Split, released in New Zealand theatres this week, is a magnificent return to creative and commercial form for writer/director M.Night Shyamalan, a once-heralded director who has became somewhat defined by a string of poorly-received movies that followed his initial successes.
He's quietly been on the road back to relevance over the past couple of years, a journey which has come to fruition with the spectacular box office success of Split, a nasty little genre exercise that represents a reinvigorated Shyamalan.
To mark the success of Split, I am going to cite the director's three best and three worst movies.
Shyamalan's follow-up to the insane success of The Sixth Sense can't help but feel like his most pure statement of intent as film-maker. Although far from a flop at the time, the film's reputation has grown in the years since it was released, with fans unwavering in their desire for a sequel. The slow-burning thriller has surprises, but lacks the direct gut-punch of The Sixth Sense's central gambit, and is all the better for it - this exists in a larger universe, one not founded on third-act reveals.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
Still Shyamalan's most iconic film, this stands as a masterclass in cinematic manipulation and expert tension-building. The film-maker has been something of a victim of the The Sixth Sense's success - audiences have gone in looking for the "twist" in every one of Shyamalan's subsequent films, which only makes it harder for the film-maker to surprise his audience, something he clearly loves doing. That nobody managed to guess the "twist" in Split is proof that Shyamalan remains a master storyteller capable of surprising us.
The Village (2004)
Unfairly lumped in with some of Shyamalan's lesser films (see below), this stellar thriller holds up extremely well, and is much more enjoyable separated from the anti-Shyamalan sentiment of the world into which it was born. The film suffered when the director was forced by copyright issues to change the name from The Woods to the one it bears, a shift in the declared narrative focus that unfortunately goes someway towards revealing the story's hand. This aside, it's a beautifully constructed example of Shyamalan's affection for Twilight Zone-esque storytelling with a deeply felt emotional core. Signs (2002) is well-crafted, bit fails to hold up to repeated viewings. The Village just seems to get better and better.
After Earth (2013)
The second of two "studio" jobs, i.e. films that weren't based on stories he generated himself, after 2010's The Last Airbender, which even Cliff Curtis couldn't save. Although Shyamalan has writing credits of both of these films, his lack of investment is all too evident. That said, Jaden Smith must bear some of the blame.
Lady In The Water (2006)
It feels wrong to rag on a film with such a bold vision - generally I like to celebrate such things in cinema - but Shyamalan's self-indulgent treatise on the power of narrative (in which he incidentally plays a writer who saves the world) dooms itself with superlative self-regard. It's too busy recognising its own genius to tell an engaging story. Kinda fun to watch though.
The Happening (2008)
By the time this was released, the knives were well and truly out for Shyamalan - the general audience emboldened by having cottoned on to his "tricks". The concept of The Happening - nature strikes back, mainly via deadly wind - was ridiculed, but it's actually a unique apocalyptic set-up ripe for potential. It's the execution here that lets the film down - all the film's edges seem to have been smoothed off in an effort to cater to a wider audience, which undermines the threat of the film. Plus Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschenal spend far too much time debating who likes each other more.
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