Directors’ Trademarks: M. Night Shyamalan

M. Night Shyamalan’s film career is an interesting one to study because he has arguably had more success and more failure than most other film makers. He was once highly regarded and revered for his style and dedication, but lately the reviews have become so harsh that many people have openly wondered why they are still letting him make movies. If you don’t know already, the answer to that question is money. His latest film, The Last Airbender was profitable despite earning a measily “6% Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Hollywood is a business, as long as you keep making money, you’ll continue to get work.

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Shyamalan is perfectly competent at making movies. He is a very private person and one of those types of film makers that never listen to what the critics have to say. He is almost stubbornly dedicated to his own vision and style, which are heavily influenced by Hitchcock and Spielberg. He was born in India but raised in Philadelphia, and quickly began to show an aptitude for film making. His first two films (Anger, Wide Awake) saw Shyamalan gaining experience while telling a story based on some part of his own life. His breakthrough was 1999’s The Sixth Sense,which received critical and commercial success (including an Oscar nod for Best Director), and found Shyamalan perfecting the horror/thriller style of film that he would become best known for.

Several more films with similar tones followed;  Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002), and The Village (2004). By The Village, audiences and critics were becoming less and less tolerant of Shyamalan’s style. Many felt that he was becoming too self-important, too infatuated by his own success. Lady In The Water (2006) was therefore largely ignored and 2008’s The Happening was a source of ridicule. Shyamalan had apparently lost his edge and whomever he had gained favor with in Hollywood was no longer amused. They tried giving him a film to direct that was written by someone else, but The Last Airbender was even more poorly received. Shyamalan’s career is in need of a revival in the worst possible way. After Earth is his attempt at a comeback.

So the question posed is, if you are watching a Shyamalan film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of Shyamalan’s trademarks as director, in no particular order.

What A Twist!

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M. Night Shyamalan is best known for the “twist” at the end of his films. This is a plot device that puts the entire story up to that point on its head. With his first few films, this “twist” wasn’t really expected. Audiences and critics alike enjoyed the unpredictable but well-though-out ways that Shyamalan contorted his stories to create a new perspective and keep his audience on the edges of their seats. However, as Shyamalan’s career went on, the idea that there would be a confounding “twist” at the end of his films made them less impactful and more predictable.

Cameo Appearance in His Own Films

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Shyamalan shows up at some point in almost all his films. While the fact that he is in his own film isn’t exactly unique (most directors have featured themselves in their films in some manner) the way that Shyamalan does  and the consistency with which he does is. The characters that Shyamalan plays are usually speaking roles, and usually have a large impact on the story. They are not just extras or acquaintances; they usually advance the plot in some manner. Shyamalan most likely borrowed the practice of appearing in his own films from one of his idols, Alfred Hitchcock.

Characters Often Caught in Reflections


Another technique that Shyamalan borrowed from one of his idols is using a reflective surface to capture a unique camera perspective. Steven Speilberg also uses this technique, often with complex camera angles to add new light or visual interest to a scene. Shyamalan uses windows, cars, television screens, and even water as points of reflection. Similarly, unlike Speilberg, Shyamalan arguably takes this technique one step farther. He usually isn’t using the indirect camera angle to add artistic qualities or make the film more interesting, the source of the reflection usually has extra meaning. Examples include the shattered mirror in Signs, the doorknob reflections in The Sixth Sense, and filming the character “Elijah” through glass in Unbreakable.

Pennsylvania Setting


Most of Shyamalan’s films take place in Pennsylvania, specifically near Philadelphia. Obviously, this is homage to Shyamalan’s childhood and the place he grew up in. Furthermore, by filming or at least setting a movie in a place that he is very familiar with means that Shyamalan can be more realistic and comfortable with the story.

Color Symbolism



The most consistent visual cue that you are watching a Shyamalan film is the way that bright colors are used in each film as some sort of symbol. Shyamalan uses a unique color or set of colors in each of his films to show importance and manipulate the visual tone. In The Sixth Sense, the color red is used to show that an important event is about to happen. White is contrasted with red to make it stand out. In Unbreakable, the colors green and purple are used as homage to the comic book-like story, and also to clearly define the protagonist and antagonist. Another example is in The Village, where yellow and red are contrasted. Yellow is used to show calm and normalcy while red is a warning, a danger. 



Last week: Directors’ Trademarks: Steven Soderbergh