What is Beyond the Frame

M. Night Shyamalan knows that you know who he is – or, at least, that you think you do. He’s the twist guy! His early work, particularly The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, received such acclaim that Newsweek declared him “The Next Spielberg” in a cover story published three days after the release of Signs. It’s a cliché of latter-day Shyamalan coverage to contrast this praise with the direction of his subsequent career, as the diminishing returns on his work turned him from wunderkind to has-been.

He’s since made a proper comeback, with the runaway success of Split, which sucks, but back in 2015, he was still a joke. A literal punchline, a memetically bad writer and director, whose most recent movie, After Earth, was a sterile, indulgent pile of crap based on an idea by star Will Smith, operating at the height of Smith’s ego. His previous three films – Lady in the Water, The Happening and The Last Airbender – regularly appeared on lists of the worst films ever made. But, most importantly, he was the twist guy. So the story goes, he got so much praise for the genuinely brilliant twists of his early work that he couldn’t stop chasing the same high, trying to outdo himself with each film. It doesn’t matter that this isn’t true – it’s astonishing how many people have made fun of the twist in The Happening, a film that does not have a twist – because it quickly became the totalising narrative of his career. Particularly on the Internet, his shittiness and this specific explanation for his shittiness became the conventional wisdom, in much the same way that memes and groupthink convinced people Nicolas Cage is one of the worst actors in the world, rather than the best of his generation.

M. Night Shyamalan is the twist guy. Except he’s not. But he knows you think he is. So, back in 2015, he decided to play a prank on everyone. It’s called The Visit and it was his best film in fifteen years, so obviously it got wildly mixed reviews. People’s brains just go all wobbly when it comes to this guy, for some reason.

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Notes on Split

I went to see Split on my twenty-third birthday, and I was very excited. That was partly because my birthday was the day Donald Trump was inaugurated as President and it was a way to not think about, you know, events. But it was mostly because I am an M. Night Shyamalan apologist, and he was back! I love The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable and The Happening, and after a string of bad decisions, he was resurgent. He’d had a surprise hit on television with Wayward Pines and his previous film, The Visit, had been both well-received and profitable. Now it was time for his redemption story to go mainstream with his biggest success since Signs.

And it did.

Measured by return on investment, Split was Shyamalan’s most profitable movie, turning $9 million into over $250 million, and it received some of the best reviews of his career. It was number one at the US box office for three consecutive weeks (a record in Shyamalan’s filmography matched only by The Sixth Sense), it had a sequel greenlit by April, and James McAvoy is one of the year’s prototypical examples of an actor locked out of the Oscars race by genre rather than merit. M. Night Shyamalan brought his reputation back from the dead with one of the year’s most successful movies.

And I hated it.

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In Defense of The Happening (Yes, Really)

M. Night Shyamalan was the worst director in the world until he wasn’t, the butt of endless jokes until he wasn’t, and a talentless hack who made two good films twenty years ago by fluke until he wasn’t. He spent almost a decade in the critical doghouse from 2006’s Lady in the Water until his first tentative steps towards redemption with 2015’s The Visit. Now, he’s back on top thanks to the incredible success of Split, which was lauded by critics as a welcome return to form and made a tidy profit somewhere in the region of a quarter of a billion dollars on a budget of less than ten million.

Here’s the problem: Split is an awful pile of crap. Worst still, he already made the movie that critics seem to think Split is – a great B-movie directed in the style of Hitchcock – nine years ago. Almost universally panned at the time, its reputation has only grown worse over the years, largely, I suspect, due to people on the Internet who’ve definitely never seen it using it as a cheap punchline. But what if it’s not one of the worst movies ever made? What if it’s sincerely enjoyable and great?

I’m not the first person to defend this movie, but I’m one of the few whose praise is full-throated and unapologetic. No caveats, no cop-outs. I think it’s a near-perfect execution of its concept and I wish I could take away all the acclaim that others have heaped on Split and give it to this movie instead.

I love The Happening.

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