M. Night Shyamalan

At age thirty-four, M. Night Shyamalan found himself at the head of a sub-economy that had grossed something around two-and-a-half billion dollars worldwide. (1) Subtracting the production and distribution costs of his movies, a reasonable estimate puts profits from his films at something approaching $2 billion.

By age thirty-six, the director had experienced a condensed version of an entire career: his first two films, Praying with Anger (1992) and Wide Awake (1998), had been pretty much ignored. The Sixth Sense (1999) was an astronomical commercial and critical success. With Unbreakable (2000), the wunderkind glided to modest profits of a couple of hundred million dollars and reviews that were reserved, if generally favourable. Signs (2002) was another big money maker, with profits – as near as public figures allow one to guess – approaching $0.5 billion, but The Village, though still registering a reasonable return, saw a decline both in the marketplace and among reviewers. The influential reviewer Roger Ebert disliked it: “a colossal miscalculation […] witless” (2). Many other commentators, though by no means all, felt similarly. Nonetheless, as Michael Agger observed, “With the release of The Village, Shyamalan [had] more power at a younger age than any contemporary filmmaker.” (3)

Most reviewers loathed Lady in the Water. It provoked notices that were savage in their dismissal of the film and startling for the vitriol of their personal attacks on the director. The latter may have had to do with Shyamalan’s casting of Bob Balaban as a sour film and book reviewer who is ripped to pieces by the werewolf-like monster-in-Astroturf, the “Scrunt”. The reviewers apparently received this bit of drollery with roughly the same sense of humour that the Balaban figure exhibits in the film. Box-office receipts were disappointing, although Lady in the Water may have earned enough to cover its production costs.

As this is being written, Shyamalan’s next film – his comeback film, The Happening, if it is greeted with anything more respectful than scorn – is scheduled for a 2008 release.

If there were no more to Shyamalan’s career than its spectacular early trajectory and its remarkable economic impact, analysis of the films themselves might be beside the point. But M. Night Shyamalan has established himself not just as a manufacturer of abundant revenues, but also as an auteurist writer-director-producer with high artistic and what one might call spiritual ambitions, and, after seven released films, with consistent thematic and stylistic preoccupations. He is also a director who, barring another flop or two, seems likely to retain a devoted audience. As he enters early mid-career, then, a preliminary report on his work to date seems worth undertaking.

I. Faith, Doubt and Identity

Thematically, the most insistent and widely noted aspect of his films centres on the issue of faith or belief. Faith in Shyamalan’s movies, moreover, is consistently associated with loss (often its occasion) and with doubt. It is also connected to the theme of identity, the characters’ struggle to discover or recover a solid sense of themselves. Uncertainty and self-doubt practically define faith, much as fear defines courage. Faith must confront doubt, otherwise it amounts to nothing more than an unquestioning superstition. As Father Peters (Dan Lauria) says in Wide Awake, “Doubt’s a part of everyone’s journey.”

The complex of faith, loss, doubt and (a little less emphatically) identity occupies the thematic centre of Wide Awake, the first of Shyamalan’s six Hollywood films. (His first film, Praying with Anger, 1992, is not currently available, but to judge by its title and on-line descriptions it appears to have the same thematic strands as his later movies.)

Wide Awake’s ten-year-old protagonist, Joshua Beal (Joseph Cross), attends fifth grade in a suburban Philadelphia Catholic school for boys. He has recently lost to cancer his idolized Grandpa (Robert Logia). That loss has shaken his faith in Grandpa, who “lied [… about] not goin’ anywhere” and in the stability and goodness of the world.

As a result, he sets out to find God. What he calls his “idea” and then “mission” begins as he gazes at light streaming through an arched, leaded-glass window in the hall of his school. His quest is ecumenical, adding to his Catholicism the rites and practices of Judaism, Buddhism and Islam.

Along with his faith, Joshua loses some of his childish innocence. Toys, he tells his mother (Dana Delany), have lost their “magic”. Grandpa had two beliefs: “Always keep both hands on the ball.” And “Always hold onto your faith.” But Joshua is much too small to be successful at football and he finds holding onto his faith nearly as difficult.

His mission is plagued with discouragement. Just before it begins, Joshua has led his classmates in questioning the apparently unjust implications of the Catholic Church’s assertion that those who die unbaptised are damned. His best friend, Dave (Timothy Reifsnyder), has already told him that his mission to talk to God is “stupid”. Reinforcing his doubts in a benign deity, the television news that Joshua watches is an anthology of catastrophic floods, fires and car wrecks: “bad things”, in one of Shyamalan’s favourite formulations, that “happen to good people”. When Dave asks Joshua if, “in all the stuff you’ve been doing, have you gotten one sign, any sign to let you know there’s a god?”, Joshua can only shake his head. Like one of Job’s companions, Dave then tells him to give it up.

Which Joshua nearly does. When he finds Dave unconscious and battered after an epileptic fit – evidently the last straw for Joshua – his voice-over announces, “Final journal entry: Know what? My Grandpa was wrong. Someone just made God up.”

But in the midst of doubt and despair, enter hope and Hope (Heather Casler), whom Joshua encounters in the neighbouring Catholic girls school, when he sneaks in to meet a visiting Cardinal. His Highness proves a disappointment: “The Cardinal looks different up close; he looks like somebody’s grandpa.” As Joshua thinks he knows, grandpas are not to be relied upon. But Hope, on whom he immediately develops a crush, perhaps can be. At the ceremony of The Crowning of The Virgin, witnessed by the neighbouring boys, she presents Joshua with a rose and assures him that he will find God. So does an opportune snowfall, which Joshua takes as a sign because he remembers his Grandpa telling him that snow is proof of God’s existence. Finally, Dave converts, convinced by Joshua’s fortunate arrival after his seizure. “I believe. Just don’t give it [your mission] up, dork.”

His pal’s injunction, the heavenly snow and the hope of Hope restore to Joshua something more than he has lost: a faith achieved despite doubt and the first glimmerings of adult love. In summing up his fifth-grade year, Joshua tells his classmates and teacher (Rosie O’Donnell), “It’s like I was asleep and finally woke up” – something we have seen literally enacted earlier that morning.

His discovery of his Guardian Angel follows. The sequence of this revelation is important, for Joshua has already gained what he was seeking before he discovered the existence of his protector from above. The Angel first appeared early in the film as “the new kid”, whom Joshua notices is “even smaller than me. He hasn’t got a prayer.” The Angel twice comes to the aid of Joshua during minor crises at school, but he only assumes an important role at the end, when he assures Joshua, “You don’t have to worry; he [Grandpa]’s happy.” The Angel, who disappears after revealing his identity, perhaps confirms what an alert viewer might have suspected from the snow, that the guardian angel of Frank Capra and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) hovers over Shyamalan’s first American release.

Like Joshua, Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) and Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), the protagonists of The Sixth Sense, have suffered losses. Cole’s parents are divorced, though we learn that only indirectly. Malcolm has lost his very life, though we don’t know that – nor does he – until the closing minutes of the film. More importantly for the narrative, he has lost faith both in his competence as a child psychologist and in his relationship with his wife (Olivia Williams). When Cole, early in the film asks, “Are you a good doctor?”, he can only reply, “ Well, I used to be.”

The Sixth Sense

The issue of doubt, which pertains largely to Malcolm, reaches a crisis when the psychologist announces to Cole, “I can’t be your doctor any more.” Cole’s frantic response addresses not his own doubts but Malcolm’s: “Don’t fail me! Don’t give up!.” Then, after Malcolm demurs, “You believe me, right? … How can you help me if you don’t believe me?”

Cole, whom Malcolm must believe if he is to believe in himself, is associated with religious settings and symbols. Like Joshua in Wide Awake, he often appears in church and before religious icons and votive candles. The red tent he constructs as a sanctuary (an important word in The Sixth Sense) is filled with such objects. His last name, Sear (Seer), reflects his clairvoyance. A literal reflection, superimposing Cole’s image on a cross, insists on the spiritual suggestions of his role. By implication he is likened to Christ; logically, therefore, Malcolm’s eventual belief in him becomes something like a religious affirmation.

As regards belief, the problem for Cole has not to do with doubt but with acceptance. Not only must his truth be accepted by Malcolm and his mother (Toni Colette), but also, like Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) in Lady in the Water, Cole must embrace his exceptional powers. Malcolm, too, must accept his condition, that he died when a former patient (Donnie Wahlberg) shot him. In doing so, he recovers his sense of himself as a “good doctor”; at the same time, he rediscovers the depth of his relationship with his wife – an affirmation that will allow ultimately both him and her to let go, to move on to whatever comes next.

Loss in Unbreakable, as for Malcolm, involves a distressed marriage. David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and his wife (Robin Wright Penn) are living separately but together in the same house while awaiting Dunn’s probable move to New York. Like Story in Lady in the Water, David must discover and affirm his extraordinary powers: that is to say, his identity.

The problem of faith and doubt in Unbreakable appears clearly in a scene included in the bonus materials of the DVD. Trying to make sense of having survived a catastrophic train wreck that killed every other passenger, Dunn goes to a priest. But the priest, as it happens, lost his twelve-year-old nephew in the same wreck. With that loss, he seems also to have suffered the loss of his own faith. “It was luck, random, without meaning”, he insists bitterly. “What’s your point, David? You were chosen? I don’t think so.” Shyamalan identified Dunn’s visit to the priest as “the first scene I got right […] the beginning of Unbreakable.” (4)

This scene was cut, according to Shyamalan, because it lost in the “battle between developing character and developing the plot”. But it may have been removed because it also diverted attention from the central theme of Unbreakable: the concept of identity. The antagonist, Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson), makes this idea explicit: “The scariest thing [is] not to know your place in the world. […] I’m not a mistake. It all makes sense.” What remains of faith may be found in his and Dunn’s biblical first names. There is also a hint of faith in lines delivered to the protagonist by his son (Spenser Treat Clark): “You can’t let bad things happen to good people, right? That’s your code, right? That’s the hero’s code.”

In Signs, the struggle of the protagonist, Graham (Mel Gibson), to affirm or regain his identity fuses with themes of belief, doubt and loss. The first indication of Graham’s personal crisis has to do with his identity: he asks the sheriff (Cherry Jones) to stop calling him “Father”. That his renunciation of his title also signals renunciation of his faith is suggested by a ghostly outline left by the removal of a cross from his bedroom wall.


An intense conversation with his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) confirms his loss of faith and reveals its cause in the ostensibly random death of his wife. The conversation begins after television reports of an apparent invasion from outer space. Merrill asks, “Couldn’t you pretend to be like you used to be? Give me some comfort.” In response, Graham tells him that there are two kinds of people, those who believe in miracles and a protecting, meaningful presence and those who don’t. As he speaks, Graham seems undecided, his face half in the light, half in deep shadow. When Merrill declares himself “a miracle man”, however, Graham opts for darkness. He describes the last moments of his wife, then concludes, “There is no one watching out for us, Merrill. We are all on our own.”

But even in grief and rage, Graham cannot quite convince himself of God’s non-existence. He regards God as indifferent to human suffering (or even as its cause), but still a presence. As his son, Morgan (Rory Caulkin), fights for breath during an asthma attack, Graham says, “Don’t do this to me again. Not again. I hate You!” But a moment later, incongruously, he is urging Morgan to “Believe … don’t be afraid … the air is coming. Believe.” Graham’s anger at God-the-Father echoes Morgan’s rage, expressed earlier, at his father-the-god: “I hate you. You let Mom die.” Additionally, Morgan seems to have come to the same conclusion about God as his father. When the pattern of flattened plants occurs on his family’s farm, Morgan murmurs, “God did it.”

The conclusion of the narrative, however, supports the distrust of neither the son nor the father. Morgan, because of his asthma, escapes the poison gas of the attacking alien. When he regains consciousness after an injection, he asks, “Did someone save me?” Graham, who has already concluded, “It was meant to be … It can’t be luck”, answers with what is in effect a reaffirmation of faith, “Yeah, baby, I think someone did.” One is tempted to capitalize the “S.”


The religious tenor of Signs is reinforced by imagery and language that become more insistent and pointed as the story unfolds. The Sheriff’s casual “What in God’s name is goin’ on?” is intensified in the television anchor’s pious “God be with us all.” Crosses formed by door panels and windowpanes – a use of those images Shyamalan may have picked up from Alfred Hitchcock – underscore the Christianity of Graham and his family. Graham passes door panels that form prominent crosses as he walks from the shower, as do panel-crosses on the boarded front door when the family flees into the basement. They are pervasive when Graham and Merrill (his in a window behind his bed) awaken to hear the screams of the children. A reverse-shot of Graham looking into the window of the man (M. Night Shyamalan) whose car killed his wife frames him within a cross shaped by a window frame, from which a suggestive nail protrudes. An emphatic sign of the cross comes near the end of the pan that signifies a leap ahead in time at the conclusion of the film. The shadow of the absent cross is gone from the freshly painted wall and the cross on the door leading to the bath is again conspicuous.

Similarly significant imagery has to do with water, prominent in the fixation of Bo (Abigail Breslin). Baptismal, redemptive and saving, it is apparently the salvation of the world when “the battle turned around in the Middle East”. In this holy land, “three small cities there found a primitive method to defeat them.” As the struggle with a remaining alien demonstrates, the victorious method is drenching the aliens with water. This twist may be a bit illogical, but it is fraught with religious and spiritual symbolism. Water here is also, as will be explicit in Lady in the Water, “a metaphor for purification, starting anew”. As Signs ends, Graham is “Father” (and his son’s father) again.

At the centre of The Village, Shyamalan put another metaphor for faith, hope and renewal: the preternatural insightfulness of the blind heroine, Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard). Her name, as usual, signals her character and function. About her desire to go to “the towns” to get medicines for her stricken financé, Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix), the leader of the Village Elders (Brendan Gleeson) says, “Let her go. We can move toward hope. It’s what’s beautiful about this place.” (Hope is associated with healing in Lady in the Water also, in the person of “The Healer”, who is characterized as “so full of hope that [he] can awaken the life force in all things”.)

Ivy’s excursion ends successfully when she returns with antibiotics. At the same time, she overcomes an emotionally afflicted young villager, Noah (Adrien Brody) who attacks her in the costume of the woods monsters, the legend of which the Elders use to keep the rest of The Villagers from wandering. The death of Noah reinforces this “farce” – as her father Edward (William Hurt) calls it – and “makes our stories real”. Ivy’s heroic journey thus promises both to save Lucius and to reinvigorate mythology of The Village.

It is precisely that myth or “farce”, however, that renders faith itself in The Village ambiguous at best, hollow at worst. For it is based on a lie, on elaborate pretences and superstitions internally, and on all-but-impossible wealth and influence externally. Even the one incidence of doubt by a Villager not in on the secret confirms the larger fiction. He doesn’t believe in the power of “the magic rocks” to keep at bay the woods monsters, “Those We Do Not Speak About”.

Ultimately, The Village is not so much about faith and doubt as about loss and hope. The structure of Shyamalan’s thinking nonetheless remains familiar. Just as true faith may be achieved only by acknowledging doubt, so authentic hope and happiness come only through struggles with loss and sorrow. The Elders of The Village all share pasts of spirit-crushing loss and grief: a beloved sister gang raped, killed and her corpse tossed into a dumpster; a father murdered as he slept; and so on. The memorials of those losses are contained in locked chests that remind those who fled to The Village of the horrors they wished to escape. As is confirmed by the uniformly violent headlines being read by the guard (Shyamalan) outside the walled-off land in which The Village exists, the modern world remains ferociously dangerous.

But loss and grief cannot simply be left behind. The opening sequence within The Village is of a child’s funeral. The father of that child twice gives voice to the main point of the film: “You may run from sorrow, as we have; sorrow will find you.” Later, when some of the Elders oppose letting Ivy go for medicine, he casts his vote the other way, “We must not run from heartache … Heartache is a part of life; we know that now.”

When Ivy returns, having tricked Noah into falling to his death, her father says, “Noah has given us a chance to continue this place [pause] if that is something we still wish for.” One by one, hesitantly, the Elders surrounding Lucius’ bed rise, signifying their desire to continue The Village and what Edward has said is “protected here, innocence”.

In spite of that endorsement and the closing affirmation of Ivy’s “I’m back, Lucius”, The Village sustains its ambiguous tone. The town in the midst of “Covington Woods (a name meaning a forest of witches), and the people who have fled the modern world only to find themselves pursued by the mortality of life itself, can hardly feel safe in their sanctuary. What they have created is not only less than they aspired to, but is maintained by what Edward labels “silly lies”. The implausibility of their story, like the implausibility of Shyamalan’s movie, is explicit. What the audience might believe as it leaves the theatre must be as uncertain as the rationale of The Village itself.

The loss at the centre of Lady in the Water is catastrophic, but we neither witness it nor learn of it directly from the character who suffered it, Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti). When the other leading character, Story, relates some of the content of his Cleveland’s diary, we discover that his home was invaded and his family murdered in his absence. Cleveland’s coming to terms with his loss and fully recovering his faith in humankind ultimately make up the central action of Shyamalan’s sixth American film.

Other characters are also associated with loss. Mr. Leeds (Bill Irwin) sits isolated in front of his television, on which he watches only news of wars, evidently in order to justify his rejection of society. Yet, surprisingly, he will urge Cleveland, “Don’t be like me.” The aspiring writer played by Shyamalan learns that he will be killed because of what he will write. His loss, like Cleveland’s, is focused on family; he will live to see only two of the seven children his sister will bear. As consolation, his book will inspire “a great orator”, who will be moved by it to lead the world toward change. (Unfriendly reviewers found Shyamalan’s casting himself in this role intolerably presumptuous.) Mr. Farber, the critic, bitterly claims, “There is no originality left in the world.” (5) His name may recall an actual predecessor, Manny Farber, a critic whose work is still read. However that may be, Shyamalan’s Farber has lost his faith in art to renew the human spirit. His condition reverses that of the allegorically named Story, and he dies when his know-it-all analysis of his own role proves inaccurate.

The loss that must be redeemed for the success of the story – and Story – remains Cleveland’s. Michael Bamberger, who was with Shyamalan before, during and after the filming of Lady in the Water, relates that the director called the moment when Cleveland publicly expresses his grief “the life and death scene” (6). He told the cast that it was “all about saving this guy” (7). The movie is finally more about Cleveland’s healing than about Story or reconnecting the prelapsarian “Blue World” with the fallen world that we know. The Story story is something like a Hitchcockian MacGuffin, a plot device that provides an excuse for the real central concern of the film. (The failure of Lady in the Water with most reviewers and audiences, I suspect, may have to do with its not making the centrality of Giamatti’s role sufficiently clear or compelling.)

Cleveland explains to those gathered for the “life and death scene”, “This is about faith!” Bamberger expands the point:

The scene was all about faith. Faith in the power of a family, a tribe, a guild, groups of all sorts. Faith in our ability to heal others and ourselves. Faith in storytelling in all its forms. (8) Were we to assign Lady in the Water an epigram, it might aptly come from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale: “It is required / You do awake your faith.” (9)

Lady in the Water

Young-Soon Choi (Cindy Cheung), through whom Cleveland learns about Narfs like Story, says that her great-grandmother “used to tell this story like a prayer, like it was true”. In order to receive the whole tale from Choi’s mother, Cleveland must make her “see you as a child, innocent”. Messily munching cookies and drooling milk, Cleveland receives the remaining details of the ancient fairy tale. Sucking soft drinks and crunching popcorn in the theatre, the audience of Lady in the Water should do the same if it wishes to receive what this picture has to offer. It, too, must return to childish innocence.

In the fairy tale, in the apartment complex, and by implication in the world at large, “All beings have a purpose.” So Story tells a despairing Cleveland. Story herself, however, does not entirely know her purpose; and the “moral of the bedtime story”, Choi says, is that “No one is ever told who they are.” Discovering who one is, then, becomes the central quest, recalling Unbreakable and Signs.

Cleveland thinks that Story “might be an angel”, but she asserts, “I’m not special.” Indeed, even she, the “Madame Narf”, has a yen for trinkets that connects her to materialistic greed, which, we are told in the opening unattributed voice-over, has corrupted humankind. When Cleveland insists that she’s “someone important”, Story examines herself in a mirror, trying to fit that idea to her reflection.

Another “moral of the bedtime story” is that no one needs to be “special’ to have a purpose. Paradoxically, the purposes that all have, known or not, make everyone special enough. Reggie, who exercises only one side of his body, is special not because of his freakish muscular development but because he is “The Guardian” of the Madame Narf. The boy Joey (Noah Gray-Cabey) turns out to be “The Interpreter”, reading messages from breakfast cereal boxes. The de la Torre sisters – a more common group could hardly be imagined – are “The Guild”. Everyone’s ordinary, important and special.

Including Cleveland. Devastated by his loss, he abandoned his life as a physician and sought anonymity as the manager/janitor of an apartment complex – a job, as he says, “anyone could do”. But he has not entirely lost himself, and he remains torn between despair and an innate optimism. His name, Story says, means “from the cliffs”; it may also mean one who is split, cleaved.

Mistakenly thinking himself The Guardian, Cleveland learns better, nearly at the cost of his life. “Why isn’t he [the Scrunt] being punished?”, he wonders. “Where is the justice?” He is asking Story about the absent “Tartunic”, fates or furies in Shyamalan’s fairy tale, but his question could equally apply to the loss of his family and his inability to protect Story, just as he was unable to protect them.

Eventually he discovers that he is “The Healer”. His first task is to heal himself, which he does by expressing his anguish in front of the other helpers for Story’s mission. As he undergoes his mourning – ineffective when done in the solitude of this diary – he is simultaneously able to heal the poisonous scratches the Scrunt has left on Story’s legs. He has found his purpose and recovered his identity. As the film ends, he stands like a lover in the rain, a conventional plot development that Mr. Farber scorned. Cleveland is alone but not alone; he is healed and whole. Lady in the Water has given a surprising twist to a standard image. Originality has not quite disappeared from the world.

II. Shyamalan’s Romantic Fictions

Lady in the Water began as a bedtime story, became a children’s book, then a screenplay and finally a movie. Curiously, it is one of only two of Shyamalan’s American films without children in central roles. The protagonists of his first two American movies are boys of approximately ten years; the son of the hero in Unbreakable has an important place, as do the children who save the drowning David Dunn; Bo and Morgan, another tenish boy, play crucial parts in Signs.

The desperately sleepy child at the beginning of Wide Awake is not only able to rise by himself at the end of the film, but he has also fallen into young love and recovered his faith. Cole Sear comes to terms with his extraordinary powers and is finally able to communicate with the living person closest to him, his mother. At the moment he decides to do so, he relates to her her own mother’s memory of her daughter’s dance recital. Thus Cole speaks, in effect, as the adult, and his mother, for the moment, occupies the place of the child.

Even lacking central juvenile roles, The Village and Lady in the Water create similar dynamics. The Village begins with the funeral of a seven-year-old boy, and, though Noah is chronologically an adult, he is psychologically a child. “The Interpreter” in Lady in the Water is another tenish boy. More significantly, Cleveland must rediscover a childish disposition to receive the full story of the Blue World. Having done so, his return to adulthood and confirmation of his identity essentially replicates the coming-of-age form of Shyamalan’s earlier films.

Like fairy tales, Shyamalan’s stories address children and adult recollections of childhood. The fall into the broad genre of romances – a label which in this case comprises not love stories specifically (though they often contain such stories) but the kind of narratives we associate with miraculous journeys, archetypal heroes and heroines, guardian angels, demonic foes, and the deaths and rebirths that occur in seasonal myths or similar narratives. In movies, these and other fantastic elements are usually sublimated into somewhat more realistic forms. (Lady in the Water, obviously, puts aside much of that sublimation.)

Like all works of art, Shyamalan’s movies need to be taken on their own terms in order to be understood and appreciated. Failure to recognize their persistent romantic tendencies may account for many reviewers’ complaints about plausibility in The Village, Lady in the Water and, to a lesser degree, Signs. However that may be, Shyamalan’s movies are full of details that cue their romantic pedigree.

Time has great importance in romantic narratives and typically moves with the natural, cyclic markers of seasons and days and nights. Lady in the Water begins with a classic “Once upon a time”. Wide Awake is divided into three sections, which intertitles identify as the months of Fall, Winter and Spring. The Sixth Sense has a similar intertitle announcing the main action: “The Next Fall”.

Romantic time is regenerative, renewing. In Signs, Morgan, whose name means “morning”, dies for a few moments in order to live by evading the alien’s poison gas. David Dunn’s wife discovers in her husband’s miraculous survival a chance to revive their moribund marriage, “It’s a big deal that you walked away from that train. It’s like it’s a second chance.” For Malcolm Crowe, working with Cole similarly offers a “second chance” to be a good doctor and a good husband. His resurrection, paradoxically, allows him to accept and find peace in his death. The evergreen Ivy returns from the underworld of the towns to revive her dying lover. At the end of Lady in the Water, Cleveland, having healed the dying Story, thanks her in turn for “saving my life.”

The characters of romantic fictions, especially secondary ones, lean toward personified characteristics: Dopey, Sneezey and Grumpy, for example. Or Reggie, The Guardian; Mr. Leeds, the spirit of misanthropy; Joey, The Interpreter – all of whom appear in Lady in the Water. The Tartunic in the same film recall the flying monkeys of The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), with Story serving as a sort of post-adolescent Dorothy, who needs help from the natives of a strange land to complete her journey and return to her home.

Magic substances also appear in Shyamalan’s fairy tales, notably the healing “kII,” (pronounced “key”) with its signifying name in Lady in the Water. In a sublimated form, such things appear as the modern potion of the medicines Ivy fetches in The Village and the glasses of Bo’s water in Signs.

There are, of course, counter-currents to the romantic flow of Shyamalan’s movies, and one, The Village, remains balanced between the rejuvenation of romance and the dissolution of irony. In general, however, realism and irony function as mild foils to romance; they provide plot conflicts and generic dissonance that energize Shyamalan’s films without finally undermining their movements toward redemptive conclusions.

David Dunn’s weakness, water, provides frissons in Unbreakable, along with one truly frightening threat when he nearly drowns. The state of his marriage provides a different kind of anti-romantic tension, as does the abrupt revelation at the end of the film that the heretofore sympathetic Elijah is a different sort of “miracle” than we had been led to suppose.

Cole’s wearing of his father’s abandoned, broken watch and lenseless glasses at once suggests the emptiness in his life of any paternal presence, and ties into themes of threatening time and defective sight. Those accoutrements recall the sadder but less sour symbolic message conveyed in Wide Awake, when Joshua tries to replace his loss by putting on his Grandpa’s shirt and clamping his pipe between his teeth. In general, such ironies in Wide Awake are comic, as when his mother urges him to get up, now that he’s “a fifth grader” and “almost a man”, only to pull back the blankets to reveal a little boy surrounded by a menagerie of stuffed animals. The threat of the aliens in Signs alternates between the truly frightening and such comedy as the aluminium-foil dunce caps that the children and then Merrill don to thwart the supposed mind-reading capabilities of the invaders. The multitude of unlikely “coincidences” (or not) in that film is infused with the same ambiguity between the comic and the deadly (literally) serious.

Threats in Lady in the Water are predominantly comic, starting with Cleveland’s titanic struggle with what is evidently a large cockroach or arachnid, and continuing with such jokes as a “Have-a-Heart” trap carried by the animal control officer who shows up after Cleveland has barely escaped the Scrunt. The various mistimings and misunderstandings at the end of the film provide some rudimentary suspense, but even there comedy is folded into the batter when the Scrunt amusingly disposes of the jaded film critic.

A frequent if not quite invariable connection exists between romantic fictions and the kind of expanding significance in fictions that is called allegorical. Shyamalan’s movies, in fact, all lean strongly toward allegory. As already noted, the writer-director’s penchant for meaningful, often biblical, names signals his allegorical structures: Joshua, Sear, Elijah, Morgan, Ivy, Story and so on. All of Shyamalan’s films invoke a world beyond the natural – a world often called spiritual – usually with an angel or some figure who functions like one. Wide Awake has an actual angel; the poisoned girl in The Sixth Sense returns to protect her younger sister; the superhero David Dunn functions as a sort of guardian angel without portfolio; the memory of Graham’s wife’s last words affect the action of Signs at a crucial moment, and Graham recalls “all the ladies” at Bo’s birth saying that she was “like an angel”. In The Village, the leader of the Elders declares, “The world bows in awe before love”, a statement that immediately takes us beyond the specific situation.

The bonus material accompanying Signs makes clear Shyamalan’s self-consciousness about his allegorical constructions. He observes that the basement in that film is “like their hell” and that the house, with its deliberate colour scheme, serves as an icon for a Norman Rockwellish America. We can view “the movie as a metaphor, as a conversation between God and this one man”. More generally, “Signs [is] also talking about faith and the signs from above.” The most concise description of allegory calls it “an extended metaphor”. It is easy to see all of Shyamalan’s films falling into that category.

As one might expect from an auteur who storyboards virtually every shot, the visuals in Shyamalan’s films are carefully designed; and, as one might expect from an allegorist, they are systematically significant. The first section of Wide Awake is subtitled “The Signs” and Signs, of course, is the title of Shyamalan’s fourth American movie. His other films are also full of symbolic images that not only fit with their plots, but also enlarge their significance.

The Sixth Sense

The time-lapse shot of dawn on a statue of a man and woman early in The Sixth Sense indicates that dead people are not represented exclusively by the ghosts that Cole and Vincent Grey see. That statue initiates a visual motif demonstrating the pervasiveness of various kinds of “dead people” in the world of the living: dolls, figurines, toy soldiers, religious icons, a statuary fountain of an Indian down whose face water streams like tears and, finally, the video tape of marionettes that exposes the murderous mother.

The enormous audience for comics – as opening titles inform us – implies the universal applicability of Unbreakable, as do the scenes that show Elijah’s gallery as a place in the fashionable world of high art. Like Cole, Joseph plays with toy figures, in his case a superhero and a monster.


Besides the aliens’ crop-field-signals in Signs, an early helicopter shot looking down on a village suggests that our mundane constructions also suggest significant meaning. More explicitly, the symbols of the wind chimes that Graham’s late wife apparently collected testify to the pervasiveness of human signs and symbols.

Suspenders that mark a target-like “X” on Lucius just before Noah stabs him in The Village have an obvious ironic significance. They also suggest that everyone is marked for danger and sorrow one way or another – a point, as we have seen, that the film elsewhere makes explicit.

Lady in the Water

The swimming pool in Lady in the Water, in several spectacular overhead shots, invokes a heart, one whose colour changes from black to more hopeful colours in harmony with the action. The essential point, however, is the same as those of other allegorical figures in Shyamalan’s movies: the stories they tell expand their meanings beyond their specific details into human life at large.

Among Shyamalan’s favourite visual motifs, we find the colour red, widely used in movies and societies throughout the world to signal danger and the forbidden. Another favourite is water, “that ocean where each kind”, as Marvell wrote, “Does straight his own resemblance find.” Indirectly, water appears or is alluded to in laundry, in snow, in fades to white that invoke snow, and in reflections. Directly, it pervades Signs, Unbreakable and Lady in the Water. Red is significant in most of Shyamalan’s movies; in The Village, it is an important part of the plot, and in Unbreakable it is expanded to bright, saturated colours in general. Shyamalan himself has commented on his systematic use of red in The Sixth Sense to indicate some connection with the world of the dead. (10)

Imagistically, Shyamalan’s movies are persistently self-reflexive; that is, they contain considerable imagery and thematic material that concern how information is expressed or apprehended visually. His sets and credits, for instance, often include paintings, photos and drawings, many of which are done by or show children, thereby connecting that imagery to his abiding focus on children and childhood. It is also the case that romantic fictions tend to emphasize their formulaic qualities and therefore to insist upon their status as fictions. (This emphasis, curiously, at the same time also insists upon the power of such fictions to make sense of what we call “real life”.)

Wide Awake

The opening credits of Wide Awake appear over close-up shots of a child painting, while an unsynchronised soundtrack records the protagonist and his grandfather conquering the boy’s fear of catching a football. The sound and pictures come together with the finished drawing of the boy and man, with a football. The opening sequence, then, may stand as a sort of rudimentary version of making a movie, of putting pictures and sound together to tell a story. As the action begins, we see more pictures: Joshua’s bedroom wall is decorated by his painting and, a little later, the camera pans along a wall on which hang paintings of the Holy Family and then sports photos. Together, the paintings and photos embody Grandpa’s two principles: keeping both hands on the ball and holding on to one’s faith.

Lady in the Water

Signs opens with a family photograph, which is occluded when Graham abruptly sits up in his bed. When he walks into the hall, we see that the walls are decorated by his children’s artwork. Like Wide Awake and Signs, Lady in the Water begins with images of images; the credits are accompanied by primitive drawings in the style of petroglyphs – appropriate to the primitive form of a fairy tale.

Lady in the Water

Twenty photos of the people and dwellings of the Village appear during the closing credits of that film. They simulate tintypes or daguerreotypes, with the ragged edges and partial fogging common in early photographs. They fittingly close the film we have just seen, for they, like The Village, are a modern simulation of a time passed.

Unbreakable is perfused by the imagery of comic books, which Shyamalan has said he meant the look of the film to imitate. (11) In comic books, opening intertitles assert, ancient myths are transmitted to modernity. A shot of Elijah in his gallery puts him in front of an Egyptian pictographic tablet. When Dunn and his wife go on a restaurant date that may be the beginning of reclaiming their marriage, however, Shyamalan photographs them in front of a large, relatively realistic mural. The fragment of their conversation begins with a visual discussion:


Audrey: Rust.

DD: As a colour, not as rust. Like rust-colour paint, or wood.

The pictures and colours of a marriage trying to survive, evidently, are more realistic, less mythic, than those of comic-book superheroes. But, of course, David will discover that superherodom is also part of his life.

Pictures created by children, especially by Cole Sear, and a revelatory set of photos contribute in complex ways to the developing discoveries of The Sixth Sense. An early shot shows a mantle covered with paintings by children, presumably Malcolm’s patients. Having gotten in trouble at school for drawing a violent scene involving one of the dead people that he sees, Cole concludes that he should stick to rainbows and smiling faces. We see such a picture on Cole’s bedroom wall, but when Malcolm asks him about “free association writing” – significantly, in front of another child’s painting – the film flashes back to Cole’s mother discovering her son’s “upset words” in his notebook. As Cole at last confronts one of his ghostly visitors – “Do you wanna tell me something?” – a painting of his is prominent on the wall behind him. Pictures in this film, when they are not censored, facilitate communication.

Lights of various kinds are associated with pictures from the opening shots of The Sixth Sense. The sketches by Dr. Crowe’s patients share the mantle with candles in glasses, which in turn pick up the opening image of the film, a filament in a light bulb. Following a well-established filmic convention, lights in The Sixth Sense and Shyamalan’s other movies often suggest intellectual or emotional illumination. Candles again burn in glasses by photos of the poisoned girl at her memorial, where her murder will be revealed on videotape, another kind of picture. Like the ghostly sigh on the audio tape of Vincent Grey and the damning video, another technical revelation from beyond appears in photos of Cole, all of which have mysterious lights beside the child.

The first shot of Wide Awake shows in extreme close-up the closed eye of the protagonist. Opening that eye will be the chief action of the film. While gazing up at an arched window streaming light, Joshua undertakes the mission that leads to his awakened understanding. Overhead lights also illuminate the scene when David Dunn accepts his mission. This setting emphasizes that his place among people has finally been straightened out. Earlier in the film, we have seen a series of characters looking at his world, including Dunn himself, upside down.

Seeing, as already noted, is of great importance in Signs, especially for Graham, for whom the equivalence between seeing and understanding is explicit. Ivy’s blindness in The Village varies the theme of seeing and understanding. For her father, Ivy’s blindness opens his eyes to an unforeseen result of this decision to abandon the modern world: “The moment I heard my daughter’s vision had finally failed her, […] I was so ashamed.” That awakening leads to his forsaking his oath when he supports Ivy’s request leave The Village.

The Sixth Sense

As allegorists, mystics and romantics frequently maintain, the sight of truth, in St Paul’s phrase, can be apprehended only “through a glass, darkly”. Shyamalan characteristically figures that indirect true vision through reflections. (12) The birth of Elijah at the beginning of Unbreakable is shown reflected in a mirror, which we realize only when the camera tilts to reveal the reflection. (13) As Malcolm’s wife reads his citation “for professional excellence” in the second scene of The Sixth Sense, there is a series of shots and reverse shots between direct views of the couple and their reflection on the polished brass plaque. Finishing the citation, Audrey, in reflection, adds, “I believe what they wrote is real.” Later a cross in reflection is superimposed on Cole, suggesting his connection with Christ, another who mediates between the dead and the living. A few minutes later, when Cole enters the room in which the poisoned girl told him he could find the inculpating video, he does so via an extraordinary reflection-shot on the doorknob.


The alien who invades Graham’s home near the conclusion of Signs is revealed in reflections on the surface of a television screen, and Graham himself is earlier reflected on the surface of a knife blade. Lady in the Water is filled with reflections: Story is reflected in a swimming pool, the apartment building is reflected in the same pool, the Scrunt appears reflected in mirrors and on a glass door.

As Joshua stands sleepily in the bathroom during the opening credits of Wide Awake, Shyamalan cuts to a close-up of his gloomy, enervated face in the mirror; simultaneously, the final credit, the director’s, comes on the screen – a collocation that suggests the director’s identification with his protagonist. It is also the first of several times that Shyamalan will identify himself with or through reflections.

The Village

A reflected image especially replete with imagery that recurs throughout Shyamalan’s movies appears six minutes into The Village. In a shallow stream, we see reflected the woods opposite and a red-hooded figure. The colour red, water and reflections are all images Shyamalan uses repeatedly, and are all one way or another connected with his romanticism. And the lines of the trees? Those, too; but to see how it fits into Shyamalan’s personal iconography, we must detour to examine the young director’s relation to his principal influence, Alfred Hitchcock.

III. Shyamalan and Hitchcock

Borrowings, adaptations of dialogue and actions, and the influence of particular Hitchcock films are easily identified in Shyamalan’s. Shyamalan himself has identified The Birds (1963) as one of the principal inspirations for Signs. (14) The music accompanying the credits of Signs recalls Hitchcock’s long-time composer, Bernard Hermann, and the credits themselves recall those of Psycho (1960). Cries of birds punctuate the soundtrack at crucial moments. The set of Lady in the Water strongly evokes that of Rear Window (1954). Two lines in Wide Awake appear to be adaptations from Hitchcock films. Tossing a ball, the nun played by Rosie O’Donnell remarks, “Still got it”, a bit of self-reassurance that echoes the anxiety about his shooting uttered by one of the wonderfully oblivious Englishmen in The Lady Vanishes (1938), “Hope the old hand hasn’t lost its cunning.” When Joshua finally gives in to the pleading of his classmate to play with him, he announces, “Today’s tomorrow”, a phrase the reproduces the repeated mixing of today and tomorrow by the child Arnie (Jerry Mathers) in The Trouble with Harry (1955).

The Sixth Sense

The Sixth Sense, over which Hitchcock’s spirit hovers with particular insistence, also borrows from one of the master’s scripts, in this case Psycho, when Shyamalan has Malcolm say about himself that he’s “not the same person he used to be” – a line that echoes the famous remark of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) about his mother, who “is not herself today” (15). Visually, Shyamalan imitates the same film when Cole’s shadow precedes him into the poisoned-girl’s bedroom. This shot redoes a similar entrance of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) into her bedroom. Other visual reminders of Hitchcock in The Sixth Sense include a Vertigo-like shot up a spiral staircase that Cole will ascend – again preceded by his shadow – and a typical Hitchcockian tilted camera when he ventures down a hall. The mother who poisons her daughter, scarlet dressed and blazing with red lipstick in front of red roses, at once recalls the stepmother in Snow White and a host of terrible maternal figures in Hitchcock films, of whom Norman’s mother is only the best known.

Chairs were for Hitchcock a symbol of domesticity, often ironically disappointed or betrayed, and The Sixth Sense has several, the most notable ones being at the restaurant when Malcolm’s widow celebrates a mournful wedding anniversary and the empty chair at which Cole looks – Malcolm had been in it earlier – before he goes to confront for the first time one of his ghosts. When Ivy and Lucius confirm their love in The Village, Shyamalan’s camera pans away from them to a nearby rocking chair. This symbol reappears, but ironically: first with a shot of an empty rocking chair immediately after Noah stabs Lucius, then with a shot of a bloody, agitated Noah in another rocker.

Wide Awake

Another of Hitchcock’s cinematic emblems, joining hands, also finds a place in Shyamalan’s cinematic vocabulary. At the most ironic moment in Unbreakable, near the end when David and Elijah shake hands, the camera records their action in extreme close-up. That moment of conjunction is also the moment of revelation, of David’s grasp (and ours) of Elijah’s wickedness. A similar close-up on the clasped hands of Ivy and Lucius in The Village has the more usual Hitchcockian significance of intimacy and trust. Later, as a sort of positive negative, Edward’s failure to take the hand of Alice Hunt (Sigourney Weaver) at a wedding reception confirms the strength of his feelings for her. In Wide Awake, Joshua’s sympathy and forgiveness for Freddie, the class bully and his former persecutor, is marked by yet another Hitchcockian close-up of clasped hands.

The most interesting adoption and expansion of a Hitchcock signifier has to do with a graphic shape that Hitchcock used frequently in his films and that William Rothman labelled “////.” Rothman explains,

At one level, the //// serves as a Hitchcock signature. […] At another level, it signifies the confinement of the camera’s subject within the frame and within the world of the film. […] It is also associated with sexual fear and the specific threat of loss of control or breakdown. (16)

Whether Shyamalan adopted the motif of vertical lines because of Rothman’s drawing attention to it or discovered it himself, he clearly associates it, as did Hitchcock, with various situations of danger or frustration. Even more interestingly, he adopts a similar geometric signifier, which appears in similar contexts as grids. I’ll label them “::.” Shyamalan uses them much as Hitchcock used ////. Frequently, the two visual motifs appear in conjunction.

And so I return to the frames that occasioned this detour, the trees and red-hooded monster reflected in a stream in The Village. In the water are the wavering images of four dark tree trunks, which make a vivid //// on the right side of the frame (a fifth is visible on the left). The camera tilts slightly up to reveal a red figure, still reflected, superimposed on the ////. Red, in The Village “the forbidden colour”, thus strongly associates //// with danger; importantly, it also identifies the trees of the forest as comprising a sort of collective //// which will loom over and around the Village, confining and threatening it. Parallel lines occurred earlier in the fence surrounding the child’s grave and his grieving father; the //// is thus early connected with grief, with confinement (for the father) and restraint and separation for the other villagers. When Noah, disguised as the red monster, attacks Ivy, a series of intercuts of trees repeat the threatening ////. After Noah falls to his death, Shyamalan cuts to a sort of anti-////, a field of waving grasses with the trees now a de-emphasized line in the background.

The Sixth Sense

In Wide Awake, Joshua goes onto the grounds of the girls school through a barred wrought-iron gate, an emphatic ////. He is crossing boundaries from the world in which he is restrained into one from which he is barred.

The Sixth Sense associates both ////s and ::s with confinement and/or various hazards. The former appears as an unexplained, prominent double line on the plaque in the first scene. Near the end, Shyamalan inserts a tracking shot up the double-yellow-lane line between stalled cars, just before Cole sees a dead bicyclist. Preceding this scene, when Cole and Malcolm part for the last time, ////s and ::s together perhaps emphasize both his loss of the freedom to speak openly with someone about his gift/affliction and the danger he faces without Malcolm.

Similarly, the set contains both parallel lines and grids as Cole earlier separates himself from Malcolm during one of their sessions. Malcolm’s own isolation and restraint is figured when he watches through a grid of windowpanes his “rival” with his wife. Then back to Cole and another grid in the suspended ceiling behind him when his exasperated teacher calls him a “freak,” an epithet we heard earlier applied both to Cole and to his predecessor, Vincent Grey. It is a word that underlines their separation from other children and from living people more generally.


Elijah is photographed several times through bars that describe ////s in Unbreakable. But Shyamalan’s alternative figure of grids dominates the film as a signifier of confinement, separation and danger. ::s appear in the padding of Elijah’s car and the floor of his office. A woven-wire fence creates a :: when David arrives at a warehouse in heavy rain. This scene takes place just after Elijah has identified David’s weakness as water – the same weakness that will lead to the defeat of the aliens in Shyamalan’s next film. The set in the station is dense with grids and parallel lines as David arrives to witness the orange-clad home invader finishing his janitorial work before returning to complete his crime.


Both ::s and ////s are evident in the bathroom behind Graham when he arises at the start of Signs, and grids will appear throughout in such props as upholstery, roofing, ceilings and wallpaper. When Graham arrives home after chopping off several fingers of a trapped alien, Shyamalan shoots him through the //// of stair rails and in front of a dense grid on the wall behind him. A complicated instance of Shyamalan’s use of graphic imagery occurs late in the film, when Graham and his family leave their basement believing the alien invasion to have been repelled. At the top of the stairs, they are greeted by light streaming through one of Colleen’s wind chimes penetrated with hopeful outlines of stylised moon, sun and stars; but above are the parallel lines of the ceiling beams, a warning of the crisis that awaits them.

Grid-forms as suggestions of danger dominate Lady in the Water; the main set, the apartment complex, is effectively a giant grid. There are a few ////s, sometimes in conjunction with ::s, but the grid pattern predominates in situations of danger or frustration. Among the most prominent examples are repeated shots of the tiles in the shower where Story takes refuge and the green squares outlined by grass in the courtyard. Shyamalan shoots up through parallel lines after the Scrunt first attacks and he associates parallel lines with the unsympathetic Farber. At the moment of greatest tension near the conclusion, he combines ////s and ::s while rain falls and the protagonists await the increasingly doubtful arrival of the saviour-eagle. This shot recalls an early, ominous night view of the apartment complex with storm clouds in the background.

Lady in the Water Lady in the Water


What can we say about M. Night Shyamalan’s filmmaking to date? What might we expect of it in the future? Thus far, Shyamalan has shown strong thematic, generic, and stylistic consistency – a consistency deeper and broader than the concern with faith and the fondness for ingenious plot twists with which he is usually credited. Thematically, belief consistently intertwines with a quest for self-discovery or -recovery, and with the spiritual-supernatural-paranormal motifs that appear in most of his films. Connected with this complex of spiritual concerns is a less-emphatic but important motif of Christian allusions and imagery. (Shyamalan was not for nothing educated in Catholic secondary schools.) The family is crucial as the nexus for the working out of these themes; Shyamalan’s plots so far have mostly taken place – or in The Lady in the Water have been haunted by – struggling families. By all accounts, his next film will continue that staging of the action.

Stylistically, one might expect him to refine and perhaps expand the consistent visual vocabulary that he has developed in his first half-dozen American movies. Given his routine story-boarding of entire movies before filming them, he seems likely to continue both the systematic use of visuals generally and of favourite motifs: red and other strongly saturated colours set against more subdued hues, water as both a reviving and a threatening factor, graphic embodiments of parallel lines (////) and grids (::) in association with danger or frustration, and frequent use of reflections for particular thematic emphasis.

Given Shyamalan’s thematic preoccupations, one would expect that he will continue to be drawn to various forms of cinematic romanticism; though, as The Village demonstrates, he is capable of subjecting romanticism to an ironic critique. Should he turn to such ironies again, however, romantic elements are all but certain to remain prominent, however they may be reversed or attenuated. Generally speaking, Shyamalan’s plots have taken loss or the threat of loss as occasions for testing protagonists’ beliefs in themselves or in some external entity like a beneficent deity. The survival or recovery of a threatened family – Cole’s mother warns him that their “little family” is in danger of failing to “make it” – is the prize for succeeding in overcoming losses and threats.

Whatever variations Shyamalan’s future works may play on the styles and themes of the movies he has already made, he seems overwhelmingly likely to continue to write, produce and direct more of them. His record to date as an economic force, his core of loyal fans (if somewhat reduced of late) and his demonstrated flair for plot twists that are meaningful as well as striking all make likely his continuing access to budgets of fifty million dollars and up for his future work.

He is a risk-taker – like some of his most distinguished predecessors in the business of making movies for mass audiences – but he can afford some flops so long as they are interspersed with hits that produce the sort of box office receipts of a Signs. Another megahit like The Sixth Sense is possible, too; a prospect that studios and investors are not likely to dismiss. Nor does Shyamalan seem to have much trouble attracting marquee actors.

Whatever Shyamalan’s future may bring, it will be shaped by a quality as important as anything stylistic, thematic or narrative: what Ross Douthat calls “his obsession with the integrity of his own artistic visions” (17). By all accounts, and by the evidence of his films, Shyamalan will continue to be driven by a life-long passion to make movies, by his obvious love of the cinema, and by his ambition to make films that not only bring in bags of money but that are also artistically interesting, excellent, and – as he hopes – “original.”


  1. According to the “Pro” version of the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB.com), news articles on M. Night Shyamalan, a “studio briefing” of 24 March 2005, announced that the gross receipts for his last four films for Disney (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village) was $2.36 billion.
  2. The Chicago Sun Times, 30 July 2004.
  3. Michael Agger, “Village Idiot: The case against M. Night Shyamalan”, Slate at Slate.com. Posted Friday, 30 July 2004, at 6:12 PM ET.
  4. In the bonus material of the DVD release.
  5. Interestingly, Agger reports, “When a reporter asks him [Shyamalan] what he wanted his name to mean in the future, he replied, ‘Originality.’”
  6. Michael Bamberger, The Man Who Heard Voices Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale (New York: Gotham Books, 2006), p. 242.
  7. Ibid, p. 244.
  8. Ibid, p. 246.
  9. Act V, Scene IV, lines 94-5. Quoted from Sylvan Barnett (General Ed.), The Complete Classic Signet Shakespeare (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1972).
  10. See the Bonus Material released with the DVD of The Sixth Sense, especially “Rules and Clues”.
  11. See the Bonus Material released with the DVD of Unbreakable.
  12. In his excellent on-line analysis of “Visual Style in M. Night Shyamalan’s “Fantastic” Trilogy, Part 2: Mise en Scène” (posted 30 November 2003), Donato Totaro discusses in detail “Reflected Images & Mirroring Effects” in The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs.
  13. As Totaro notes, “each time we are first introduced to Elijah at a different age it is in a reflection”.
  14. Again, see the Bonus Material for the film. The other two films he mentions are Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956).
  15. About The Sixth Sense, Agger observes, “The closest influence was Hitchcock.”
  16. Hitchcock – The Murderous Gaze (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 33.
  17. Ross Douthat, “I See Good Movies: In Defense of M. Night Shyamalan”, Slate.com, updated 20 July 2006.

About The Author

Lesley Brill is Professor of Film and English at Wayne State University in Detroit, USA. He has published books on Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, and Crowds, Power, and Transformation in Cinema (Wayne State UP, 2006).

Related Posts