Though a shotgunned Corona or two might disagree with me entirely, Justin Bieber didn’t exactly invent the art of the great American comeback. In fact, people have been urinating in mop buckets and using the ensuing public fallout as fuel for great art since the dawn of time. For M. Night Shyamalan, his metaphorical urination in a mop bucket moment actually became a multi-chaptered nosedive into plentiful Razzies and dedicated self-caricature that most certainly began during the opening credits of his first front-to-back, unequivocal mess of a movie: the 2006 Paul Giamatti waster Lady in the Water. With his decidedly PG-13 scary grandma opus The Visit having already recouped its $5 million budget four times over in its first weekend of release, previously scorned Shyamalan fans can’t help but ask: Is our guy M. really back?
Even our greatest auteurs are afforded a single folly or two, meaning the vile response to Lady in the Water (and, oh, it was definitely vile) would never have been enough to fully sink the guy who still had The Sixth Sense bragging rights. That distinction goes to The Happening (2008), a film with a premise admittedly just dicey enough to (maybe?) benefit from its own lunacy by teetering toward the general vicinity of brilliance, something with which Shyamalan had already made himself quite comfortable thanks to an unprecedented winning streak that appeared to take a brief pause with Lady in the Water. But our guy M. couldn’t quite pull it together.
Actually, The Happening isn’t just a disappointment, it’s a full-blown abysmal abomination to the craft of filmmaking. To summarize just how awful The Happening truly and unsettlingly is, this is a film that includes multiple scenes in which Mark Wahlberg speaks delicately to plants without a single hint of irony. It’s probably worth mentioning that the plants are also trying to kill everyone, but not in a cool, irreverent way like Little Shop of Horrors, more like in an uncool, laughable way that still haunts YouTube to this very day. Ask anyone who saw this in the theater and they’ll share a similar story: a completely silent though admittedly packed cinemaplex (The Happening did, after all, still sling a not-exactly-paltry $163 million) culminating in a tragic sense of audience befuddlement akin to watching someone urinate in a mop bucket. Yes, for those keeping score, Mark Wahlberg speaking gently to murderous plants is greater than or equal to Justin Bieber urinating freely into a mop bucket.
What the fuck happened, M? Just four years before enlisting Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel for angry plant shenanigans, you gave us the immediately divisive though ultimately underrated gem The Village. The film, with its admittedly unstable plot and flimsy surprise ending, benefits greatly from hindsight by revealing itself more and more as the less-than-subtle and occasionally clunky (but, more often than not, quite brilliant) post-9/11 horror meditation that no one knew they needed. Joaquin Phoenix, making good on the scene-stealing mastery of his previous Shyamalan collaboration Signs (2002), gives one of the best performances of his career as the shy but profoundly intuitive Lucius Hunt. The Village, though contextually formulaic when viewed against the rest of Shyamalan’s filmography, again proved the power of the director’s greatest strength: exposing the undeniable horror of what humans will do to one another (and themselves) when faced with an emotional obstacle. After all, nothing is more horrifying than what we do to ourselves, either on some misguided quest for an unrealistic safety in the wake of unspeakable tragedy (The Village), or some attempt at understanding death only to realize that children probably have a better handle on the vapidity of existence than any adult (The Sixth Sense), or on some self-instigated spiritual isolation in the wake of the death of a loved one (Signs). Signs, as with all of the best of Shyamalan’s work, provides audiences with plenty of surface-level entertainment (Aliens! Mel Gibson! Baseball!), but offers something far more profound for anyone up to the task of uncovering it.
Sadly, Shyamalan’s mop bucket years continued after the atrocious Happening, eventually leading to the perplexingly meritless After Earth (2013), a film doused in subtle Scientology vibes and, well, not much else because it’s fucking terrible. With Jaden Smith’s status as a millennial philosopher pretty firmly established, and with his father Will clearly plotting a comeback of his own, it’s hard to imagine the mere existence of a film like After Earth, a stumble later described by Will himself as the “most painful failure” of his entire career.
In the two years since After Earth quickly invaded and just as quickly disappeared from the Hollywood landscape, Shyamalan has clearly been hustling for a restart. Though The Sixth Sense might very well be the last great pre-Twitter movie, Shyamalan tried his hand earlier this year at capitalizing on the internet’s limitless Twin Peaks obsession with the FOX series Wayward Pines. For all its obvious Twin Peaks worship, the series showcased an obviously reinvigorated Shyamalan. Working within the fresh confines of a slightly limited medium, Shyamalan regained his footing as a storyteller and continued his habit of procuring career-best performances with a notable turn from star Matt Dillon.
The Visit, working within the familiar confines of the PG-13 blockbuster complex, isn’t groundbreaking or even truly great. However, it’s a noteworthy entry in the career of someone many people have written off over and over again throughout his storied and often downright baffling career. From more experimental fare like the supremely underrated Unbreakable (2000) to more logically bankable entries such as Signs, Shyamalan is more than capable of scaring moviegoers by simply revealing those facets of the human condition we most readily and actively ignore. When he explores this territory, as he does with a nearly return-to-form-level attention to narrative detail in The Visit, he reminds us why we gave a fuck about The Sixth Sense in the first place.
So, the real question then becomes:
Is M. Night Shyamalan about to give us his “What Do You Mean?”