Broken and Battered

How the twist ending left M. Night Shyamalan twisting in the breeze

"I still don't understand their problem," he says. "I guess they just came in with such weird expectations. You know what I think hurt us? Nobody knew it was a comic-book movie. At the premiere, before the people saw the movie, I said, "Actually, this movie's about comic books, and it's about every child's belief that his father is a superhero, and what if one kid is right?' Everybody was like, "Whoooooa.' And then, literally, the place was rockin', and all the old ladies said, "That was the most beautiful thing. I've never been interested in comic books before,' and they got it. There wasn't this kind of resentment of, "Oh, The Sixth Sense's ending was so much better.' What is that about? If I released them in a different order, people would be like, "Wow, The Sixth Sense's body was really weak, but the ending was pretty good.' You're damned if you do and...whatever. And with some critics, there's a little bit of, ya know, it's time to take my punches on my arm--the initiation rites. That's cool. Whatever."

It's clear that Shyamalan has thought long and hard about the ending of Unbreakable and the reaction to it, because he offers up a handful of reasons why people are reacting negatively to it. As far as he's concerned, The Sixth Sense had an uplifting conclusion: When Malcolm discovers he is in fact the walking dead, he finds peace at last; no more roaming and moping, no more wondering why his wife won't acknowledge his presence. The film's tension dissipates, and the sadness is gone, allowing audiences to walk out feeling as though they had just witnessed a happy ending. But this time around, they feel only betrayal: A character they felt sympathetic toward--this man made of glass--has been revealed as evil incarnate.

"And that's a very negative thing, a real what-the-fuck? ending," Shyamalan says. "It's like, "I was loving him, and now you make me distrust that, and I don't like that feeling.' The irony is, the people who didn't like the ending are in a weird way sympathizing with the movie more than people who like the movie, because they come out so upset. They're like Bruce Willis walking out of Elijah's store. They're in this world of upset, thinking, "What now?' But in some weird way, the reaction to the ending is sort of liberating. The basic thing is, no one has said, "I didn't like the movie because I guessed the ending.' I got you again...

Defying expectations, but whose expectations? M. Night Shyamalan on the set of Unbreakable
Defying expectations, but whose expectations? M. Night Shyamalan on the set of Unbreakable
Unbreakable, starring Sam Jackson, has a comic-book ending--which, the writer-director fears, is why people kind of hate his new movie.
Unbreakable, starring Sam Jackson, has a comic-book ending--which, the writer-director fears, is why people kind of hate his new movie.

"I particularly enjoy twists, ya know? Not twists like plot movement, which is all there; it's all part of the storytelling already. I am talking about fundamental twists at the end. That's something I enjoy, and I did it before people liked me doing it. I did it in Wide Awake at the end, and nobody gave a shit about it. I did it way before anyone paid me or came or anything like that. I wish with Sixth Sense, they had said, "It was a much better twist than Wide Awake,' but they didn't even know I had made another movie."

It has often been written of Shyamalan that his is an affable, disarming arrogance. He compares himself to Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg and insists he wants to be "the storyteller for the mass audience"--what gall, what nerve. He compares the criticism of Unbreakable to the jibes once given Spielberg for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which some critics thought at the time was a ponderous come-down after the thrill ride of Jaws. Then, Shyamalan turns around and insists he also has a responsibility to fulfill the needs of the audience. He thought crowds would be dazzled and uplifted by Unbreakable, especially the scenes in which David finally dons his superhero cowl to rescue a family held hostage by a madman. He thought those moments would provide such an incredible release that audiences would allow that high to temper the film's final low (or low blow, depending upon your point of view). He was wrong, much to his surprise...and, perhaps, dismay.

You get the sense the reaction to Unbreakable--which, Shyamalan says, is not the first film in a trilogy, as Bruce Willis suggested last month--has, in a sense, humbled him. It has knocked the wind and Oscar nominations out of his sails a bit. He says, repeatedly, that he is listening to and absorbing the criticism. "I'm hearing them," he says of his critics. "I am interested." But if he is bowed, he is unbroken. He insists Wide Awake, The Sixth Sense, and Unbreakable have been about one thing: the need to find one's place in this world. He likes to write about such things because he has long believed that filmmaking is what he was meant to do. Just as David was meant to be a superhero, M. Night was meant to be a writer and director. Sometimes it's easy to confuse confidence in one's abilities with arrogance, but no filmmaker in recent memory has accomplished what he has, especially at so young an age. M. Night Shyamalan is 30 years old, and already he is a name brand.

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