All 10 M. Night Shyamalan Movie Twists, Ranked From Worst To Best
By Kevin Wong on
Writer/Director M. Night Shyamalan is known for his 11th-hour plot twists. It started with his breakout film The Sixth Sense, and it's continued throughout his entire career. It's so omnipresent, in fact, that audience members go into his films expecting to see one, with even worst films devolving into see-if-you-can-solve-the-mystery scavenger hunts. And in true ironic fashion, it is now a twist to not have a twist in a Shyamalan film.
Shyamalan is very hit-or-miss; once praised as the next Spielberg, he made a number of critically panned films in the '00s before a much-heralded return to form, beginning with The Visit in 2015. The most recent film was the much-anticipated Glass, the final part in the director's long-gestating superhero trilogy, which also includes Unbreakable and Split.
To celebrate, we're looking back at every twist ending in Shyamalan's career, and ranking them from worst to best. If you liked this gallery, check out our countdown of the greatest roles of Samuel L Jackson, who reprises the character Elijah Price in Glass. Let us know if we got the ordering right in the comments. And it goes without saying: spoilers ahead.
Twist: The devil is the old lady.
Although Shyamalan didn't write or direct it, he did produce it and conceive of the story. The premise--that a group of people, one of whom is the devil, get trapped in an elevator--has claustrophobic promise. But the reveal, that the devil is the old lady, isn't so much a twist as it is a cheat. There was no breadcrumb trail of clues, no "I have to rewatch and see what I missed!" moments. It could have been any of the other people and been as equally surprising.
9. Lady in the Water
Twist: All the fairytale tropes are false.
Every director, even the best ones, has a few stinkers in his ouveure. But rarely has a filmmaker showed his ass in public to this extent. Lady in the Water is a fairytale fantasy about a creature named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), a "Narf" who is on the run from wolf-like creatures called "Scrunts." And the director himself stars as a writer, whose writing, Story predicts, will one day change the world for the better. Vanity, thy name is Shyamalan.
Story has to return home, and the main character, Heep (Paul Giamatti), originally relies on literary tropes to guide this effort. But that fails because, as Heep learns, the best stories don't rely on tropes! Mind blown!
8. The Happening
Twist: The plants evolved to kill humans.
Shyamalan was smack in the middle of his critical backlash by this point; he had just been roasted for Lady in the Water. And The Happening, a post-apocalyptic film about widespread, sudden mass suicides, did little to quell the dissenters. The director's visual flair was still there, but audiences criticized the script and its unnatural dialogue.
Part of the challenge of doing a sci-fi thriller is that it needs to hold up, at least superficially, to science. And the film's twist--that semi-sentient plants are emitting suicide toxins--doesn't hold up to scrutiny.
Twist: The aliens' weakness is water.
A lapsed, faithless preacher (Mel Gibson) protects his family from an alien invasion. The vast majority of the film is fantastic. But then the ending completely undoes what makes the prior exceptional.
First, Shyamalan shows the alien. Up until then, it was left to the viewer's imagination, and that's where it should have stayed and festered. Instead, we see an awful, cheap CGI monstrosity. And second, the twist is that the aliens' weakness is water. Yes, these high-tech aliens, who have mastered traveling at the speed of light, are also naked monsters who bump around in the night and didn't think to protect themselves against a substance that covers two-thirds of the planet.
We also learn that everything in this family's life was preordained by God. The daughter's penchant for leaving glasses of water everywhere, the brother's minor league baseball career, and the preacher's wife's dying words at the scene of her car accident, were all necessary to defeat the alien threat in the end.
That's cute and all? But damn, that's a roundabout way to make a point. Did the man's wife really have to get cut in half by a car so he could learn that God was good?
6. The Village
Twist: The entire movie takes place in the present.
By the time of Shyamalan's fourth film, viewers had begun to weary of Shyamalan's narrative tricks. And The Village was the first time that audiences began actively guessing, during the film, what the twist was. And unfortunately for Shyamalan, a lot of them guessed right.
That sort of viewer focus—on the destination rather than the journey—can be enough to sink even a great film. And The Village, despite a fantastic performance by Bryce Dallas Howard, is not a great film. It has just enough logic leaps and weird pacing issues to make the twist--that these colonial people are actually living on a modern nature reserve--a touch too silly.
Twist: The Horde's dad was killed in the Unbreakable train wreck. The psychiatrist is a shadow operative. Elijah intended to die.
Glass is a fitting, if exposition-heavy ending to the Unbreakable trilogy. All three super-powered individuals— David "The Overseer" Dunn (Bruce Willis), Kevin "The Horde" Crumb (James McAvoy), and Elijah "Mr. Glass" Price (Samuel L. Jackson)—are brought to the same psychiatric hospital under the care of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who is treating them for the "delusion" that they are superheroes.
The twists—three in all—come quickly and furiously at the film's conclusion. First, it turns out that when Elijah caused the train wreck that led him to discover Dunn in Unbreakable, he also killed Kevin's father, inadvertently creating The Horde. Second, the psychiatrist is no hero; she's an operative for a shadow organization, dedicated to repressing all public knowledge of individuals with superpowers. And the final twist: Elijah never planned to launch the massive terrorist attack that he threatened midway through the film. Elijah's entire point was to stage the final confrontation in front of the hospital, die, and capture the video footage for the general public to see.
Glass is what happens when great ideas meet questionable execution. The twists themselves are wonderful on paper, but they're a bit clunky in the way they're edited and shot. The timing feels off, and there's way too much talking; film is a visual medium. Glass is a decent film, but what if 2000-era Shyamalan had tackled this material instead of current-day Shyamalan? The potential would be tremendous.
Twist: It's an Unbreakable sequel.
Split is a horror film about The Horde, a man with multiple personalities who physically changes with each of them. And one of these multiple personalities is The Beast, an indestructible, ceiling-crawling, human flesh-eating monster.
The twist is in the very last scene of the film when audiences see David Dunn (Bruce Willis) sitting in a diner and they realize that this is actually a sequel to Unbreakable. We see the culmination of this twist in Glass, the third and final part of the Unbreakable trilogy.
3. The Visit
Twist: The "grandparents" are actually homicidal, mentally ill people.
Shyamalan ditched his "twist" formula for The Last Airbender and After Earth, both of which received Razzie nominations for being terrible films. But then, he went back to basics. The Visit is a found footage picture made on a shoestring budget, about two kids who visit their grandparents. They've never met them before, and Grandma and Grandpa seem off. They ramble strangely and creep about during the night.
The kids eventually discover that their original grandparents are dead; these two "grandparents" are the murderous mental patients who took their place. It's such a bold, left-field narrative stroke, but it's also entirely fair; there's no hocus pocus or narrative cheats, and the clues are there upon a second viewing.
Twist: Elijah Price has been deliberately causing all the mass casualties.
This, the first part in what is about to become a trilogy, is Shyamalan's underrated gem. Marketed differently, this would have been viewed as a brilliant genre deconstruction. Instead, it's consigned to the discount bin of history.
It's a superhero film about David Dunn (Bruce Willis) a man who doesn't know he has superpowers. He's found and mentored by Elijah Price, a man with genetically inherited, brittle bones. Elijah is a comic books devotee who's fixated on finding purpose in his life. And he reasons that if he's so fragile and broken, there must be someone else who is correspondingly strong.
The twist is a doozy. Elijah was so driven to find his unbreakable counterpart that he staged massive catastrophes, in hopes of finding a sole indestructible survivor. And that's how he found David; he stages the massive train wreck that opens the film.
Every superhero needs a supervillain. And this origin story shows us the birth of both.
1. The Sixth Sense
Twist: Malcolm Crowe is dead the whole time.
The twist is so simple, so elegant, and so visually telegraphed, that you kick yourself for not recognizing it. But that's the beauty (and exquisite filmmaking) behind Shyamalan's sole, undisputed masterpiece, The Sixth Sense.
This horror film, about Cole (Haley Joel Osment), a boy who sees dead people and Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), the psychiatrist who counsels him, has lost none of its raw power in the two decades since its debut. But it's hard to find a new viewer who still hasn't had the twist spoiled.
It turns out that Dr. Crowe, Willis' character, has been dead for the entire film; he is one of the many ghosts that Cole sees on a daily basis. A partial list of clues: It's always cold in Crowe's home. Cole says that the ghosts don't know they're dead. Crowe never makes eye contact with his wife or has a two-way conversation with her. And Crowe wears the same clothes throughout the entire film—the same clothes he wore on the night he was shot to death.
When we learn the twist, our jaws drop. "Are you kidding? How could we have not known? How could we have missed everything?" And that's when we hit replay and watch it again with new, enriched perspective.