Visual Style in M. Night Shyamalan’s “Fantastic” Trilogy : Mise en Scène

by Donato Totaro Volume 7, Issue 11 / November 2003 21 minutes (5193 words)

Reflected Images & Mirroring Effects

The Sixth Sense

A consistent visual motif across Shyamalan’s trilogy is the use of reflected images. Shyamalan uses objects such as glasses, mirrors, windows, and other reflecting surfaces for a slew of dramatic and thematic reasons. Another formal manifestation of reflection are paralleling shots and symmetrical compositions. Shyamalan uses reflected images with particular retroactive resonance right from the opening scene of The Sixth Sense. Anna returns from the basement with a bottle of wine to celebrate her husband’s civic award for his outstanding work in child therapy. The couple sit in front of a fireplace sarcastically admiring the glass encased plaque. The camera cuts from two-shot of them to a slow dolly in to the plaque, with their reflection visible in the glass cover of the silver plague. Shyamalan cuts “shot counter shot” between the two-shot of their ‘real’ selves and their mirrored images (three times). This is the first of many ‘reflected’ images which becomes a motif with symbolic meaning: the ‘false’ reflected image foreshadows the illusion which the narrative will soon play on the spectator, and can also be read as a metaphor for the false reality of the Malcolm character, who will soon walk through the film as a ‘reflection’ of his living self.

At around forty minutes into The Sixth Sense there is an important moment when Malcolm revisits the location where his journey all began, where (we later learn) he died, and where he last saw his wife alive: the bedroom and adjoining bathroom. The last person we saw in this bathroom was Vincent Grey in the film’s third scene. Shyamalan uses reflected mirror images on three occasions in this ‘primal scene.’ Malcolm walks toward and then looks into the bathroom; there is a cut to his POV: a shot of Anna taking a shower seen the shower stall’s frosted door. The image, however, is a reflection seen through the vanity mirror. Malcolm’s ‘mirrored’ gaze symbolically hints at his ontological status as a ‘non-being’: since he is dead he is not seeing the ‘real’ Anna but a false image.

The 27 shot scene of Kyra’s wake (77’58”-86’33”) is of extreme narrative importance for two reasons. It is the first time we get a back-story on one of the ghosts Cole sees, a young girl named Kyra, in effect humanizing the beings which up until this point had been terrifying Cole (and the audience). The scene transforms the ghosts from ‘monsters’ to ‘victims’. The scene is also the first time that Cole enacts positively on his powers of communication with the dead. In the scene before the wake Cole has a visitation from a young girl who is ill and sickly looking. At first frightened, Cole then realizes the girl is not a threat, but is only seeking help. In a broken voice, he asks her, “Do you want to tell me something?” The scene fades to black and fades into the scene in question, the wake scene. There are two key reflected images in this scene. The scene begins with Malcolm and Cole on a city bus taking them to Kyra’s home. (What a refreshing change to see characters using public transportation instead of a car. Another pointer of the working class ambience Shyamalan wants to evoke.) The scene takes us from the bus into Kyra’s home with three consecutive long takes: the final shot in the bus, a static two-shot of the seated Malcolm and Cole (78’23”-78’53”); a crane shot outside the house filming people as they arrive at the wake (78’53”-79’36”); and an investigatory steadicam shot inside the house, which moves through the solemn guests, to a photo of Kyra, back through the guests, to Malcolm and Cole walking up a flight of stairs, and ending on a family portrait on the staircase wall (79’36”-80’35”). We now get the first of two key ‘reflection’ shots: an extreme close-up of the bright silver door knob (as opposed to the red door knob in Malcolm’s basement door) to Kyra’s bedroom, in which we see the distorted image of Cole, with his hand entering the frame as he slowly opens the door (80’50”). Kyra, who is hiding under her bed, pushes an old brown jewelry box toward Cole. Cole returns to the downstairs floor, and in another steadicam shot, moves through the crowd and hands the brown case to Kyra’s despondent father. The camera dollies around in a 90 degree turn to frame the father opening the box, then cuts to close-up of the wooden box. When the father opens the box we see a video tape placed inside, and also a reflection of the tape in a mirror placed on the underside of the lid (83’46”). The mirror reflection of the video tape, which will shortly incriminate Kyra’s mother of poisoning her daughter, foreshadows the double nature of Kyra’s mother. (Early on in Unbreakable [16’30”] there is a similar mirror reflection effect, only here it is of a human: David opens his locker at work and we see his face reflected in a mirror on the inside of the locker door.)

The visual motif of ‘reflections’ has its strongest thematic resonance in The Unbreakable, which consistently films one of the central characters, Elijah, through reflections. The most obvious meaning this can be ascribed is that Elijah’s congenital condition makes him a living opposite to the other central character, David Dunn. While the latter is physically invincible, Elijah is born with bones that are so brittle that the slightest fall causes them to break. They co-exist as opposites also in the sense of one being the anti-thesis of the other: David the superhero, Elijah the arch super villain. Shooting Elijah rather than David in reflected images renders a visual equivalent to his physical vulnerability: mirrors as fragile objects that also crack at the slightest touch.

This visual signifier of dual meaning (vulnerability and character opposites) occurs right from the beginning of the film, with the opening pre-credit scene in the backroom of a Philadelphia department store, 1961. This sequence shot of 2’08” also initiates the use of long takes in key scenes. The hand-held camera begins on a shot of a group of people entering the room, with a woman introducing a young African-American man as a doctor. The camera tilts down to reveal that the previous image was a reflection in a mirror, which we now see behind an African-American woman lying on a bed with her newborn baby wrapped up in her arms. In a reinvention of the classical shot counter shot, the scene alternates the framing by tilting up/down from the real image of Elijah’s mother to the reflected image of the doctor examining the baby, and panning to the right to the (real) images of the doctor and the other characters standing at the door entrance (mid-wife, police officer, store employees). In this key flashback moment, we learn that Elijah mysteriously was born with broken legs and arms and internal fractures. As noted in part one, this scene then cuts to a ‘mirroring’ introduction of David, who will miraculously survive a train crash which kills every passenger but himself.

David’s son, Joseph, is introduced to us as he watches television. The scene is given a playful element by having the boy lying upside down, which triggers upside down point of view shots of the television image. The scene serves a narrative purpose: Joseph learns about the train crash through a news item; but the scene has an important thematic relevance also because it echoes the introduction to Elijah at the same age as David’s son, several scenes later. The scene introducing the adolescent Elijah begins with an intertitle: West Philadelphia, 1974. The shot begins with a close-up of a young African-American boy, Elijah, with his arm in a sling. As the camera slowly dollies back we first see Elijah’s mother standing behind him, and then the concave edges of a television set, and realize that we are seeing their image reflected in the television screen. In contrast to scene with Joseph, where the television becomes a link to the outside world by informing Joseph of the crash, here the television is turned off, a symbol of Elijah’s alienation from the outside world. And in fact, this is the point of the scene, as Elijah’s mother tries to get her son to leave his solitary existence by tempting him with a present she placed for him on the park bench (a comic book, which will then lead to Elijah’s obsession with comic books).

Shyamalan is quite precise with how he uses the reflected image with the Elijah character, to the point where each time we are first introduced to Elijah at a different age it is in a reflection. The first time is as a newborn, in the pre-credit scene, reflected in the large wall mirror, and then at age 13 on the television screen, and then as an adult reflected in the glass frame of a comic drawing. In this single long take which introduces us to the adult Elijah character (Samuel L. Jackson) we learn a lot about the Elijah character: the seriousness with which he holds comics as an art form; his intelligence; his moral rigidity and single mindedness and his physical frailty. The camera dollies back slightly from the glass until it frames the full drawing flanked by the image of Elijah and the potential customer. Elijah talks throughout the shot, enlightening the customer on the artistic merits of the drawing. When Elijah finds out that the man is buying the drawing for his four year old son, he explodes in anger, and informs the man that he is not in an art gallery, not a toy shop, and refuses to sell him the drawing.

Elijah Grows Up: At Birth / At Age 13 / At Age 39

Shyamalan also underscores the doppelgänger status of David and Elijah through composition and art design. The first time David and Elijah meet is at Elijah’s gallery. David and his son Joseph enter the gallery’s glass doors (27’43”) and the camera is on the outside looking in at David and Joseph in the foreground, with pedestrian traffic seen reflected in the door, and Elijah standing dramatically in an archway in the extreme background (much like the introduction of the vampire in Nosferatu). The shot cuts to them seated opposite each other at a desk. Like in the kitchen scene in The Sixth Sense, the camera tracks screen right from David/Joseph across the table to Elijah and then back to David/Joseph (27’48”-28’43”). Another example occurs in a long take (38’42”-40’54”) that takes place in the runway corridor leading to a football stadium. David and Elijah are standing facing each other with the camera filming them in profile in a low angle, medium shot. A little over a minute into the shot the camera begins to dolly back slowly into the dark corridor, leaving the two men in a dark ‘mirroring’ silhouette which underscores their duality.

A similar compositional strategy is used by Shyamalan in The Sixth Sense during the first official meeting between Cole and Malcolm (20’22”-26’18”). The scene begins with a mirroring effect achieved by the compositional placement of Cole’s mother Lynn framed in profile at the left edge of the frame, opposite Malcolm seated at the right edge of the frame, with the front door directly between them in the background. The impression we get is that Lynn and Malcolm are looking at each other, and perhaps are at the end of a conversation about Cole. Rather than suggesting a duality between Lynn and Malcolm, as in Unbreakable, the subtle effect of the symmetrical composition here is to place Malcolm on the same ‘ontological’ level as Lynn: as a real, living being.

In Unbreakable’s final scene, Shyamalan pulls out all the stops to formally underscore this yin and yang aspect of David and Elijah, combining editing, camera movement, and art direction. The gallery studio back room where the final ‘revelation’ scene between David and Elijah takes place has a black and white tiled floor which reflects their ‘yin and yang’ nature. Elijah sets up his dramatic revelation by offering his hand to David -“I think this is where we shake hands”- and the camera dollies 90 degrees to frame the two hands shaking in a symmetrical profile. After Elijah’s revelation of his crimes (presented in a montage flashback) the scene cuts to a quick shot of Malcolm breaking off the hand shake.

The camera movement underscores this separation by performing two identical quick hand-held track back movements, first moving back from David and then moving back from Elijah. From this point on David and Elijah are kept isolated in the frame through ‘separation’ editing, until the final hand-held dolly back shot of David walking away from Elijah, who becomes progressively less visible in the distant background as the camera dollies out.

Director of photographer Eduardo Serra explains how this was a formal strategy for the film in an interview of the DVD: “Another reason to build that kind of structure where David would go from cool to warm and Elijah from warm to cool, it was the idea of reflections and inverted images and symmetrical things, because there is something symmetrical about Elijah and David.”

Although less important than in The Sixth Sense and (especially) Unbreakable, reflected imagery still plays a significant role in Signs. The central difference is that its use is largely restricted to the end of the film. However, the way in which the reflected imagery is used, as well as its timing, coming immediately after the tense basement scene, makes it a powerful device. The first time we see a reflected image is in the scene where the family come up from their refuge in the basement. It is daylight and all seems tranquil in the home. An extremely long take (1’19”) begins with the camera following Graham as he slowly walks through the house. Our clue that Graham feels certain that things have returned to normal is when he takes the television set out of the closet and begins to roll it into the living room. This sets up one of the most effective ‘startle effect’ scares in the movie. As Graham rolls the television set by the camera in close range, there is a loud percussive sound which underscores a dramatic revelation: reflected on the television set is an alien standing menacingly in their living room. The alien is seen reflected on the television set on several occasions during this scene, culminating in the final shot of the confrontation, where the camera dollies back from the reflected image of the fallen, dying alien. These shots are identical to the image of an adolescent Elijah reflected on the television set in Unbreakable.

TV ‘Reflections’ in Unbreakable and Signs

There are two other variations on the reflected image in this scene. In the first example, the alien and Merrill are seemingly reflected in a clear drinking glass that is in the middle of the frame in extreme close-up. However, when Merrill’s blow knocks the alien against the table and causes the glass to fall forward, we realize that the camera was looking through the glass rather into the glass (a playful visual pun on Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass”?).

At this moment we see the fatal effects that water have on the aliens. The drops of water that fall out of the upturned glass acts like an acid burning into the alien’s shoulder. Shyamalan dramatizes the alien’s ‘Achilles heel’ with two quick jump cuts that move in closer to the alien’s bloodied, burning shoulder. This jump cut scene has two identical equivalents in The Sixth Sense: the two point of view cuts into Cole’s handwritten paper during the ‘free association’ scene; and the 2 jump cuts that take us in closer to the three hanging bodies in Cole’s school hallway.

Earlier in the scene we also see a brief shot of Merrill’s face reflected in one of his baseball plaques hanging on the living room wall. The other variation on the reflected image is in the alien’s chameleon-like, camouflaging ability to literally ‘blend’ into its environment (the alien’s arm that blends into the plaid pattern of Morgan’s shirt while he holds his body across his arms, and the appearance of Bo’s screaming face on the alien’s back).

The above description of the reflected imagery in Signs points to another mise en scène feature common to all three films: the presence of the television. In part, the television functions within the larger noted context of the domestic space and the visual motif of the reflected image. However, it has other functions as well. In The Sixth Sense the television has positive, life-affirming qualities and revelatory power. There are two scenes, including the final scene, where Malcolm returns home to find the wedding video playing on the television; the wedding video is something that links him to his wife, since she is the one who puts it on to help deal with her loss, while it serves a similar function for Malcolm, helping him come to terms with his ‘living dead’ state. The revelation of Kyra’s mother as having poisoned their terminally ill daughter is transmitted to the father by a video tape filmed by the daughter and handed over by the dead daughter to her father through Cole. This is an important moment because it is the first time that Cole acts on his preternatural abilities to help one of the ghosts. In Signs, the reflection of the alien on the television set is an indication that the domestic space is still unsafe and threatened.

The Sixth Sense / The Sixth Sense / Signs

To return one final time to part one’s subject, Shyamalan uses the long take as a structural mirroring device in the hospital scene from Unbreakable. The scene (9’51”-13’47”) is composed of two long takes of roughly equal length (2’06” and 1’50”) that reflect the motif of mirrored reversals in their stylistic difference. The opening shot begins with an extreme long shot of David, sitting on the side of a hospital bed, framed through the opening of the hospital privacy drapes. This frame within a frame device recalls the long take on the train which filmed David through the seat spacing. The camera remains static for the majority of the shot, and then begins to slowly dolly in for the final seconds before dissolving to the next long take, which begins as an objective shot of David walking out of the examining room into the corridor. The voice-over of the doctor explaining how he miraculously came out of the train crash unscathed continues over this next shot. The camera pans right to reveal a corridor full of despondent people who, we can assume, are the friends and family of the train crash victims. The shot now assumes David’s guilt-ridden state of mind as it pans 360 degrees across the shattered looking people, ending up back on David. It then performs another similar 360 objective/subjective/objective shift panning from David, across the corridor until it picks up his son Joseph and wife Audrey, and then following Joseph as he runs to embrace his father. The eerily ambient sound coupled with the steadicam’s feel of weightless detachment adds an otherworldly quality to the shot which underscores David’s sense of emotional alienation from his surroundings. This second long take, with its constant movement and shifts in point of view, forms a mirror reversal to the first long take, which was mainly static and objective.

Generic Influence and Other Allusions

I would like to conclude my analysis with a few general observations stemming from the trilogy’s relationship to generic (horror/the fantastic/science fiction) tradition. The Sixth Sense was Shyamalan’s major breakthrough hit. Splattered across the film’s “Collector’s Edition Series” DVD cover is the sentence “The #1 Thriller of All Time!” For those of us who know better (and care), The Sixth Sense is a horror film, not a thriller. 1 A film with bloodied ghosts walking among the living, terrifying a young boy and leaving deep emotional scars is the stuff of horror films. North by Northwest and Speed are thrillers; The Sixth Sense is horror. Having said that, the issue comes down to marketing, and the very real fact that there are two definitions (and uses) of genre. The distinction comes down to what Tom Gunning refers to as genre as an “industry term” and genre as a “critical term.” 2 When studios market a horror film as a “thriller” it is the studio’s idea of stretching out for a broader, mainstream audience, regardless of how it fits in with previous incarnations. The industry definition of genre is much more flexible, permeable, and less historical. The critical definition is more rigid, theoretical, and attentive to historical trends (which would, for example, compare The Sixth Sense to other atmospheric horror films such as the films of Val Lewton, The Blair Witch Project (1999), or The Others (2001), rather than other “thrillers.”) Although Unbreakable is clearly not a horror film, Signs does straddle the horror and science-fiction genres, in much the same way as, for example, Alien (1979) or The Thing (1982). Signs contains the semantics of the science fiction film (space ships, signs of alien visitation, alien beings), but strays into horror film syntax (visceral suspense, paranoia, threat of violent death, etc.). Some of these syntactical elements even affected how Shyamalan used the long take in Signs.

I have already noted that Signs is more guilty of being a ‘message’ film than either of the first two films of the trilogy, but in Signs Shyamalan still displays a formidable visual style that would have been more than enough to relay the film’s ‘subtext’ to even the less than sophisticated viewer. An integral aspect of his visual style is, again, the deliberate and schematic use of the long take. Where this film differs slightly from the previous two is that Shyamalan employs an almost constant moving camera in Signs, especially from the moment at which the family begins to barricade themselves in the house against the attacking aliens (from about 70’00” on). (There is still considerable camera movement in The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, only there more of it in Signs.) As a general observation, this decision to keep the camera in near constant movement, dollying forward/backward, laterally, panning/tilting, and hand-held or on a steadicam, helps to offset the restricted location work. Most of the film takes place inside the Hess farmhouse, so keeping the camera in movement adds a sense of dynamism to the otherwise static location. A second reason relates to the nature of the narrative, which is much more dependent on the type of visceral suspense associated with the horror film than either The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable. Much of the film’s suspense and fear factor stems from the manner in which the alien presence is felt. The aliens are rarely seen but remain an omnipotent threat through offscreen space, dialogue, and sound. A constantly (and slowly) moving camera aids in intensifying the threat posed by offscreen space.

Another important stylistic camera movement distinction in Signs is that there are more instances of ‘assertive’ camera movements here than in the two previous films. By ‘assertive’ I am referring to camera movements that are not motivated by a character or object moving in the frame. A great example comes right after they have finished boarding up the house, and moments before the aliens begin the siege on the house. The scene begins (75’05”) with a striking four shot of the family framed in an oblique long shot between the living room entrance (75’13”, a shot which clearly shows the acknowledged influence of The Birds).

Domestic Space Threatened in Signs and The Birds (1963)

The sound of a barking dog is heard offscreen. Morgan speaks the only dialogue: “We forgot Isabelle (the pet dog).” The shot cuts to a shot inside the living room, with the camera already in its forward movement, slowly craning over the couch toward the red wall which, we can only assume, is facing the direction of the barking dog. As the camera nears the wall, the barking comes to a stifled end, implying that an alien has killed the dog (the shot lasts 26”). Another example is the tracking shot in the basement scene that searches across the room to ‘find’ a radio sitting on the shelf. The assertive camera movement is a common stylistic/formal element of the horror genre. Hence this increase in assertive camera movements can also be explained by the fact that Signs aims closer to the visceral and emotional conventions of the horror film than either The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable.

Shyamalan has acknowledged the spiritual nature of his works, and with this in mind I find it interesting that Unbreakable makes subtle allusions to a director, Andrei Tarkovsky who a) never shied away from religious and spiritual questions and b) employed the long take to a greater aesthetic extent than, arguably, any other director of his time. The Tarkovsky film which Unbreakable references is Stalker (1979). To begin, the David Dunn character, with his crew cut hair and round face, recalls the physical appearance of the titular character in Stalker. Also, we are introduced to David on a train, which in effect signals the beginning of his journey of self-discovery, which parallels the famous trolley scene in Stalker in which the stalker accompanies two other characters to a place called the ‘zone’ which will in effect become a journey of self-discovery. At the end of the train scene in Unbreakable, David begins to sense that the train is about to crash, and Shyamalan triggers the awareness by slowing down the action, and filming David in close-up with a telephoto lens which makes the background a passing blur. This short shot is similar to the aesthetic quality of the trolley scene, which is composed mainly of lingering, telephoto close-ups that create a geography of the face and out of focus backgrounds. The allusion to Stalker is assuredly confirmed by what I call the “stalker shot,” which appears early in the film at 18’49”. The relatively brief shot (17 seconds) is an aerial overhead shot of the Dunn family’s bed, beginning over their night-table as David turns on a night light, and then tracks left to follow David’s head turning to look at Joseph sleeping next to him, past the sleeping Joseph to the opposite night table, on which we see an alarm clock visible. The shot is identical to a shot early on in Stalker where an overhead aerial camera tracks across the stalker’s bed, beginning with the night table and its objects, and tracking the same direction (screen left) to film the stalker’s wife, sleeping daughter, and the stalker, who is awake. The difference is that in Stalker the camera retraces its movement by tracking back screen right to end up back on the initial night table. In Unbreakable the shot does register some narrative information. By showing us that David’s wife is not sleeping in the same bed, it informs us that their marriage is in trouble (as the next scenes confirm). The long take in the first kitchen scene in The Sixth Sense also has a possible allusion to Tarkovsky. After the discussion between Cole and his mother ends, Cole leaves the kitchen table and the long take cuts to the film’s first subjective shot: the mother’s point of view of Cole’s handprint on the table, formed by either sweat or condensation, quickly evaporating. A similar effect occurs in a scene from Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1975), where an enigmatic dialogue exchange between an adolescent boy and an unknown female character, who may be a ghost from the past, ends with a shot of the condensation formed by the bottom of the lady’s tea cup quickly evaporating.

On the DVD ‘making of’ documentary Shyamalan mentions three films that were on his mind while making this film: The Birds (the unexplained nature of the bird attacks, the way the family barricades themselves in their home in preparation for the final attack), Night of the Living Dead (the unknown reason for the source of living dead, the farmhouse location, the barricaded house, plus the decision to seek refuge in the basement), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the sense of paranoia about when/where the ‘alien’ will attack, the invasion from outer space). I clearly see the influence of these films, but would add The War of the Worlds (as a more direct and earlier version of the ‘alien Armageddon’ scenario, and the plot point of the aliens being defeated by a rather innocuous element: the common cold in the 1953 film and water in Signs; in fact, at one point in the film Merrill even says, “It’s like War of the Worlds,” which tells me that Shyamalan was obviously aware of this parallel), and The Exorcist (the man of the cloth who has a crisis of faith, the single parent dealing with a ‘family’ crisis, an alien (here the devil) ‘invasion’ (here possession) of the body that becomes a test of the inner self, plus isolated moments such as the use of the loud phone ring as a startle effect, the shot of Graham seated on the steps with the living room visible in the background, and the hospital scene where a distraught Lynn angrily asks the doctor what is wrong with her son (daughter in The Exorcist).

All this is to say that, consciously or not, Shyamalan has had a large influence on the recent upsurge in popularity of the horror film in North America. Nothing speaks louder than the chink of the cash register to potential film investors, and the enormous success of the three films (notably The Sixth Sense and Signs) has once again reminded producers that audiences are ripe for the intense visceral emotional experience of the horror film when guided by a thoughtful and intelligent artist. Shyamalan is clearly that, and viewers are doubly rewarded by a visual style that enriches the narrative’s themes and meanings through a nuanced mise en scène and methodical pacing that is not afraid to slow down the tempo for extended periods of time or reinvent classical approaches to narrative continuity. In an era where entertainment is usually measured by spectacle and action, it is refreshing to see a young filmmaker engaged by serious and mature issues and in turn see that audiences are engaged with his intelligent and thoughtful cinematic expression of the issues.

Read Part 1 Here.


  1. With the imminent release of Shyamalan’s The Village, I may have to readjust this is his tetralogy. However, the point remains. On the Touchstone Pictures Official website of the movie they refer to The Village as Shyamalan’s “chilling new thriller.”
  2. Tom Gunning, “Those Drawn with a Very Fine Camel’s Hair Brush: The Origins of Film Genres,” in Iris n. 20 (Autumn 1995): pp 49 – 61.

Visual Style in M. Night Shyamalan’s “Fantastic” Trilogy : Mise en Scène

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