Split, the latest from writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, is due out this week, and if nothing else, it should cement the filmmaker’s long-anticipated comeback.
Shyamalan, who became the first Indian-American household name, vaulted to fame with 1999’s The Sixth Sense, but his career has been in decline almost ever since Unbreakable, his follow-up, left theaters following a less successful but highly profitable run. He became the butt of many a Reddit joke, a cultural pariah who tricked the masses into paying $12 for movies that, some argued, were nothing but punchlines.
But M. Night the Hard-Working Businessman never went away.
Did anyone notice that Simon & Schuster published a nonfiction book of his called: “I Got Schooled: The Unlikely Story of How a Moonlighting Movie Maker Learned the Five Keys to Closing America’s Education Gap”?
The comeback, mainly unnoticed by mainstream America, began, in a subtle way, with 2015’s The Visit, which grossed almost $100 million on a $5 million budget and is the first M. Night movie since Signs to have a passing grade on Rotten Tomatoes (even if it’s not “Certified Fresh.”)
Unnoticed in all the narratives is the fact that M. Night’s career has actually plateaued before, back when he wasn’t even famous. His final student film got the attention of Miramax, which greenlit his debut commercial venture, Wide Awake, with a $6 million budget even though it was about a 10-year-old boy who questions the existence of God and the only stars in it had cameos. Wide Awake, which was shot in 1995 and not released for three years, disappeared without a trace after its brief theatrical run, could have marked the end of him. But he luckily landed gigs writing the Stuart Little movie and allegedly ghostwrote She’s All That, which may have proved to the studios that he could still make money from his talent.
The Sixth Sense
All of this was almost immediately overshadowed by The Sixth Sense, a script which Disney (fun fact) actually paid $2.5 million for, and which went on to earn him a Best Director Oscar nomination, among other accolades. Strangely, M. Night abandoned the wide range of styles he’d developed up to this point — from chilling thriller to romantic high school drama to cute kids’ stories — and focused entirely on trying to please an audience that associated him only with “unpredictable twists.” The Sixth Sense, in retrospect, feels entirely too close to being an “it was all a dream” story, especially for those of us who saw the “twist” coming from the first scene.
Did the studios only agree to greenlight his pictures if they had a big secret? Did Shyamalan put pressure on himself to top his biggest success? Whatever his motivations, the public perception of Signs, The Village, The Happening and his subsequent films, fairly or unfairly, is that they are just guessing games with no real value other than what happens about 90% of the way through the story.
Did the studios only agree to greenlight his pictures if they had a big secret?
It’s true that if these films had been extremely popular or critically successful, he would not have become the butt of a national joke, but unquestionably, M. Night waited too long to return to his roots. By the time Devil (which made money) appeared in 2010, his audience had dwindled — although having his name attached undoubtedly contributed to the film’s success. (He produced Devil, which came from his idea, but otherwise did not write-direct the film.)
Meanwhile, Avatar: The Last Airbender appeared the same year and quickly became one of the most reviled entertainment products of the century in any art form. Even years later, a month doesn’t go by in movie forums where someone doesn’t use it as the punchline for a bad-movie joke. He followed this three years later with After Earth, which, at 11% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, was one of the worst-reviewed movies of 2013 and a shock box-office bomb for Will Smith.
While theater audiences revolted, however, Shyamalan worked behind the scenes to set up TV deals — and produce a secret feature film. Wayward Pines got sold to Fox, while two others eventually got stuck in development hell. Then, in 2015, Universal announced that it would release a new work from Shyamalan, one that had been surprisingly kept under wraps during its incubation and production. The Visit said one thing loud and clear: M. Night is back in business.
After years of trying to move away from his reputation as the “twist” guy, Shyamalan straight-up embraced his old style, with refreshing results. Sure, the story was rather predictable (especially since audiences skeptically greet any film stemming from Shyamalan’s writing), but what mattered was that he seemed more invested in the material in years — as if the overall quality of and reception for the finished product would determine whether he continued to even make movies.
Now comes Split, which is being pushed hard on a wary moviegoing public. The country is deeply troubled by the Donald Trump administration, burnt out on the December Awards season product dump, probably in no mood for cheap horror movies involving terrified women. But that’s exactly where M. Night has always shined: taking a smaller amount of money than other A-list directors and making a tight, entertaining, singular thriller that turns a profit.
Split, while bound to be criticized for focusing on whatever its twist is, may do well thanks to having played the low expectations game. No one is expecting Unbreakable or even The Village. They are expecting The Visit, or some approximation thereof — a small, solid movie that keeps people talking — and specifically about M. Night Shyamalan — long after they leave the theater.