Visual Style in M. Night Shyamalan’s “Fantastic” Trilogy : The Long Take

by Donato Totaro Volume 7, Issue 11 / November 2003 29 minutes (7221 words)


With his three feature films The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000), and Signs (2002), the India-born, US director M. Night Shyamalan has established the difficult feat of achieving remarkable success (in his time) on both the critical and commercial levels. 1 For starters, Shyamalan is one of the rare filmmakers in the US who has achieved the enviable pole position of being writer, director, and, in the case of Unbreakable and Signs, co-producer. An important component to this dual success is that Shyamalan knows how to craft a story that contains layers of meaning and subtext alongside plot and character. And to his credit, these “layers” are usually expressed through the film’s form and style (Signs is an exception in that it relies more heavily on dialogue for its meaning and subtext). Shyamalan uses the whole gamut of cinematic potential to build his layers of plot, meaning, and subtext, including music, sound, color, performance, and mise en scène. Doing complete justice to all areas of Shyamalan’s style is beyond the limits of even a long essay. The elements of this cinematic potential that I will restrict myself to is Shyamalan’s visual style, and in particular, his use of the long take (in Part 1) and the following aspects of his mise en scène, his use of ‘reflected images’ and mirroring effects (in Part 2).

Shyamalan is fairly classical in terms of the stylistic approach he uses to shape his material. There is nothing unusually radical or ‘subversive’ about his work. Above all else, Shyamalan constructs a believable fictional world with believable characters and events, even if the genre he loosely defines himself in deals with unbelievable events. But what makes Shyamalan so interesting, apart from his willingness to deal with serious moral and philosophical issues, is that he revels in stretching, updating, or adding a new twist to the classical model. Like, for example, the classic shot-counter shot editing pattern, which he often reconstitutes through camera movement or framing (I’ll give examples of this later). Narrative credibility is of extreme importance for Shyamalan in terms of formal expressiveness, as opposed to the type of formal expressiveness that stems from beyond the strict narrative or dramatic moment. Although the primary importance is that the formal expressiveness serve a pragmatic (i.e. narrative, dramatic) function first, Shyamalan does not shy from touches of formalism that go beyond narrative motivation and signal the hand of an auteur playfully gesturing with the ‘cinematic possibilities.’ (An example here is his use of the color red as a signifier for dread or danger in The Sixth Sense.) I would characterize this overall approach, respectful of verisimilitude but not averse to touches of formal bravado, as ‘expressive realism.’

My initial reaction was to refer to these three films as Shyamalan’s “spiritual trilogy,” since in interviews he has not held back his conscious desire to deal with issues of the human spirit (profound identity crisis, faith, the power of human agency, chance and fate). With the exception of Unbreakable, the other two films are loaded with religious imagery and metaphysical symbolism, in the case of Signs, these are no longer subtext but text. Although I think this would have been a valid formulation, I have opted for the more general (and generic) title of “fantastic trilogy.” By fantastic I am here distancing myself from Tzvetan Todorov’s use of the term, but simply mean that each film depicts an event which has occurred within the diegesis of the film that is unexplainable by the laws of science and nature. In The Sixth Sense characters have a preternatural ability to ‘see’ and interact with ghosts (as the young central protagonist Cole (Haley Joel Osment) says in the film’s highly quoted line, “I see dead people”). In Unbreakable a seemingly ordinary man, David Dunn (Bruce Willis), slowly discovers that he is physically indestructible and learns to accept that he is a living ‘superhero.’ In Signs an imminent apocalypse in the form of a global extraterrestrial invasion infiltrates the lives of a simple farming community with ultimately life-affirming consequences. As I noted earlier, my approach in this two-part essay will be to concentrate on the following aspects of Shyamalan’s visual style, the long take (including camera movement) and two general aspects of his mise en scène, reflected images and mirroring effects, to explore a style I refer to as ‘expressive realism.’

One of the most striking aspects of Shyamalan’s expressive realist style, with respect to how his films ‘feel’ compared to other mainstream, popular American films, is their pacing. There are many factors at play in what affects a film’s pacing, including the amount of dialogue and plot information, the number of central characters, the level of character/subject and camera movement and kineticism, and, of course, the editing style. With respect to editing style, Shyamalan sets himself apart from most of his popular contemporaries with a more measured, relaxed editing style that is statistically confirmed by the average shot lengths (ASL) of each film. An important feature of this more relaxed pacing is Shyamalan’s controlled and methodical use of the long take. Of course many contemporary directors employ the long take, which can be briefly defined as a shot which goes on for a considerable amount of screen time before a cut occurs, but in the majority of cases it is used sparingly as an emphatic device (to open or close a film for example), or as a device to ‘energize’ a scene by accentuating the ‘spectacular’ side of cinematic technology (steadicam, cranes, or other camera mount apparatuses) or high production value. Of course this is a generalisation, but one never gets this sense with Shyamalan’s long takes.

The dependence on the long take in all three films is confirmed by the average shot length of each film, especially when contrasted with the majority of mainstream and popular US films. In his essay “Intensified Continuity: Visual Style in Contemporary American Film” David Bordwell notes a steadily increasing average shot length (ASL from this point on) in American cinema since the 1970s. 2 The ASL in the years between 1930 and 1960 ranged between 8 to 11 seconds, and A-budget films with an ASL of less than 6 seconds were extremely rare. In the 1980s the ASL dropped to around 5-7 seconds, with many films cutting as quickly as 3-4 ASL. By the late 1990s/early 2000 the ASL dropped further to 3-6 seconds, with many major and big box-office hits having ASLs as low as 2-4 seconds. According to Bordwell, the fastest cut Hollywood film he encountered in his research was The Dark City, with an astonishingly fast ASL of 1.8 seconds! Concurrently, Bordwell notes that the top range of shot totals for films also increased, moving from 1500 shots in the 1980s, to 2000-3000 shots in the 1990s, to the 3000-4000 shot range by the end of the century (Armageddon, 1998, Any Given Sunday, 1999). [David Bordwell, 16-17.]] By contrast Shyamalan’s ASL and shot totals for his three films, according to my statistical analysis, are: The Sixth Sense (686 shots = 8.7 ASL), The Unbreakable (322 shots = 18.7 ASL), and Signs (574 shots = 10.3 ASL). 3 Taken collectively, Shyamalan’s trilogy has an ASL of 11.3, with 1582 shots. Which means that there are less shots in these three films combined (1582) than in some single US films from the same time period!

The ‘Fantastic’ Trilogy

The Sixth Sense is a ghost story/horror film which deals with the universal issue of people in a modern world, dealing with quotidian problems who are unable to express their deepest emotions and form lasting, interpersonal communication. The film forms three interconnected ‘bonds’ in the form of three relationships: a young, emotionally introverted boy Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osmont) and his single mother Lynn Sear (Toni Collette); Cole and his child therapist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis); and Malcolm and his estranged wife Anna Crowe (Olivia Williams). The narrative is structured in such a way so that it can be ‘read’ simultaneously in two ontological senses, or from two differing perspectives. In one tract, the child therapist Malcolm Crowe survives an intruder’s (Vincent Grey) gun shot wound and attempts to help the emotionally troubled boy, Cole Sear, while at the same time trying to reconnect with his estranged wife, who may be having an affair. In tract two, he is killed by the gun shot and wanders through the film as a living dead ghost, observing a reality that now exists without his physical presence. In this state he is visible only to people who have the ability to “see dead people,” one such person being the young boy Cole “Sear.” In this second tract, the young boy is being as therapeutic for Malcolm, as Malcolm is for the young boy. The film’s mise en scène is carefully manipulated to maintain the probability of both narrative strains, until the twist ending reveals tract two to be the true ontological status of the narrative.

Unbreakable is a modern fable about how people living in a modern, scientific, secular society, still need an element of ‘wonder’ in their lives. In this case the ‘sense of wonder’ is expressed through the relationship between a young boy, Joseph Dunn (Spencer Treat Clark) and his father David Dunn (Bruce Willis), who slowly come to the realization that the father is, indeed, a modern day ‘superhero.’ Alongside this relationship is the crumbling marriage between David and his wife Audrey Dunn (Robin Wright Penn). The film also functions —like The Sixth Sense— as a search for identity. This part of the film’s thematic is expressed through the other major character of Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who finds it necessary to construct a superhero to explain his own identity. As he says, “the arch villain is the exact opposite of the superhero.” So if Elijah can find a superhero, he in effect finds himself. (“Now that we know who you are, I know who I am.”) This provides the film’s twist ending, where we discover that Elijah has for years been staging accidents and disasters with the hope of finding his alter ego superhero.

Signs is a religious film cloaked in horror science-fiction garb. The story opens with a series of bizarre occurrences, beginning with unusual crop signs, in a Bucks County, Pennsylvania farming community, which soon mushroom into an alien invasion of global proportions. Within this alien invasion film is what I imagine is of real interest to writer/director/producer Shyamalan: the moral journey of a man’s loss of faith and the circumstances that help him regain his faith. Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is a minister who forsakes the cloth after the senseless accidental death of his wife. The improbable coincidences that lead to his son being saved from an alien attack convince him that there is a benevolent God in the universe (Morgan’s asthmatic condition being a crucial plot point to this metaphysical resolution). On the DVD documentary the producers keep referring to this ‘spiritual’ element as the film’s ‘subtext,’ but in fact it is so overt that it is text rather than subtext. The minister’s fall from grace is overtly stated through dialogue exchange on at least two occasions, making his return to the cloth less a surprise than an inevitable outcome of the film’s structured trajectory.

Along with the visual elements I will soon be outlining, the trilogy share many plot and theme elements. Each film deals with characters who do not see or accept what can be seen as a ‘calling’. In Unbreakable David Dunn does not believe in his special superhero powers; in The Sixth Sense Malcolm does not ‘see’ that he is a ghost figure himself, while Cole does not understand how to positively channel his ability to communicate with the dead. In Signs Graham Hess remains closed to the powers of a benevolent God until he receives a ‘sign’ that convinces him. In each film there are strong bonds between adult and children (Cole and Malcolm, Cole and Lynn in The Sixth Sense, David and Joseph, Elijah and his mother (played by Charlayne Woodward) in Unbreakable, and Rev. Graham Hess with his childrenfassume Bo (Abigail Breslin) and Morgan (Rory Culkin), and Graham’s younger brother Merrill Hess (Joaquin Phoenix) with his niece and nephew (Bo, Morgan) in Signs; and in each film there are ‘fractured’ marital states (albeit through a tragic accidental death in Signs). In The Sixth Sense Malcolm slowly ‘discovers’ he is dead; in Unbreakable David slowly ‘discovers’ he is a superhero; and in Signs Graham slowly ‘discovers’ that there is a benevolent God who “works in mysterious ways.”

The Long Take: intimacy, domestic spaces, and reinventing classicism

Characterisation and the ‘intimacy’ long take

I would like to begin my analysis by outlining some of the particularities of Shyamalan’s long take style as expressed across his trilogy. Shyamalan often uses the long take to establish important character relationships. On a documentary from the Unbreakable DVD Shyamalan has this to say with respect to the long take: “Basically, the number one benefit of pacing it like that, is that you feel part of that world, more so, it helps me achieve a symbiotic relationship between the main character and the audience, which is the goal.” We see this in The Sixth Sense, where the first two meaningful encounters between Cole and his mother and Malcolm and his wife are handled in long takes. The first meaningful long take in The Sixth Sense comes during the first kitchen scene between Cole and Lynn (16’58”-19’38”). In this, the first scene between Cole and his mother, the camera is hand-held, and follows Lynn from the laundry room into the kitchen (twice). A key element to this long take is that when Lynn first walks into the kitchen she closes a few cupboards that were ajar. When she leaves and returns from the laundry room with a clean tie for Cole, she sees all the drawers and cupboards wide open, which causes Lynn to give out a startled yell. The shock is made more effective because it occurs in a single, continuous real time of the take. It is also the first sign of the supernatural (although at this point Cole could have opened the cupboards).

In the opening sequence of the film, one of Malcolm’s ex-patients, Vincent Grey, breaks into their house and threatens them at gunpoint in their bedroom. Grey eventually shoots Malcolm, who falls backward onto his bed. The scene cuts to an aerial overhead angle, with Anna attending to the wounded Malcolm (overhead angles appear in all three films in the trilogy). The shot fades to black before we know for sure whether Malcolm will survive the gunshot. After a long fade, the next scene fades in with an intertitle that reads “Next Fall.” We see Malcolm and so assume he survived the gun shot. The first time that Malcolm interacts with his wife in a post-Vincent Grey scene is in the “Anniversary Dinner” scene (26’18”-28’18). This is also the first example of a formal strategy common to all three films (most prevalent in Unbreakable): scenes that are played out in one single shot (sequence shot scenes). The camera begins in long shot positioned behind Anna, seated alone at a table in a posh restaurant. The camera begins a slow dolly toward the table as Malcolm enters the frame and sits at the table opposite Anna. Malcolm excuses himself for being late and then immediately begins talking about his work with his new patient, the young Cole. The camera tellingly dollies right past Anna as if she were not there, to a close-up of Malcolm. In hindsight this movement is figuratively expressive of how he is literally and figuratively not there at all for Anna. In one continuous movement, the camera dollies about 90 degrees and pans along the table as a waiter places the bill down and Anna picks it up before Malcolm has a chance to. The camera is now facing Anna, a 180 degree change from its opening position. Then the camera dollies back away from Anna and settles behind Malcolm’s back. As Malcolm asks for her forgiveness, Anna ‘replies’ “Happy Anniversary” and leaves the table.

This is an extremely important scene for establishing the credibility of the narrative’s dual illusion. It is the only time there is any ‘dialogue’ (of sorts) between Malcolm and his wife, and any dialogue between Malcolm and any character other than Cole. The Cole-Malcolm relationship is crucial to the narrative illusion, and for this relationship to work it is vitally important that the Cole/Lynn and Malcolm/Anna relationships are also believable. Shyamalan uses a long take to film both of these crucial first time meetings.

The Sixth Sense’s “Anniversary Dinner” scene is followed by another sequence shot scene, and also the first time a long take is used in a scene with Cole and Malcolm. The steadicam shot begins with the two of them in extreme long shot filmed from across the street. As they walk toward the curb the camera slowly tracks forward to meet them. The camera then pivots 90 degrees left and begins to track back ahead of them as they walk and talk.

The important moment where David Dunn in Unbreakable confirms his superhero status is handled in a striking long take which culminates the scene where he acts on his premonition by going to a home which has been invaded by a killer. The status of David as a modern day superhero is underscored throughout this eight minute ‘rescue’ scene with the noirish night rain, the comic book framing, and the way David’s costume subtly changes as the scene progresses to assume more of a superhero look. Before David’s final heroic act the killer pushes him off the top balcony into the house’s large backyard swimming pool. The attention given to David’s struggle to emerge from the pool attains a special resonance: the moment symbolizes a rebirth, with David finally accepting his superhero powers. He is now ready to complete his heroic act, and this final confirmation of his acceptance is handled in an impressive long take (1’42”) which begins at ground level and slowly cranes to an aerial overhead angle as David confronts the killer in the bedroom, subdues him (kills him?), and unties the victim.

Whereas Shyamalan uses the long take to establish important character relationships or character development in The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable (discussed further in the section on “reflected images”), the first long take in Signs comes five minutes into the film, and serves to introduce the spectator to a ‘non-human’ character: the unusual crop signs that have mysteriously appeared overnight in the Graham Hess’ corn fields. The film opens with Graham Hess and his younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) being awoken by an unusual sound early in the morning. They rush off into the corn fields to investigate the sound, where they find Graham’s young daughter Bo (Abigail Breslin) and young son Morgan (Rory Culkin) already investigating the sound. The film’s not so subtle religious ‘subtext’ is kicked off in this opening scene, when Morgan tells his father “I think God did it.” When Graham responds, “Did what Morgan?” the son turns his father’s head in the offscreen direction of the as yet unseen source of mystery. The corn field signs are revealed bit by bit, until the scene cuts to an overhead, aerial shot, the first long take, which booms dramatically to reveal the elaborate four-part corn sign (5’32”).

Aerial Angles in The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs.

As well as using the long take to establish important character relations, Shyamalan uses the long take to build a special emotional bond between characters, with what I will call “intimacy long takes.” An exemplary scene with respect to the “intimacy long take” is the powerful second kitchen scene between Cole and Lynn. In this scene (59’25”-63’14”) Lynn tries to get Cole to admit that he is the one who has taken her mother’s bumblebee pendant from her bedroom. From Lynn’s perspective, there can be no other explanation for how the pendant has moved from her bedroom to Cole’s bedroom. The tension is created for the audience in this scene because we sympathize with Lynn’s position, but also share Cole’s knowledge about the ghosts. The centerpiece of the scene is an extremely long take, which also typifies Shyamalan’s stylistic preference for having his characters face each other in profile. The camera is slightly below table level, with Lynn seated on the left and Cole on the right end of the table. The camera tracks in slowly to a closer medium shot, then begins to slowly track left to frame Lynn and leave Cole off-frame, then tracks back right to frame Cole and leave Lynn off-frame. The dialogue in this scene is very important, as it is in all of the kitchen scenes. There is a line of dialogue during the long take that encapsulates the film’s theme: Lynn: “If we can’t talk to each other we aren’t going to make it.” Lynn once again asks Cole if he moved her mother’s bumbleebee pendant. We feel the emotional anguish Cole is experiencing, as he is caught between ‘lying’ for the sake of his mother, or telling the truth. We can empathize with both characters, which gives the moment an added intensity. Osmont’s acting, excellent throughout, is especially wonderful here in the way he suggests the pain with which he replies “no” to the final time his mother asks, “Did you take the pendant?” During the shot the camera tracks left, right, left, right, left, before ending on a close-up of Lynn, who angrily tells Cole to leave the table.

The fallout of this scene confirms the powerful love shared between Cole and Lynn, and is again expressed through an “intimacy” long take (63’39”-64’25”). Immediately after this kitchen scene Cole sees the ghost of a dead boy in his bedroom. He is visibly shaken by the nightly visit, and goes to his mother for emotional comfort. He finds her crouched down in the laundry room. The static camera is at a low angle framing Lynn in the left foreground and Cole standing at the door frame in the right background. We can see that she has been crying. Cole walks toward her and asks, “Mommy. If you are not very mad, can I sleep in your bed tonight.” Lynn replies, “Look at my face (a pet phrase). I’m not very mad.” They embrace, and Lynn notices that Cole is shaking. The scene ends on this emotional hug, as Lynn pleads with Cole to tell her what is troubling him.

‘Intimacy’ Long Take

There is a noticeable pattern in The Sixth Sense concerning scenes between Cole and Malcolm and those between Cole and Lynn which is linked to the “intimacy long take.” This crucial difference is that Shyamalan uses the long take more frequently in scenes with Cole and Lynn than in scenes between Cole and Malcolm. The total screen time of scenes between Malcolm and Cole total 33’25” and contain 277 shots for an ASL of 7.2. In contrast, the scenes between Cole and Lynn total 15’03” of screen time with 55 shots and an ASL of more than double, 16.4. This sizeable difference in ASL reflects Shyamalan’s attempt to establish a more intimate and emotional mother-son bond between Cole and Lynn.

An “intimacy” long take occurs in Unbreakable in a scene which parallels the “Anniversary Dinner” restaurant scene in The Sixth Sense. The major difference is that in Unbreakable the husband is alive and interacting with his wife. But both scenes are filmed in one impressive sequence shot, 2’00” in the former, and 2’53” in the latter. As an additional note, the compositional choice of framing the two characters in profile, a common stylistic choice for Shyamalan, is partly a condition of his use of the long take in dialogue scenes. By having the characters in profile the camera can record both characters as they talk without the need of cutting in a shot counter shot style. (67’37”) Like the long take in the hospital after the train crash (described later), this shot begins in extreme long shot and remains static for a considerable amount of time before beginning to dolly in slowly to a closer shot range of the seated couple. The romantic setting, warm color tones, and hushed dialogue situates this as one of the film’s most intimate moments. The use of the long take during such as scene (and at 2’53” this is the second longest shot in the film) is consistent with the way Shyamalan used the long take to underscore intimate moments in The Sixth Sense.

Signs also makes extensive use of the long take to heighten intimate moments where deeply personal or emotional feelings are revealed between characters. The first of many such “intimacy” long takes in Signs comes just after a kitchen scene, where Merrill and Graham sit in front of the TV with the two children asleep between them. In what is the longest dialogue exchange in the film, the two brothers express their feelings on the ultimate meaning of this alien attack. Although the dialogue is handled in shot counter shot fashion, cutting between Graham and Merrill, many of shots are held for a lengthy period of time, including two successive shots of 1’25” and 1’28”, the first in which Graham breaks down people into two groups, those who see such an event as a sign, as “evidence that there is someone up there watching out over them,” and those who see it as ‘pure luck.” In the second long take Merrill recounts a story from his past which explains why he is from ‘group 1, someone who sees the event as a ‘miracle.’ In this scene there are two things that set up the film’s conclusion: a) we learn that Graham, a former man of God, is undergoing a crisis of faith, while his brother, a layman, is a believer, and 2) a question posed by Graham hangs like a connecting thread that bonds all the film’s plotlines, until it is answered by events at the film’s climax: “Is it possible that there are no coincidences?”

Another ‘intimacy’ long take occurs at 68’20” (44”), during a scene where Merrill, Bo, and Morgan watch a television news broadcast in the walk-in closet (in an earlier scene Merrill had moved the television, with its constant news bulletins of the alien attacks, from the living room into the closet to “protect the children”). In this long take we learn  how Morgan is estranged from his father. After hearing some foreboding news on the television regards the alien invasion, Morgan whispers loud enough for Merrill to hear, “I wish you were my Dad.”

Later, Shyamalan interjects two ‘intimacy’ long takes as breathers during the tense scenes where the family barricades the house in preparation for the alien attack. In the two matching long takes Graham recounts to each child a special moment during their births that formed a parent-child bond of love. The first take lasts 1’13” (73’51”-75’04”) and the second take lasts 59” (77’12”-78’11”). What’s interesting about these two long takes is how they subtly reveal that Graham still lacks faith, since the timing of his storytelling, moments before the aliens attack their home, implies that he does not think they will survive.

The penultimate shot of the film, which is its emotional climax, follows the film’s ‘visceral’ climax, that being the family’s encounter with the alien in the living room. This shot is the film’s last ‘intimacy’ long take (1’10”), and resolves the vexing ‘faith’ crisis which has formed the film’s emotional core. During the showdown between the alien and Merrill and Graham which preceded this scene, we saw the alien, who was holding Morgan through most of the showdown, spray a poisonous vapor into the face of the unconscious Morgan. In this penultimate shot Graham is holding his still unconscious son in his arms, Pieta style, murmuring to himself, “That’s why he had asthma….it can’t be luck…his lungs were closed…no poison got in….no poison got in….”  Graham and Morgan are joined by Bo and Merrill. The camera assumes a rough, hand-held style during this touching moment, panning quickly from one crying character to another. When we hear Morgan’s below frame voice utter the word “Dad,” the moment becomes Graham’s epiphany. When Morgan asks his father, “did someone save me?” he replies, “yes, I think someone did.” This final ‘intimacy’ long take sequence shot has retroactively supplied the answer to the earlier question, “Is it possible that there are no coincidences?”

Long Take and Domestic Spaces: Questions of Class

It is interesting that Shyamalan, born into an upper class family of doctors (both his parents are medical doctors), has consistently represented the working class in his trilogy. The single mothers in The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, the ex-football hero, security guard David Dunn in Unbreakable, and the minister Graham Hess and former minor league baseball hero brother Merrill in Signs are all from the working class. A key signifier for this working class environment are the domestic spaces that are consistently featured across the trilogy. One of the most important of these domestic spaces is the kitchen. In The Sixth Sense the kitchen is where Cole and his mother Lynn hold many of their key dialogue exchanges. Their apartment kitchen, with its modest size and simple furniture, not only reflects the working class status of Cole and his single mother, but represents a space where much of the family bonding occurs.

The kitchen assumes a similar function in Unbreakable. In one of the key kitchen scenes the young son Joseph is seated alone at the kitchen table while his father and mother wash the dishes. The scene is made up of four shots, including the centerpiece, a 2’08” long take. In the long take, the third shot, Joseph surprises his parents by revealing a hand gun which he threatens to use on David to prove to them his father’s invincibility. The camera pans back and forth from Joseph and the parents as they eventually convince Joseph to put the gun down. The single long take adds to the scene’s tension while accentuating the domestic intimacy of the kitchen space. Although the scene is ultimately positive in that it functions as a crisis that helps to unite the estranged family, the use of the gun suggests a possible critique of US gun control policy. For one, the presence of a gun and threat of violence as the act which brings the family together is typical of what writer/academic Mark Seltzer defines with respect to the US as a ‘wound culture.’ According to Seltzer, the US is a nation that normally bonds only as a result of violence or catastrophe. (“Studying America’s ‘Wound Culture”

Elements of this ‘wound culture’ also exist in the other two films. In The Sixth Sense it is through the self-realization of death that both Cole and Malcolm are able to mend their emotional pain. Signs dramatizes a ‘wound culture’ scenario where the potential Armageddon posed by the alien invasion unites the Hess family and enables Graham Hess to return to “God’s fold.”

In Unbreakable the incident is thankfully resolved without any tragedy, but the scene brings to mind an alternate tragic consequence of a similar scenario from The Sixth Sense. The scene in question involves one of the ‘dead people’ that Cole sees in his house. In this case a young teenage boy who comes out from Cole’s room and whispers to Cole “I’ll show you where my Dad keeps his gun.” As the boy turns to walk into Cole’s bedroom we see a bloodied hole in the back of his head. Whether one wants to be critical of Shyamalan’s association of this ‘wound culture’ with the working class –stigmatizing the working class as emotion-driven rather than reason-driven, and being more prone to violence- or see it simply as a dramatic device, is open to interpretation.

Another key kitchen scene from Unbreakable takes place immediately after David performs his first true ‘superhero’ act in the besieged home. (93’37”) In this breakfast scene David and his son Joseph strike a bond of secrecy with regards David’s superhero status. The scene confirms his superhero nature, but as important, by admitting what the son already knew implicitly, David re-establishes a trust and bond with his son. (Unbreakable also features the kitchen in another brief scene where we see David sitting alone at the kitchen table).

As in The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, Shyamalan uses domestic spaces to stage important dramatic and revelatory ‘family’ moments in Signs. With Signs taking place largely within the farm house, the overall location is domestic in nature, with key scenes being split among the kitchen, the living room, the dining room, the large walk-in closet (where they ‘hide’ the television for a while), and the basement. The first key kitchen long take occurs directly after Graham gets visual confirmation of an alien presence in their corn field, and returns home frightened. The static 57” long take (38’33”-39’30”) frames Merrill seated in the right foreground on the dining room table, and the adjoining kitchen in the background with the two children washing the dishes at the sink. Graham enters the frame left and quietly sits at the kitchen table. (This marks a reverse of the kitchen ‘gun’ scene in Unbreakable, where the mother and father are washing the dishes and the child is seated at the table.).  This long take signals an important moment in the film because it marks the beginning of the family’s solidarity against the aliens. Up until this moment Graham was the only member of the family who did not believe in the aliens. Graham appears visibly distraught sitting at the table. The two children and Merrill walk over to the kitchen table and stare at him intently. Graham looks up at them and whispers the shot’s only line of dialogue: “Ok, let’s turn on the TV” (the television is associated with the media’s constant coverage of the alien invasion, and in this sense, confirms the ‘veracity’ of the alien attack). Although the interior of the farmhouse appears slightly more upscale than the domestic spaces in The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, the occupations of Graham and Merrill, minister and former minor league baseball player respectively, would suggest that we are still in a working class environment.

Kitchen Spaces in The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs.

Reinventing classicism I earlier characterized Shyamalan’s style as being within the bounds of classicism, but marked by a freedom to reinvent or invigorate traditional rules of classical continuity. An example is the way he sometimes restages the conventional method of shot counter shot dialogue scenes. One of the ways Shyamalan does this is by positioning characters in profile to the camera, and tracking in to the characters as they talk (as in the restaurant scene in Unbreakable) or tracking laterally from character to character (as in the second kitchen scene in The Sixth Sense or when David and Joseph meet Elijah at his art gallery).  The earlier described left-right camera movement in the second kitchen scene in The Sixth Sense is very similar to the left-right ‘pendulum’ tracking shot in the opening train scene in Unbreakable.

After Unbreakable’s brief credit roll, we are introduced to Elijah’s opposite, David Dunn, who is visually framed on a train leaning against the window with his face reflected in the window pane. This scene, which contains nine shots, is marked by a single long take, the longest of the film at 3’49”, which echoes the pre-credit ‘flashback’ scene of Elijah’s birth in its reinvention of the shot-counter shot pattern and thematic parallel between the opposing physical conditions of the two characters, David and Elijah. The camera is placed in the seat in front of David, and frames him through the space in-between the two seats. An attractive young woman sits next to David, and the camera records David’s play for the woman with slow, semi-circular left to right dolly movements which alternatively frame the woman and then David through the seat opening. Where most directors would have handled this exchange by cutting back and forth between close-ups of the two characters, Shyamalan achieves the same narrative effect with more visual dynamism by camera movement and mise en scene.

Modifying Shot/Counter-Shot in Unbreakable

The scene as a whole establishes the diametrically opposite natures of the two characters: in the previous scene Elijah is born with a frail, weakened body, while this scene sets up a scenario where David becomes the sole survivor of a train crash (alluded to but not seen) which kills every passenger. In both cases the acts, Elijah’s condition at birth and David’s train crash survival, shock and amaze the attending doctors and authorities.

Another way that Shyamalan modifies the classical continuity strategy of shot counter shot is by cutting between or panning to real images of one character and a reflected image of the other character(s). This occurs in the opening pre-credit scene in Unbreakable (a wall-sized mirror) and in the second scene in The Sixth Sense with the reflected image of Malcolm and Anna in the glass pane of Malcolm’s civil award plaque being intercut with a two-shot of their living bodies.

Signs penultimate long take sequence shot dissolves to the film’s final shot, another impressive long take sequence shot which represents another common element among the three films (the ‘one scene/one cut’ 4 style is most prominent in Unbreakable). At 1’35” this is the film’s ‘longest’ take, and also introduces a relatively daring formal gesture for a mainstream film, and a first for a Shyamalan film: a manipulation of narrative time within a continuous ‘real time’ long take. The shot begins as a dissolve from the previous ‘epiphany’ scene, reframing the moment from the high angle vantage of the house’s top floor window. We can see, in long shot, the four characters huddled together as they were at the end of the previous shot. As the camera begins to dolly back we can also see the broken shard of the window pane, which confirms a continuous, linear time. It is important to note the brown leaves on the trees that suggest the fall season. The camera continues to dolly screen left past another boarded up window (further confirmation of continuous time). There is a noticeable change in the light quality at this exact point, with the image darkening. The camera continues to pan left across the bedroom, only now we see three windows in normal condition and, most surprisingly, snow falling amid a wintry outdoor setting. Within the continuous panning movement from the first window to the other windows, signaled by the change in light, the narrative has advanced a few months in time (from fall to winter). The camera continues to pan left until arriving at the ajar bathroom door, stops momentarily, and begins to dolly in slowly toward the door. Graham exits from the bathroom, only now we seem him dressed in his minister’s frock. The camera stops at a medium long shot of Graham and fades to black once Graham exits frame left. Although it is fairly common to see this type of time-manipulation within a long take in art-house cinema (for example, certain films by Bernardo Bertolucci, Michelangelo Antonioni, Theo Angelopoulos, Yasujiro Ozu, Andrei Tarkovsky, or Ettore Scola), it is quite rare in mainstream Hollywood film and is another example of Shyamalan stretching the boundaries of classical mainstream style (this time-bending ‘real time’ also occurs in John Sayles’ Lone Star, although Sayles may not be considered as ‘mainstream’ as Shyamalan).

Shyamalan also resorts to a more conventional device by having this sequence shot form a circular structure by echoing the opening scene of the film (the opening shot of the film is from the same window looking down at the same space, and later in that early scene we see Graham in civilian clothes standing in the same bathroom that we see him exit from in this last shot). The scene also falls into the common ‘repetition with difference’ dynamic with Graham exiting the same bathroom but now with his faith in God restored.

Bazinian Homage?

In Bazin’s famous essay on editing, “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage” Bazin uses a scene from the British film Where Vulture’s Fly, set on a game reserve in South Africa, to demonstrate how spatial and temporal continuity can render a sense of realism that heightens a moment’s inherent drama. In the film a young boy picks up an abandoned lion cub and begins to wander home with it. The cub’s mother is alerted to the cub’s absence and begins to stalk the little boy. The scene does cut between the boy and the cub, but there are two key shots where we see the boy and the lioness in the same frame which, Bazin argues, validates and increases the danger of the situation. 5 Shyamalan uses the long take to achieve a similar tension in a scene between the two children and the family dog, Houdini, a large German Shepherd. The shot frames the dog in the left foreground with its back to the camera and the two children in the middleground facing the dog/camera. The children fill the dog’s water bowl, but during the action the dog barks aggressively and begins to growl menacingly at the children. Although we only have a profile view of the dog, we can make out its snarling nose and mouth. True to Bazin, Shyamalan never cuts once during the scene, but holds the static shot for just under a minute (54”) until cutting away.

Read Part 2 Here.


  1. He made two feature films before these three, Praying with Anger (1992) and Wide Awake (1998).
  2. David Bordwell, “Intensified Continuity: Visual Style in Contemporary American Film,” Film Quarterly vol. 55, No. 3, Spring 2002: 16-28.
  3. These statistics were taken watching the complete films on DVD, and not based on a random sampling of each film, as some writers have been known to do. Barry Salt being one who uses 30 minute samplings of films to average out his ASLs. Bordwell does not do this, but calculates the entire film. This makes the task more time consuming (and tiresome), but much more accurate. Having said that, although I stand by these figures, I would not discount the possibility of human error resulting in my having missed one or two cuts along the way; but I am confident in saying that such a minor error would probably not affect an ASL, and surely would not alter the general point with regards to Shyamalan’s cutting style in relation to the majority of US films in the 1990s/early 2000s.
  4. This was a term coined by Japanese critic Sato Tadao in reference to Kenji Mizoguchi.
  5. André Bazin, “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage,” What is Cinema vol. 1, ed. Hugh Gray, Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967, p. 49.

Visual Style in M. Night Shyamalan’s “Fantastic” Trilogy : The Long Take

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 7, Issue 11 / November 2003 Essays   cinematography   film style   genre_horror   horror   m. night shyamalan