|Unbreakable (2-Disc Vista Series)|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 26 June 2001|
It is no exaggeration to say that "Unbreakable" is enough to restore one’s faith in the art of storytelling and in the possibilities of finding new, powerful ways to reimagine a classic premise. The problem here is to describe exactly what it is that writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has so deftly and resonantly brought to life from a new angle risks wrecking the sense of discovery for the first-time viewer.
The DVD supplements unfortunately give part of the game away – even those who missed all discussion of "Unbreakable" and its several potent plot twists during its theatrical release last year can’t help but deduce that the movie has something to do with comic books. This seems odd given the movie’s deliberately dark, desaturated and mundane looks. For quite awhile, filmmaker Shyamalan succeeds in keeping the audience in the ark as to where his tale is headed. We’re not alone in our bafflement. Protagonist David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a security guard at a Philadelphia sports station, also cannot fathom the meaning of some strange events in his life. We meet David on a train bound for Penn Station. The train never makes it. David awakens in a hospital bed to discover that he’s the sole survivor of a horrible crash that took the lives of everyone else aboard; more, he’s come through without a scratch. This fact, announced on the news is of great significance to Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson). As we know from an opening sequence, Elijah has a genetic condition that causes him to be so fragile that his arms and legs broke when his mother (Charlayne Woodard) gave birth to him. Elijah is convinced he knows the reason that David survived the wreck, but getting David to believe the theory – much less to act on it – is quite a task.
It might be more instructive to explain what "Unbreakable" is not than what it is. David isn’t a ghost and there’s no Grim Reaper trying to catch the one that got away, a la "Final Destination." There is a single supernatural element at the core of the story, but Shyamalan, even more than he did in his 1999 hit "The Sixth Sense," makes it his mission to ground events and characters in as much reality as possible. David has marital problems, hesitates to relate to his young son and toils at a relatively mundane job; he’s very much an Everyman. The world of "Unbreakable" is completely familiar to all of us – it’s what makes it so plausible, thrilling and eventually terrifying.
Shyamalan’s skill is also evident in his work with his cast, especially Willis. The director brings out the absolute best in the actor, who shows great sensitivity, solemnity and depth here. Jackson is a brilliant choice for Elijah, a perfect example of an actor redefining what could be a stereotypical character. Elijah as conceived has the potential to come off as a geek, but Jackson is surely the least geeky person on the planet; his authority demands that we take Elijah seriously. Robin Wright Penn provides excellent support as David’s wife and Spencer Treat Clark is wonderfully intense as David’s loving but conflicted son.
The DTS sound on the DVD is marvelously detailed and dimensional, although much more subdued than we might expect. For instance, we don’t get the train crash, only its aftermath. This avoidance of typical attention-getting sequences is a hallmark of Shyamalan’s determination to involve us by unconventional means. Chapter 1 plants us sonically on the train next to David, with an eardrum-packing rumble moving front to back through the speakers every time we pass through a tunnel. Chapter 5 gives us the specific sound of raindrops landing on a slicker, an effect that resonates later emotionally. Chapter 10 has marvelous crowd sounds, with individual voices and footfalls moving through each of the speakers. Chapter 11 uses realistic sounds for horrific effect, shocking us simply with the sound of a body striking stairs and bones breaking. Chapter 21 has terrifically lifelike crackling glass, fire and rattling metal in the center and mains, highlighted like dialogue in the sound placement. Chapter 22, when the film’s supernatural elements heighten and the third act commences, has a jolting, booming effect that swoops out of the mains at the listener, using sound to put us in David’s startled, haunted shoes. Chapter 23 has amazingly precise rain effects – water drips off a porch roof in the right rear so convincingly that listeners may momentarily check for a ceiling leak. Later in the same chapter, an object hits a tarpaulin with an unnerving, muffled sound.
Special note should be made of James Newton Howard’s score, which intelligently goes for emotional impact rather than obvious choices, so that the music soars majestically and mournfully where another composer might have used something more percussive to go with a sequence’s action and suspense. Overall, the film continually holds our attention by using small sounds – door creaks, a rush of wind – in the midst of utter quiet, creating a sense of true dread that becomes ever more pervasive.
It’s a little odd that the two-disc set lacks an feature-length audio commentary track, but Shyamalan is very articulate in both the making-of featurette and in his introductions to seven intriguing (and handsomely sound-mixed) deleted sequences. The making-of segment is helpfully broken into chapters and has an informative segment on sound design. There is also an adorable clip from a film made by Shyamalan in his adolescence that speaks well of his good sportsmanship and should encourage budding filmmakers everywhere – if the director of "Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable" started out with material like this, no beginning is too hopeless.
Any first-time viewers of "Unbreakable" should avoid viewing the supplemental footage until after watching the feature. Although "Unbreakable" is by no means a horror film or even a suspense thriller in conventional terms – what it actually turns out to be is one of the movie’s most ingenious elements – it does have a couple of nail-biting sequences, including one at a family breakfast table in Chapter 16 that can leave the audiences breathless. There’s a twist ending that, like the climax to "Sixth Sense," hides in plain sight for the duration without ever tipping its hand.
"Unbreakable" is an original, always true to itself and honorable to its audience. By the time it’s over, its treatment of its themes has become unforgettable.