It's hard to express simply but there is a fundamental flaw in M. Night Shyamalan's screenwriting which makes his films consistently miss the mark. He understands film making in it's classic form, he understands plot devices, signposts, symbols, motifs. Inspired by Hitchcock and Spielberg, he is in fact a very technical screenwriter, he follows rules and strives for certain things. I think the problem arises when the things he strives for seem forced which is almost all of the time. He comes across as desparate to insert moments which will strike a heavy emotional chord with the viewer, he sets them up early, builds them gradually and ultimately, they come across as ridiculous. They are so overly poignant and meaningful that they end up sterile and laughable. It's not that they are cliché in themselves, but the feeling he is trying to inspire is as cliché as it gets. There is always a fatal flaw, a lack of subtlety or naturalism and a tendency towards the contrived. This, at least, is consistent along all of his films, rarely do his emotional devices work.
I'm going to point out a few of these failed devices and, because so many of them are to do with the ending of a film or the climax of a storyline, they are all spoilers and, because they are all spoilers, they assume prior knowledge of the plots.
The ending twist of Unbreakable reveals that Samuel L Jackson's character has materminded a series of high fatality 'accidents' in his search for a genuine superhero. Said superhero Bruce Willis discovers Jackson's secret and it is revealed as the twist. So far, so not too bad. Unbreakable is a poor film but until what I am about to describe it is not quite laughable. On realising that Bruce knows his secret, Samuel utters the pathetic, childlike "They called me Mr Glass" by way of explanation. This is absurdity in it's most hilarious form, to completely change the tone of a sombre, ponderous film with a line like that is to undermine everything that came before and evoke the atmosphere of a stand up comedian dead on his feet.
Which leads me to another thought. Shyamalan is good at raising questions, slowly building tension and creating complexity. He is awful at resolving everything he has built up, he does it with a single moment and that moment is almost always terrible and comedic. It would be the equivalent of Holst choosing to end his furious composition Mars with the "That's All Folks!" Looney Tunes jingle. Satirically speaking, that would be fantastic. If Shyamalan were to come out and say that all of his films are parodies of the thrillers that Hollywood has made over the year and the cliché devices contained within, I would admire him more than any other filmmaker working today. Tragically, I don't think that's going to happen.
The next couple of examples come from Signs. I have only seen it once and never intend to see it again so my memory might be a little hazy but I'm basically correct. There is a scene where the family are locked away from the alien menace. In the dustyness of the cellar or attic or wherever, the younger boy starts to have an asthma attack, conceivably enough - it looked like a typically dusty place. In the absence of his inhalers the family gather around him and end his attack. How? By shaking and panicking him back to health. Now, I suppose this might not be such a hilariously ill conceived device if uou don't really have any experience with asthma however I can tell you now, with first hand experience, that the last thing you do to someone having an asthma attack is hug him tightly and shout at him to breathe. You'd do much better to make him as comfortable as possible and gently encourage him to steady his breathing until he's as okay as he's going to get without treatment. Bizarrely, Gibson's panic-method works and, rather than passing out or dying, the boy gets over the attack.
This is another example of Shyamalan's good intentions ruined by one sloppy flaw. It's not a bad idea in itself. The idea that an internal struggle within the family separate from the alien threat will show what's at stake and help you invest in the characters is perfectly sound. If he had picked another device to create the tension it would have been a commendable scene.
The second example from Signs is the resolution to the storyline of Gibson's wife's death by car crash. In another fine example of Shyamalan's tension building, we are shown fragments of his discovery of his dying wife, bit by bit until we get to her finale-triggering last words. As she lays dying, trapped between two cars (richly black humour in itself) she utters the mysterious last words "tell Merrill to swing away", Merrill being their oldest son, played by Joaquin Phoenix. Gibson wakes up from being knocked out by an alien, spies a baseball bat on the wall and tells Merrill to swing away. Utterly ludicrous. The story of his dead wife, the restoring of his faith in religion and the defeation of the alien all rest on the comical phrase "swing away". Just as in Unbreakable, the whole premise falls apart on this single clunker of a line.
Maybe Shyamalan lacks a developed sense of humour or perhaps he works backwards from a single moment which he perceives as clever and poignant at the time, maybe he realises halfway through writing the script how ridiculous is it and by then it is too late to stop. Maybe he picked the best of a weak bunch, agonising over an ending that would fit his usually good beginnings and middles, unwilling to have ambiguity or leave anything unexplained. Stuck on a form which insists on a satisfying conclusion but unable to find one. I have yet to see him be anything but entirely serious about what he does in interviews so I have to assume that is the case.
The Village has been widely hailed as an awful film and I'd have to agree with that. He makes some highly unfortunate mistakes and turns a very promising film into a joke. The Village started off as one of the first films to really creep me out in a long, long time. As someone who thrives on horror films but is no longer susceptible to them, that is an amazing thing to experience again. The sound, the pacing and the camera work are masterful in creating atmospheric tension and I found myself questioning why it was so hated. This was revealed in the first twist where the 'monsters' are defanged and the film is effectively neutered. For the sake of a twist, Shyamalan throws away a good premise. Amazingly enough, as the heroine heads off into the woods, even though we are told that the monsters don't exist, the film is still pretty scary. We are placed into the blind heroine's head and the woods reveal their natural foreboding, unenhanced by beasts and telling of the nature of human fear. As a supposed monster appears, I thought maybe we were literally inside the head of the heroine, creating monsters where there are just sounds of the woods. Another great premise ruined as the monster is revealed, literally, to be a man in a suit.
In his most ludicrous ending yet, Shyamalan takes his cues from the ending of Monty Python's 'The Holy Grail'. At the climax of 'The Holy Grail', the knights of King Arthur era England are arrested by policemen in present day uniforms and cars. In the ending of 'The Village', Ivy makes her way through the woods, climbs over a fence and then a Landrover pulls up along the road. 'The Holy Grail' is a comedy, 'The Village' is not, at least not until that point. This is intercut with the elders of the village opening their secret box which reveals that they were professor types in (I'm guessing) the 60s, so scared of the real world that they used substantial amounts of money to recreate a late 19th century village. Apparently they were so unlucky that each one of the dozen or so had some kind of experience with a junky killing their brother or something. This leads to the Landrover driver going to HQ and being conveniently told that the aviation authority has been paid off so that no planes are flown over the area. This sequence of events is played out in probably the most awkwardly contrived execution I've seen in any of Shyamalan's films post his breakthrough, 'The Sixth Sense'. 'The Village' amounts to a sitcom where everything is back to normal at the end. Nothing is changed, no character is developed and the logic behind it all is amazingly flawed.
The tragedy of 'The Village' is all of the potential it contained and it is a shame to watch it be torn away bit by bit. It is clear that the whole of the film stems from the final twist and it is ironic that this twist, responsible for some great cinema, is also responsible for the dire final result. It's unfortunate that no one making it saw the film as it could have been if he hadn't felt the need to justify a lame concept. Not everything needs to be based in the real world and not everything needs to be explained. What's wrong with monsters for monsters sake? Why not have a story about characters confronting fear and braving the odds? After building up this mythology, why not make use of it? It is the coming so close to greatness that makes The Village so tragically bad. Like a champion runner amputated in their prime. Apologies for the simile but it was the first one to pop in there.
You may have noticed that I haven't mentioned 'The Sixth Sense' yet. I like 'The Sixth Sense', I think it is well acted, well paced, well filmed and lacks the great mistakes that Shyamalan would make afterwards. When the twist is revealed, it is subtle and affecting rather than contrived and awkward. It's true that the effectiveness of it has been lessened by his later films highlighting in particular the convenient plot point of the little girl and the videotape of parental abuse. After all, what tugs at the heartstrings more than parental abuse?
There is surely another great film within M. Night Shyamalan, if he can only break free of his storywriting style. Perhaps an adaptation or a collaboration is in order. With someone to temper his penchant for easy emotional manipulation, someone to tell him when he's being silly and someone to reign him in a bit, his next film could be excellent. As it is, his potential hackdom knows no bounds.