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Unbreakable Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 June 2008
ImageFollowing “The Sixth Sense” with almost anything would have caught M. Night Shyamalan some flak, but that which “Unbreakable” attracted seems notably unfair and misinformed.  It has some flaws, and yes, the surprise ending is more depressing than exciting, even astonishing, as in “The Sixth Sense”.  But “Unbreakable” is daring act of courage and integrity; Shyamalan has dared to take very seriously a concept that has never before in movie history been treated with this gravity and reflection.  Perhaps too much so—the movie has an unrelentingly grim tone.

The movie opens with text explaining the popularity of comic books, which must make many viewers blink.  What the heck is this?  But it's part of what Shyamalan is trying to do; it's not a justification for what follows -- but it is a partial explanation for why Shyamalan made the movie in the first place.  If you love and understand comic books, this movie could be a cold-water shock and a warm-water treat—because Shyamalan gets it, but has done something different with his understanding of comics than anyone else has.

Bruce Willis is David Dunn, a regular guy we first see on a train to Pittsburgh.  When the train crashes, Dunn is not only the sole survivor, but he's completely unharmed, a fact which gets him a lot of media attention, however briefly, and a note left under his car's windshield wiper.  The note asks if he's ever been ill. 

Even before Dunn’s story, we've seen the birth and childhood of Elijah Price.  He was born with a rare bone condition, osteogensis imperfecta, that has made his bones as brittle as ceramic.  When he was a boy, his fond mother (we never know a thing about a father) had introduced him to comic books, hoping that the heroes might inspire him.  They did, all right; now as an adult (Samuel L. Jackson), he runs a successful art gallery specializing in comic book illustration, to which he is completely devoted, and about which he is an expert.  He's no geek (though his hairdo amusingly suggests the geek within), but sophisticated, stylish—and very bitter.  He's devoted his life to poring over the results of catastrophic disasters, looking for exactly what he has found in David Dunn: a man as unbreakable as he is frangible himself.  (He even walks with a glass cane, a constant wry reminder of the nickname given him as a child: Mr. Glass.)  Dunn is irked but slightly intrigued. 

He's intrigued partly because his life has lost what little direction it had.  A football star in college, Dunn looked like he was on his way to a pro career when an automobile accident that injured him and his football-disdaining fiancée sidetracked his plans.  He now works as a security guard at the Pittsburgh stadium, and his marriage seems headed for disaster.  His wife Audrey (Robin Wright Penn) sleeps in a separate bedroom, and is distant from his young son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark).  The train had been bringing Dunn back from a trip to New York, where he'd applied for a job -- and where he plans to move without his wife and son.  But the move will bring him no joy, just change.

What Elijah suggests to him astonishes Dunn, who at first simply does not believe the possibility could be real: could he really be incapable of injury?  Could he really have superior strength?  Heightened powers of perception? 

“Unbreakable” follows his voyage of discovery, leading to an intensely suspenseful sequence in a home that has been invaded by a psychopath.

The movie stumbles occasionally.  It's not believable that Dunn would not remember whether he's ever been sick a day in his life, though Shyamalan's sober, straightforward approach almost convinces us.  Also, Audrey works as a physical therapist; the coincidence of Elijah becoming her patient is hard to swallow.

Furthermore, Shyamalan's deliberately-paced style, more in evidence here than in “The Sixth Sense,” may annoy some.  They’ll find the movie boring and uninvolving, and lacking in the occasional horrible shocks that studded “The Sixth Sense” and Shyamalan’s later “Signs.”   The director's style is studied and patient; its rhythms are languorous and elongated, and if you don't tie into them, “Unbreakable” will leave you twitchy and impatient. 

But the style also pays off in ways that a speedier, more conventional style would not; the sequence in which Dunn learns that he really may be much stronger than average is carefully timed, with amusing punctuation shots of his deeply awed and slightly apprehensive son.  These shots, and their graceful, flowing but ironic rhythms are far more effective than the usual stacatto editing would have been. 

We share the characters' amazement and Dunn's growing sense of power.

As a writer, Shyamalan keeps the characters rooted in reality, perhaps a little too much so.  Next to the flamboyant Elijah Price, with his padded luxury car, his sleek clothing and his intensity, Dunn tends to seem like a beige shadow.  The movie is partly a voyage of discovery for Dunn, learning that he may well be someone exceptional; we should have seen more of a dawning sense of  life in Willis' performance; the slight smile he gives his son after the home-invasion scene isn't enough. 

Also, it's possible Willis really wasn't the actor for this role (unlike Jackson, who's brilliant).  When Willis plays an ordinary person, it's an effort; he works so hard at being ordinary that we keep expecting super-Bruce to burst loose at any moment -- he always seems to be hiding something.  But Dunn isn't hiding anything; he really is just an ordinary guy.  Granted, we're coming in on his life as things are quietly crumbling into ruin, but it might have been nice to see some intensity of emotion at some point.

We get a little in the perfectly-written scene in which Joseph pulls a gun on his parents.  At first, they don't know what the heck to do, and clumsily run through a variety of commands, suggestions and entreaties, none of which work.  They don't want to startle the boy, but they don't want him to open fire, either.  Dunn resorts to a kind of dirty trick to get the gun out of the boy's hands, but it's entirely in character. 

There's also an effective scene which finds Elijah in a wheelchair, sitting in sullen anger at the back of a comic book shop.  He's run out of inspiration, he's been blocked by Dunn and his family, and has come here evidently seeking ideas -- but he's so furious that all he can do is sit and stare at the colorful covers.  All his understanding of superheroics hasn't done him any good in this, the most important part of his life.  Jackson's piercing glare and ability to totally own the screen without evidently doing very much at all have rarely been put to better use.  You're looking at a man who wants to explode, but who will literally shatter if he does.  He's brilliant, taut with unfulfilled ideas; he gets our sympathy, but he also scares us -- at this moment, he seems capable of anything. 

Shyamalan's plot is built slowly and carefully, like the movie itself (which was shot in sequence), of intently examined elements that all fit together in a logical, if fantastic, manner.  But a handshake toward the end triggers the wrong kind of surprise; it follows logically on what we've already seen, but that's not to say that we have to like what we learn.  It's an unpleasant surprise, and may be the breaking point for the movie: people like to be surprised, but they don't like to be disappointed.  And the ending, surprise or disappointment, isn’t strong enough; the movie trails off rather than reaching a firmly-presented ending.  We needed to see a suggestion of what Willis’ character will do now, and we needed a change in the glum, grim tone of the film overall.

It’s mostly set at night, often in the rain; high definition does little to improve the visual quality of the night-time scenes, but it’s great for rainfall and the scene in a swimming pool at the end.  But overall, the movie isn’t greatly enhanced by being in high definition.

Shyamalan needed to re-examine the question of pacing; it works better in “Signs” and even “The Village,” but “Lady in the Water” was an all-round failure.  But he knows how to present fantastic material in a low-key, realistic fashion; he has a great sense of design (the shot of Willis and Penn in front of what looks like a Maxfield Parrish mural is beautiful); he has a strong sense of belief in his material, and can make audiences share it, although having the aliens in “Signs” be vulnerable to water was preposterous and unbelievable.   He has a sense of wry humor, and is unafraid of allowing scenes to be funny and tense at the same time.  He still seemed to be a major talent when “Unbreakable” was released.  Not now.  His new “The Happening” is about to premiere, but the trailers are unpromising.

People who never really understood the appeal of comic books are going to find “Unbreakable” pretty tough going, because it is based absolutely rock-solidly in the essential concept that underlies all superhero comics: there are some people who are born to be heroes, people who are put here by fate, God or sheer chance, to protect the rest of us.  The connection to comic books becomes crystal-clear in the moment when Willis hangs up his well-used rain slicker: the hero has just doffed his super-suit.  “Unbreakable” is about the birth of a superhero in the real world.

Accompanying the movie on the Blu-Ray disc is an interesting documentary on comic books and superheroes, featuring comments by Samuel Jackson, Will Eisner, Scott McCloud, Alex Ross, Trina Robbins, Dave Dibbons, Denny O’Neil, Frank Miller and Michael Chabon.  It emphasizes the changes Miller brought to the presentation of comic and their heroes.

There’s the usual collection of deleted scenes, here personally hosted by Shyamalan, who unabashedly boasts about the wonderful quality of the scenes—but, as usual, it’s pretty clear why each was removed.  There’s also a brief segment focusing on Willis, and a segment of an amateur movie made by Shyamalan when he was a teenager; it’s not very interesting.

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