November 20, 2002
NIGHT TIME:Signs and Wonders: The spiritual imagination of M. Night Shyamalan (Roy Anker, November/December 2002, Books & Culture)
Shyamalan's own religious background is complex. He's the son of Hindu parents (the initial M. in his name is for Manoj, another name for the Hindu god Vishnu), but his early education fell to the posh Roman Catholic and Episcopal private schools of Philadelphia (both parents are physicians, as are most of the aunts and uncles). His second film, the low-budget but charming and provocative Wide Awake (1998), tells the very autobiographical story of a fifth-grade boy (Joseph Cross) who goes on a year-long quest to meet God after his loving grandfather (Robert Loggia) dies of bone marrow cancer. Shyamalan even titles one of film's chapters "signs." The boy's purpose in contacting God is to find out if his devout Catholic grandfather is OK, wherever he is. Overall, it's a winsome portrait of Catholicism (Rosie O'Donnell plays a very savvy, baseball loving nun), although a few critics excoriated the film.
Young Josh does find signs, plausible ones, ranging from a surprise snowfall in whose beauty his grandfather said God dwells to his own sudden acute awareness, "wide awake," of the complexity, sorrow, and beauty of the world. There are other signs also-the sudden embrace of belief by his best friend after a fortuitous rescue and, ending the film, a cryptic message from a mysterious school companion that all is well. Small odd things happen, and the world never seems the same again, thank God.
It is this sort of awareness that informs Shyamalan's next two films, the blockbuster Sixth Sense and the relative bust, Unbreakable. There are two shocks in the first film: that the young boy protagonist (Haley Joel Osment) really does see ghosts, and that the child psychiatrist who tries to help him throughout (Bruce Willis) is a ghost, a recognition that comes as a huge surprise to the audience and to the psychiatrist. Unbreakable delivers the same jolt-the security guard is indeed that superhero, and a scientifically plausible one at that. (In a deleted scene, the hero-to-be disputes with a priest about the providential import of surviving a train wreck.) Shyamalan has commented in an interview (on the DVD of Unbreakable) that he seeks to make "feature-length Twilight Zones" where something happens at the end, a perceptual trick or plot flip, overturning the commonsense reductionism of everyday life. Here the writer clearly ventures into the heavy waters of epistemology, expectation, metaphor, and providence-the same thematic terrain, however different the story settings, traversed by Lewis, Tolkien, Williams, and the like. And yet when all is said and done, it is still hard to tell how serious this young, and scarily smart, God-haunted writer-director is about ghosts, superheroes, angels-in-disguise, and mysterious deathbed providences.
Unbreakable seems a terribly underrated film.
Posted by Orrin Judd at November 20, 2002 10:58 PM