For many, watching a movie by M. Night Shyamalan comes down to dissecting — and making fun of — a specific formula of storytelling. The writer/director, who rose to stardom with the supernatural thriller The Sixth Sense, has inadvertently solidified his artistic flair with the twist ending. This has been variably received throughout the years, giving the filmmaker a divisive reputation.
Shyamalan’s movies have constantly been picked apart based on the logical plausibility of their unfolding narratives. Nevertheless, the gems of his filmography do retain merit in their persistent portrayals of faith and personhood. In Tom van der Linden‘s final video essay of 2018, published on his YouTube channel Like Stories of Old, the alien invasion thriller Signs is discussed in a quest to dissect such belief systems in Shyamalan’s work. Watch it below.
Van der Linden’s essay, as concise and exhaustive as it is, allows a fantastic entry point into the rest of Shyamalan’s oeuvre. Frankly, for a guy who makes impeccably structured movies, he loves incorporating the generally vague concept of fate into them. This presents a seemingly juxtapositional quality in Shyamalan’s work that’s difficult but fascinating to reconcile.
Signs is an accessible film in this regard. The Sixth Sense operates in a similar way, too. Despite their use of tropes and genre conventions, these films distill worldviews into what van der Linden postulates to be each character’s specific “vocabulary” for understanding the world around them. Plot devices — aliens or ghosts — draw together sources of apparent randomness that coalesce into an affecting whole that explains how faith can unite these respective contained communities.
In the hands of a less emotive director, the convenience of such connectivity would have less payoff. Nonetheless, the characters, as well as the audiences, of Signs and The Sixth Sense are all asked to take a leap of faith, anyway, eventually acknowledging that the unknown could be rewarding enough to explore.
In contrast, Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water — commonly derided as one of his patchier mid-2000s movies — takes faith-based storytelling to an extreme. It’s his over-the-top exercise in crafting a fairytale. Lady in the Water is definitely looser compared to the gripping narratives of Signs and The Sixth Sense. Despite this, the film exemplifies the vital aspect of choice in the crafting of one’s fate, upholding the tenets of a grand existential mystery that are infused in Shyamalan’s efforts.
Like many of Shyamalan’s bereaved protagonists, the male lead in Lady in the Water — apartment complex superintendent Cleveland Heep — has plenty of untapped potential that has been buried away after the fallout of a series of tragic events in his life. It is only when Heep meets a sea nymph named Story that a sense of purpose is reignited within him. Story has her own magical royal destiny to fulfill back in her home in The Blue World, and Heep must help her.
Riddled with pernicious self-doubt, both characters fling pessimism out the window to save their lives. It is telling that only the most skeptical character meets a particularly ill fate in Lady in the Water. Crucially, the film hinges on unabashedly believing in the impossible to a degree of childlike wonder.
Lady in the Water isn’t the perfect fairytale. For instance, it suffers from a number of overt character stereotypes that negatively affect some of the immersion of the movie’s dreamy aesthetic. However, the brand of bubbly earnestness depicted in the movie is Shyamalan at his most faith-driven.
My favorite distillation of faith in Shyamalan’s work can be found in The Village, though, in spite of it being less hopeful than any of the above-mentioned movies. It challenges Shyamalan’s own penchant for easily pedaling the magic of idealism without actually losing a sense of belief entirely. Although the creepy machinations of this tightly wound “period” drama can be a real downer to behold, an inexplicable presence is still shown to drive communities forward in The Village.
The movie highlights love as a powerful construct, even in the darkest of circumstances, which is personified through the character of Ivy Walker. The Village has all the stylistic elements of the most visually stunning Shyamalan offerings, particularly sporting clear motifs relating to color. However, as Ivy is a blind protagonist, she navigates the titular world through impressions and aural indicators, and the film’s sound design portrays this beautifully.
Ivy is presented as brave in ways that her village peers are not. She isn’t particularly shy of her feelings for anyone in her community, compelled to speak openly due to an innate fiery nature. Her faith in the system that she grew up in within the village doesn’t make her inflexible to bending the rules either. This is seen in anything from mundane activities like cheekily cheating to win a good-natured race, to boldly electing to venture into the outside world to fetch medicine for her wounded romantic interest.
Of course, the ending of The Village is especially ominous and hazy regarding Ivy’s final complicity to the community’s deeply farcical nature (spoiler alert, the eponymous commune is fake on multiple levels). That said, she ends the film seemingly unaware of the full extent of these lies because she cannot see them. Instead, Ivy simply fulfills her quest and even when her worldview has been shattered, her intentions remain pure.
Hence, whether through dichotomous or conflicting narratives, Shyamalan cannot leave faith and belief out of the equation. His movies leave viewers questioning how film logic “ought to” unfurl, and posits alternative ways to digest stories. Imperfect as they are, these efforts make him a director to remember.