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On M. Night Shyamalan and Plot Reversal

I wrote this post this morning for a film class, and I felt like sharing:

I’d like to point back to a time in M. Night Shyamalan’s career when he was still turning out enjoyable, thought provoking films–you know, before SignsThe VillageLady in the WaterAvatar: The Last Airbender, and The Visit. In fact, I encourage you to reply to this post with your “check out” film–you know, the one that made you stop taking Shyamalan seriously as a director. For me, this was The Village, but I honestly saw it coming with Signs. M. Night Shyamalan was a success when he utilized the plot reversal technique (that ironic twist that changes the stakes) well, but he began to fail when he ran out of original ways to do so.

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In The Sixth Sense, we see the plot reversal after the film’s midpoint. Bruce Willis’s character is, in fact, dead, and has been since the beginning of the movie. This explains why he can’t communicate with his wife. What the audience has taken for a hyperbole about the pain of impending divorce and a metaphorical barrier between him and his wife was actually not exaggerated and a very physical barrier. No corpus mundi for Bruce Willis, no way of speaking to anyone other than the boy who sees ghosts. The biggest reversal here is that Bruce Willis’s character believes he is helping the child throughout the movie (and he is), but the child is really the one helping him, which is even more ironic due to his character being a psychologist. How we experience the movie the first time and our second viewing changes as we begin to look for potential holes and foreshadowing (like Fight Club, The Secret WindowShutter Island, etc.) because we, as an audience, have been fooled. (Well, if we have been fooled. I figure most of these kinds of movies out before the big reveal, which irritates anyone sitting through them with me for the first time. Sometimes it depends on the genre. I had The Sixth Sense‘s number pretty early in, but I didn’t see the reversals in Die Hard with a Vengeance or The Usual Suspects coming because contemporary action flicks aren’t my cup of tea. I knew there was something wrong about the village in The Village based on the dates on the tombstones at the beginning and so assumed the monsters wouldn’t be any more real, which made the movie even more disappointing for me because I could not suspend disbelief.)

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In Unbreakable, which features Bruce Willis again but this time with his Die Hard co-star, Samuel L. Jackson (M. Night Shyamalan must have liked Die Hard with a Vengeance too), we meet two characters at opposite ends of a genetic spectrum: David Dunn (Willis) and Elijah Price (Jackson). David is unbreakable; he was destined for athletic greatness before a conflict with this girlfriend, who he later marries, causes him to fake an injury that leads to him working as a security guard at the stadium where he once had his glory days. Elijah, on the other hand, has a genetic disease that makes his bones particularly susceptible to being broken. (His legs are broken during his birth in the opening scene.) These two meet because Elijah, who used comic books as his inspiration to succeed in life despite his disabilities, is searching for a real life comic hero–someone like David, who is on the opposite end of the genetic spectrum. This happens when David walks away from a train crash as the sole survivor and without a scratch on him. David is skeptical, but Elijah points out that he has chosen to protect people as a career, that his accident with his wife was a fake, that he has never called in sick to work, and other aspects of David’s life that he has taken for granted. Elijah leads David to becoming a gritty, real life superhero, and this culminates in his saving a family from a serial rapist and murderer. Then, the reversal of the plot happens at the end of the film. David realizes (or, in a way, Elijah confesses) to being the villain of the story all along. Elijah set up the train crash to see if anyone would survive. He also set up a hotel fire and various other atrocities, killing thousands. He has been searching for a hero all his life. While David has only recently become Sentry Man (the newspapers name him this), Elijah has always been Mr. Glass. This is probably the best example of “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” I have seen in a film, and it is made possible by Shyamalan’s use of plot reversal. In the title cards at the end, we see that David leads the police to Elijah and finally has him arrested on mass murder charges.

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In The Village, M. Night Shyamalan is still working with the plot reversal technique, but audiences have come to expect it from him, and his usage of it is not up to par with his previous films because he now has the challenge of “fooling us” without simply placing the reversal near the end. The Village bleeds the plot reversal in through too much foreshadowing, and when coupled with the audience suspecting Shyamalan of “fooling us”, it ends up not really being a reversal at all. By the time the blind girl is in the forest with monsters, only she believes in the monsters because the audience knows the truth. Moreover, the monster’s costume is entirely unnecessary because she is blind. This scene is a particularly strange example of what is happening visually on the screen being far more interesting than– and entirely out of touch with–what is actually happening in the plot of the story. No one was “fooled”.

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It becomes easy after The Village to chalk up Shyamalan’s more recent failures to his being a proverbial “one trick pony” in his use of the plot reversal, but this is an oversimplification. Poor research, the inability to cast as many A list actors after Signs, and his insistence on writing, directing, and producing rather than breaking up these roles has led to a steady decline in his films. Conversely, he has also had a heavy hand in Wayward Pines, a successful television show that (guess what?) used the same technique but made it viable again through stretching it out over most of season one. Now that the audience knows the truth about the town, however, the show is relying on us sticking with the characters to see what happens to them, and I imagine a dropping off of viewers will occur now that the cat is, once again, out of the bag.

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Warrior: The Most Biased Film Review Ever

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Reviewing movies isn’t normally something I do on this blog. After watching Warrior about 15 times in the last month, however, I’m willing to make an exception. One of my friends from Sci Fi and Sushi recommended it to me back in January, and I figured I’m give it a shot because I’m shaping up to be a Tom Hardy fan. Why? Besides his solid acting, he’s a celebrity that actually looks like a guy–he’s a throwback to the 80’s action heroes I grew up with, a modern monument to the entire decrepit cast of The Expendables.

I’m sorry, but we need more guys like Tom Hardy in cinema after this two-decade parade of Depps and Blooms if only to make mainstream women interested in men again.

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…yeah. I don’t even have to say anything here.

So I got into this movie expecting it to be like Never Back Down–somewhat shotty writing, but with the kind of martial arts action that makes you want to pump iron and turn off your brain. I was okay with that. I hadn’t heard about Nick Nolte’s Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor, which I feel was entirely deserved. I also didn’t know a thing about Joel Edgerton despite his portrayal of Uncle Owen in Revenge of the Sith.

When you have kids, these things slip by you. I haven’t gotten out to see a “grown up” movie since Prometheus, and before that, I think it was Avatar. Seriously.

To say that Warrior exceeded my expectations would be a gross understatement, but as the title of this post states, I’m extremely biased. Let’s look at why.

While Warrior does contain the kind of hype one would expect from a movie about MMA fighting, it has a solid script that centers around a very believeable broken family. Paddy Conlon (Nolte), a retired Vietnam war vet and recovering alcoholic, comes home to find his estranged son, Tommy (Hardy), sitting on the steps. The acting and dialogue in these first scenes between Hardy and Nolte sucked me in. I was no longer concerned about the MMA backdrop for the script; I wanted to know exactly what had happened to make Tommy and his mother leave and what had happened since that time. I wanted to know what remained between Tommy and his older brother, Brendan, who Paddy goes on to explain is a high school teacher with a wife and two “beautiful little girls”.

Then it hit me:

I have a younger brother named Tommy who, without getting into details, has been troubled most of his adult life. I also happen to be a high school teacher with two little girls. And just like the brothers in this film, and I assume all brothers since the beginning of time, we once fought a bitter war for our father’s love.

After that dawned on me, I was hooked. Viewing my brother and I as allegories for these characters (whatever, we all do this) now made it difficult for me to root for Tom Hardy, but I still wanted to see his side of the story unfold as well.

Cut to the scene of Brendan having his face painted by his two girls and his wife, Tess (Jennifer Morrison) bantering with him about their financial situation. At this point, I was on Brendan’s side. The similarities kept pouring in. Here was a suspended teacher (been there) trying to stave off bankruptcy and keep a roof over his family’s head. I could relate. It’s no secret how defunct the education system is here in Arizona, and as I’ve griped about before, I haven’t had a raise in five years. In fact, I recently went through two horrible garnishments and a half a dozen settlements to avoid bankruptcy.

When faced with foreclosure, Brendan Conlon’s response to the possibility of bankruptcy was the same as mine: “That’s not how I do things.”

We also meet Brendan’s students, who are almost as awesome and supportive as mine.

While Brendan’s situation was tugging on my heart strings, Tommy’s story satisfied my need for good ol’ manly kick-ass-ness. I mean, here’s a guy who wipes the floor with seasoned MMA fighters in practice and rips the doors off tanks. If my brother, who is physically much more imposing than I am at this point, ever became an MMA fighter, his style would be this brutal. I, on the other hand, have been in martial arts since I was knee high to a grasshopper (pun intended), and would probably sport Brendan’s more tactical approach.

Truth be told, I’m more of a puncher, though. Now my older brother, who is a black belt in jiu jitsu…

Both brothers need trainers for the mega-tournament at the end of the flick, of course. Tommy bunks up with his estranged father, who was his trainer when he was a junior Olympic gold medalist in wrestling. Brendan, after a tear-jerking scene in which his father tries to reconcile with him, instead reconnects with his former trainer (with whom he had a rad bromance?), Frank Campana (Frank Grillo).

Now, the character of Frank Campana is about 99% like one of my best friends and former martial arts trainer, who I have recently begun to associate with again as well. He has the same philosophies, unorthodox training methods, and love of good music.

At this point, watching this movie was getting kind of eerie. Seriously strange.

Cut to a training montage with a manly version of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. I wasn’t a fan of this part the first time I watched it, but it’s grown on me after multiple viewings. At least this montage was different from your typical Rocky ripoff.

Of course, both brothers end up qualifying for the mega-tournament. While naming the tournament “Sparta” and writing in a massive, undefeated Russian combatant (Rocky IV much?) seemed easy, I was okay with both of these choices. I’m hooked at this point, remember? And I’m the target audience.

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Bring on the martial arts action and commentary from two men who have never been in a fight in their life! The brawls were satisfyingly brutal, and the choreographer managed to make jiu jitsu look like more than two Neanderthals humping on the ground. Unlike most real MMA fighting (my opinion), these bouts were actually exciting to watch.

At the same time, the family redemption story supercedes all this. Brendan and Tommy meeting in Atlantic City after not seeing each other for a decade and blaming each other for the loss of their mother was heart breaking. Learning exactly what happened to Tommy during his tour of duty in Iraq was both believeable and disturbing. The crowning performance, of course, was Nick Nolte’s drunken Captain Ahab scene, which quite honestly makes me bawl no matter how many times I see it.

No wonder they nominated him for an Oscar.

Of course, the two brothers end up fighting at the end. Brutality vs. technique. Rage vs. strategy. And just when I thought things couldn’t get any more epic and hauntingly familiar, Brendan dislocates Tommy’s shoulder. Tommy refuses to tap and goes the last two rounds with one arm. Standing between Brendan and saving his family–not just his house at this point, but his family–is his honor.

Damn.

Ever wonder if a movie or a book was written specifically with you in mind? It’s narcissistic, I suppose, but that doesn’t really change how I feel.

The prevailing theme in Warrior is not some shallow, macho message, but that family will always find a way to reconcile. Maybe that’s the thing I find the most comforting about it. That I even can apply adjectives like “comforting” to a brutal MMA flick probably demonstrates better than my biased musings just how different and underrated this movie is.

That said, I sincerely hope they don’t ruin it with a sequel.

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