Post contains spoilers for most of M. Night Shyamalan’s works. You know what they are.
If M.Night quit after his first few films, we’d be begging the man to return instead of to retire. The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs were sure indicators of a whole library of smarter supernatural thrillers with the all important human connection, and enough twists to keep the stories fresh.
But we all know how this song goes, winding up with flops, plots holes, poor acting and a career trajectory that most would wish to avoid. Shyamalan became a creature of habit, a victim of his own success. Invariably, he became a one trick pony. His films, slowly but surely, became all about one thing. Trying to shock the audience. These shocks grew worse over time. That’s to say, shocking in the bad way. They made no sense, they were lazy, they were seemingly there for the soul purpose of having a twist.
A twist of its own benefit is redundant. A shock cannot be shocking if you’re waiting for it. Some would contend that Shyamalan should avoid a film with a twist (a twist in itself).
In “Puzzle Films”, writer Daniel Barratt says that M.Night did this with The Sixth Sense, claiming that Shyamalan “waves the film’s celebrated narrative twist in the face of the viewer”. I don’t buy this. That’s foreshadowing, the hallmark of a good twist. The same could be said of Unbreakable, that Sam Jackson’s villainous nature is obvious throughout, where in fact it’s only hinted at.
Shyamalan did make a film without a twist however, no attempt to trick the audience, and that film was Signs. “But the dumb water twist!” I hear you cry. First of all, shush, I’m talking. Secondly, that’s no twist. The alien’s reaction to direct contact with water is not a twist. The water thing is told to us by Shyamalan himself halfway through the film, there’s no deception here. The film isn’t beholden to the twist, because there is none. The film is about the family in the face of doom, not h2o intolerant extraterrestrials. As a result, Signs is probably Shyamalan’s strongest film. Chained to no twist, the narrative can stand on its own, no audience expectations propping it up.
But it didn’t take. Shyamalan became a gimmick. The promise of a twist is what people expect, and it’s what he gave. That’s the limit of the twist. If you see it coming, it’s weightless and removes any connection to the film you might have. After all, a movie works best when you believe it. If you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop the whole run-time, then how can you be surprised?