How “Stuart Little” Reinvented Cinema in the Modern Age

Everybody loves a good plot twist, and since everybody includes you (yes, you, the beautiful person who is reading this right now), that means you also love them. And because you love plot twists so much, you’ll be delighted to know that the plot has just been twisted. You’re welcome.

While Stuart Little is surely a childhood classic that deserves to be discussed, today is not the day on which it will be. Instead, in celebration of his forty-eighth birthday, we’ll be taking a look at the work of a writer-director who not only penned the script that sprung our favorite little mouse from the pages of a children’s book but has also given us some of the best thrillers in recent memory: M. Night Shyamalan.

Love him or hate him, it’s hard not to admire the way in which Shyamalan has carved out his own unique place in modern Hollywood and even the entire history of cinema, unlike any other auteur. By taking a sparingly used cinematic technique—the plot twist—and transforming it into the staple of his entire filmography, Shyamalan reinvented the function of a plot twist itself. The plot twist is so central to Shyamalan’s films that his name has become synonymous with “plot twist” in popular culture: The episode of Rick and Morty with multiple plot twists is called M. Night Shaym-Aliens!, and Robot Chicken turned a clay miniature of the filmmaker himself into an internet meme saying, “What a twist!”

Prior to Shyamalan, many films utilized the plot twist in order to not only momentarily stun us and keep us on their toes, but to make us reconsider everything we have watched up to that point. They drew us in, and then pulled the rug out from under our feet when we least expected it. We would watch the rest of the film in awe, and then go back for a second viewing to search for all the clues that we missed before. This is why the twists in Psycho, Fight Club, and Arrival are so masterful and endlessly rewatchable.

In this way, that Shyamalan’s films stand alone: His repeated use of plot twists means that audiences enter the theater expecting him to deliver one. Everybody is on high alert, paying careful attention to every detail so that they can be the one who says, “I totally saw that coming,” when their friend group inevitably gathers in the parking lot outside of the theater to discuss the brilliant, or perhaps preposterous, bait and switch they just witnessed.

In this way, Shyamalan has managed to push the plot beyond just tension between the audience and the plot, but as the avenue for a two-way cat and mouse chase between himself and the audience. Viewers are constantly trying to thwart his plans to surprise them, while he continues his attempts to catch them off guard like never before. The result is a never-ending competition of “who got the best of whom,” and the fact that his films are often hit-or-miss only fuels the fire. Sure, he may try to outdo himself on occasion and give us a less than ideal movie-going experience, but that’s what makes Shyamalan’s hits all the more exciting.

Even though some twists are better than others (much, much better than others), with so many to choose from, it’s hard to pick favorites. But if somebody can be dead for an entire movie and not know it, we can surely whittle them down to a top five.

So, without further ado, here are M. Night Shyamalan’s top five plot twists:

Spoilers ahead: You’ve been warned.

5. Signs, 2002

Assemble a crew that is better equipped to tackle the madness of intertwining family tragedy and crop circles than Shyamalan, Mel Gibson, and Joaquin Phoenix; I’ll wait. For better or worse, the twist in Shyamalan’s fifth feature is uncharacteristically subtle; and when you’re talking about a twist that realigns an alien invasion to be an act of God designed to make a former reverend rediscover his faith, that’s saying less about subtlety and more about just how far Shyamalan is willing to go to blow our minds.

4. The Village, 2004

In this mysterious tale of a small nineteenth-century village in rural Pennsylvania and the woodland monsters surrounding it, Shyamalan hits us with a double whammy: At the end of the second act, we learn that the monsters are a hoax perpetuated by costumed village elders in order prevent anyone from venturing into “the towns” that lie beyond the tree line. And as if that weren’t enough, Shyamalan later throws another wrench in the narrative to reveal that the film is actually set in the present day, and (unbeknownst to the younger generations) the village is a sanctuary for people who had previously lost loved ones to violence in the “real world.”

3. The Visit, 2015

The Visit marked a much-needed return to form (and relevance) for Shyamalan after nearly a decade of critical and box office bombs, including Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth. Combining pseudo-documentary and found footage techniques with Shyamalan’s typical directorial style, the film offers a sometimes playful, often horrifying look into two kids’ trip from hell to their estranged grandparents’ house. The twist: the two elderly people the children have been staying with aren’t actually their grandparents, but two mental hospital patients that murdered their real grandparents and hid their bodies in the basement. Don’t lie! You still get chills down your spine when the kids’ mother says, “Those aren’t your grandparents,” on that tense Skype call.

2. Split, 2017

Lead by an unforgettable performance from James McAvoy, Split is arguably Shyamalan’s most intricate, but unquestionably darkest film yet. What begins with three girls kidnapped by a man with twenty-three different personalities all forewarning the emergence of a twenty-fourth personality, “the beast,” on the horizon, becomes an exploration of trauma beyond our imaginations. Just when you think you’ve seen a twist-free Shyamalan film, the last scene reveals that Split is actually a sequel to Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, and teases the upcoming third film in his superhero trilogy, Glass. Welcome to the M.(Night)C.U.

1. The Sixth Sense, 1999

I know, you were probably expecting more of a twist ending to this list, but what else could be number one other than the film that catapulted Shyamalan to stardom and began the trend of plot twists that have defined his career? Earning six Oscar nominations and a spot on not one, not two, but three AFI top 100 lists, The Sixth Sense follows the relationship that develops between Cole Sears (Haley Joel Osment), who has the ability to communicate with paranormal spirits, and Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), a child psychiatrist. The only thing in this film that comes close to the iconic status of the line, “I see dead people,” is the movie’s final scene, where Malcolm realizes he is, in fact, a dead person.

Interested in Hollywood auteurs and their trademarks? Check out our recent videos on Spike Lee, Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan, Richard Linklater, and many more of your favorite filmmakers.
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