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darkest hour of the night

Don’t Give Up on M. Night Shyamalan

It looks like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender will post a respectable box-office tally, even if it doesn’t make back the ridiculous amount of money Paramount invested in it. The film has already made more than the total grosses of Shyamalan’s previous two films, and will probably wind up grossing more than those two combined when all is said and done. That probably won’t do much to quell the hate directed at the director himself, however. While (justifiably) skewering the film itself, many reviews have also taken aim at Shyamalan personally. “[S]top funding the films of M. Night Shyamalan,” demanded the Chicago Reader. “Let's just be honest: M. Night Shyamalan is an idiot,” another critic declared. Some actually condemned his “arrogance” for daring to end the film with the promise of a sequel. (What’s he supposed to do, end the movie with an apology? Okay, don’t answer that.)

All that is tepid compared to the hate expressed in comment threads and message boards. Some never liked the guy in the first place, while others feel betrayed. Either way, no filmmaker nowadays — not Michael Bay, not Brett Ratner, not Joel Schumacher, not even Uwe-freaking-Boll — seems to prompt this kind of visceral, personal loathing. Which is a shame, because Shyamalan was once a rare talent — a director who could make serious, somber, and suspenseful dramas about grief that spoke to mass audiences. And we see little reason why he can’t be again.

Although The Sixth Sense was actually his third feature, Shyamalan seemed to burst onto the scene in 1999 with a ready-made auteurist brand, one which raised eyebrows even then, thanks to things like the assumed name “Night” (although that is, indeed, what he was called as a kid) and his serious subject matter and deliberate style. That he seemed to have a healthy ego only made matters worse, even if the ego wasn’t directly emanating from Shyamalan himself. Whether it was a Newsweek cover touting him as “The Next Spielberg,” an alarmingly candid “Making of” book, or a weird AmEx commercial, many things fed into the image of Shyamalan as an arrogant egomaniac. (Which he may well be. Film directors often are.) Nowadays, Shyamalan can’t simply flop; when one of his films fails, it’s often accompanied by personal invective against the man himself. And unfortunately, he hasn't done himself any favors recently. Those of us who hoped that a jaunt in the world of big-budget children’s fantasy might do the director some good were instead greeted with the leaden, stilted chaos of The Last Airbender. The Happening, on the other hand, needed to fire on all cylinders to sell its silly conceit of the environment fighting back. Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel’s hilariously wooden acting didn’t cut it.

But Shyamalan’s strengths as a director are formidable, and unlike other auteurs we’ve written off, we’re genuinely hoping he can get his groove back. His films are at their best when they focus on grief and regret: Even for those of us who think The Sixth Sense is overrated, the climactic “Grandma says hi” scene between Haley Joel Osment and Toni Collette in the car gets us every time. And for all of Lady in the Water’s problems, it’s hard not to be moved when Paul Giammati’s bottled-up, stuttering maintenance man finally lets himself talk about his dead family. Signs is one of the loneliest alien-invasion movies ever made; Unbreakable, possibly Shyamalan’s best work, is certainly the saddest superhero movie.

So what happens next? The Last Airbender’s box office may not be enough to get the sequels green-lit — which is fine. But one wonders if Shyamalan has any idea of how far he’s fallen. (Though he hadn’t yet read his latest reviews at the time of our recent interview, earlier reports suggest that he does eventually read his press.) Word that he’s shopping around a new, smaller film with Bruce Willis and Bradley Cooper attached gives us cause for hope. If that doesn’t work out, he could also do well for himself in TV, where the intimate scale of his best work might be quite effective. The big twist is indeed played out, partly because the success of The Sixth Sense made last-minute plot turns practically mandatory in thrillers. But Shyamalan, who once dreaded being pigeonholed as a suspense director, should remember that being limited to a very specific thing isn’t so bad, especially if you’re good at it. It did wonders for Hitchcock.

Shyamalan’s way with suspense, meanwhile, points to his fundamental skills as a director. (Note his deft use of offscreen space and his willingness to draw moments out, often through long takes.) Signs is a silly alien-invasion movie in lots of ways, but the scene in which Mel Gibson confronts an alien trapped in a pantry is a lesson in how to build tension. This kind of lonely, stripped-down scene, with its deliberate, old-fashioned pacing, was Shyamalan’s signature in his heyday.

So what happened? Shyamalan came of age with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas blockbusters, and he seems unable to shake their influence. And he does not do mythology very well. Lady in the Water was in some senses an admirable effort to break free from the thriller-with-a-twist genre, but it also illustrates the director’s weaknesses, with its touching fable undone by Shyamalan’s insistence on creating a ridiculously complicated supernatural world. It’s a story whose appeal should lie in its simplicity; instead, we get whispered nonsense about Narfs and Scrunts and Tartutics and Great Eatlons, and elaborate rules about how they operate.

But the problem isn’t the mythology itself. While everybody seems to love the Nickelodeon cartoon that served as the basis of The Last Airbender, the film version comes off as strained, convoluted, and insincere, however heartfelt it may have been for the director himself. It’s funny, in a way, that the show is actually called Avatar: The Last Airbender, because Shyamalan and James Cameron are like opposites: Cameron does large-scale action very well, and his characters can convincingly spout off elaborate backstories about Omaticaya and Tsaheylu and polymetal alloy robots from the future. But he often falters when he tries for slower, quieter scenes, the kind on which Shyamalan built The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Cameron has difficulty slowing down; Shyamalan falters when he tries to speed up.

All that is tepid compared to the hate expressed in comment threads and message boards. Some never liked the guy in the first place, while others feel betrayed. Either way, no filmmaker nowadays — not Michael Bay, not Brett Ratner, not Joel Schumacher, not even Uwe-freaking-Boll — seems to prompt this kind of visceral, personal loathing. Which is a shame, because Shyamalan was once a rare talent — a director who could make serious, somber, and suspenseful dramas about grief that spoke to mass audiences. And we see little reason why he can’t be again.

Photo: Jun Sato/WireImage