low-key superhero drama Unbreakable. In 2002, Shyamalan, a pre-the-greater-public-coming-to-regard-him-as-a-jackass Mel Gibson, and Joaquin Phoenix team up for the hit alien invasion tale Signs. That same year, Newsweek featured him in a cover story naming him “the next Spielberg.” This acclaim would not last.
2004 would see The Village and, with the decidedly mixed reactions to its big twist (now part of a recognizable storytelling pattern), the beginnings of an extended downturn in Shyamalan’s critical and audience regard. This hit its nadir in 2010’s disastrous would-be-blockbuster The Last Airbender, an adaptation of a beloved action cartoon that saw Shyamalan set aside his strengths as a director in favor of a monotone attempt at grandiosity.
After the failure of The Last Airbender and 2013’s After Earth, Shyamalan shifted his focus. He moved from four-quadrant thrillers into idiosyncratic, intimate, unnerving horror—with the Anya Taylor-Joy and James McAvoy-starring Unbreakable stealth sequel Split standing as the apex of his ongoing resurgence.
As a writer, Shyamalan has several longstanding interests that he’s repeatedly worked into his films: mortality, morality, perception, faith, and their limits. He’s especially interested in childhood, how children see and are shaped by the world, their peers, and adults, how childhood events follow people throughout their lives, and how expectations (from kids and for kids) pressure them.
As a director, Shyamalan excels in the tension of intimacy—the ways that dynamics shift between players for better and worse—a trusted friend may be a hateful enemy, and a monster’s better nature might struggle to the surface. He’s worked with many well-regarded actors and, in particular, stands as one of the now-retired Bruce Willis’ most important directors. At his best, Shyamalan’s films are unforgettable—creative, tense, playful, and full of striking performances. At his worst, his films are fascinating whatsits—exciting and worth digging into despite and because of their failure.
We here at The Spool are tremendously excited to delve into Shyamalan’s work. He’s a singular filmmaker. Check back on this page over the month: it will serve as a landing page for the series. And if you’d like to wear your love for Philadelphia’s thrillmaster, check out our Threadless shop, where illustrator Felipe Sobreiro’s portrait of Shyamalan is available in a host of shirt styles.