What do I want for Christmas? A contractual agreement between M. Night Shyamalan and Mel Gibson to make their next five films together. Collaborators on Signs, Shyamalan and Gibson together have, in the midst of a craven Hollywood culture that idolizes superficial novelty, the rare ability to deliver the unusual and the truly novel. It is interesting and instructive that their independence is intimately connected to their preoccupation with the big questions about human existence and with possible spiritual responses to those questions. But they also suffer from certain deficiencies — Shyamalan from increasingly impoverished plots and Gibson, aside from his offensive rants, from an inordinate reliance on explicit violence.
With the release of Apocalypto, the issue of violence has supplanted Gibson’s anti-Semitic irrationalism as the focus of critics’ attention. Often lauding the raw, pulsating violence of Sin City or Tarantino’s Kill Bill, critics have bemoaned what they see as Gibson’s sadistic bloodlust. Defenders of the film retort that the emphasis on the film’s violence is mistaken in two ways. First, they say the film is not nearly as violent as some of the critics have led us to believe; second, they maintain that Gibson is not engaging in the presentation of violence for its own sake, but rather as a means of manifesting something about an overwrought and sickly culture. Classic hubris infects the culture depicted in Apocalypto, a vice that is nicely captured in the scene depicting human sacrifices proclaimed both to propitiate the gods and to render a people itself divine, ranking above all other societies.
Because the film focuses on the sufferings of a noble and innocent individual (Jaguar Paw), it does not move the audience to adopt a posture of ironic indifference toward suffering and violence, much less to sympathize with evildoers. As is also true in Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ, Gibson manages to break the onslaught of violence by punctuating it with scenes of families and children.
But there is a further question to be asked about the violence in the film. Would Gibson be more effective in communicating what he wants to communicate if he were, occasionally at least, to operate on a principle of visual restraint? Given Gibson’s aims as a filmmaker, this is simultaneously an artistic and ethical question, a question that even appreciative viewers of The Passion could raise about that film as well.
This is where the editing or co-directing of a Shyamalan would serve Gibson well. Shyamalan self-consciously locates himself in the tradition of Hitchcock, who once said, “There is no terror in the bang, but only in the anticipation of it.” The remarkably successful film Signs, directed by M. Night and starring Gibson, exhibits restraint in a number of ways. A clandestine presence is suggested–through noises on the roof, the rustling of corn, and the seemingly unprovoked motion of a child’s swing–but never (until the final scene) directly shown. A number of minor events help to build a sense of menace, suspense, and dread: the mysterious crop circles, the domesticated dog that turns on its owners, and the strange clicking sounds on the baby monitor. Roger Ebert commented, “I cannot think of a movie where silence is scarier, and inaction is more disturbing.”
By contrast, Gibson rarely, if ever, opts for indirection, always for direct presentation of violence. And he has a penchant for piling scenes of violence on top of one another. Typically adept at pacing, Gibson falters a number of times Apocalypto and thus risks exhausting the audience, either through an endless multiplication of violent scenes or through scenes where the violence is drawn out far too long. That is certainly true in the most-discussed scene in the film, depicting the Mayan practice of human sacrifice, which includes not only the explicit removal of still-beating human hearts, but also the tossing and bouncing of heads and corpses down the steps of the temple. Immediately after that scene, we are treated to a series of brutal impalings.
Of course, Gibson is always flirting with, even as he creatively engages, the Hollywood obsession with violence and the surface aesthetics of evil. That obsession continues to afflict much of American film, particularly the mainstream horror genre, where evil is celebrated as more interesting, more creative, and more complex than goodness. But the problem for the horror genre is that such a celebration is subject to the law of diminishing returns, as jaded audiences need increasingly gruesome and ever more explicit mechanisms of torture to feed their hunger for terror. That desire itself becomes indistinguishable from a prurient interest in torture as pure entertainment. The result is ironic detachment, a shifting of sympathy from innocent victims to malevolent artistry, and a distancing of the horror genre from the big questions with which it has often been associated.
One of the reasons for Shyamalan’s popularity is his refreshing restoration of the primacy of suspense over terror and his return, at the edges of the horror genre, to the big questions about good and evil, the meaning of suffering, the potential links between the living and the dead, the malevolent nihilism that can abide at the heart of the will to meaning, and even the existence of God. These themes inform his films from the underappreciated Wide Awake to his blockbusters The Sixth Sense and Signs and his most creative film, Unbreakable.
Both Gibson and Shyamalan have a profound sense of the significance of the question, articulated by Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) in Unbreakable: “What is the scariest thing?” In contrast to mainstream horror, where scares are indistinguishable from visceral repulsion and where fear is incapable of teaching us anything, Shyamalan thinks that the probing of that question can aid us in probing the human condition, a condition his films often depict as a quest, amid the ruins of contemporary culture, for a lost code of redemption.
Shyamalan’s biggest weaknesses are his increasingly impoverished story lines and his inability to resist overt resolution of his plots. The ending of Signs, with its repeated and heavy-handed indications of the “signs” of providence, is perhaps the best example of Shyamalan at his worst. The problem of credulity becomes acute in his last film, Lady in the Water. Unlike his earlier films, where modern skepticism is gradually overcome by the suggestion of some higher order, Lady features characters who exhibit such a pathetic will to believe bizarre myths that the story itself becomes incredible. Forgetting that it is the job of the writer/filmmaker to create credible stories, Shyamalan has his characters issue banal injunctions, such as, “It’s time we made a story come true.” Shyamalan seems to have forgotten the lessons of The Village concerning the consequences of the attempt to live inside a self-constructed myth. The result is a myth without a mystery.
There is more mythic profundity in the brief legendary tale related by an Indian chief early in Apocalypto than in any part of Lady. The tale about the gods’ giving human being the gifts of many of the animals but leaving them with a hole that they desperately try to fill by ravaging the entire earth resonates throughout the story. Indeed, Gibson seems to have a wealth of resources for atypical stories of unusual depth. He is, moreover, not given to tidy resolutions. The brief resurrection scene in The Passion was a late addition, and the surprise ending of Apocalypto is nicely understated and even ambivalent in its significance.
What Shyamlan is getting at in his creative reworking of sub-genres of the ghost story or the comic super-hero is akin to what Gibson focuses on in his use of unfamiliar dialects: the modern phenomena, or affliction, that each director has labeled “forgetfulness.” They share a sense that the contemporary world exists in a state of forgetfulness about the most important human and perhaps divine realities. Imagining what their combined efforts might bring is likely no more than a matter of wistful speculation. But comparing them helps us to see more clearly the strengths and weaknesses of two of our most gifted contemporary filmmakers.
Of course, it could be that the collaboration would backfire. Shyamalan and Gibson might cancel out each other’s virtues instead of their vices. We could end up with the mythic pabulum of Lady in the Water infused with lengthy torture scenes. But it’s Christmas. I’m hopeful.
– Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.