Unbreakable (2000)

D: M. Night Shyamalan
S: Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson

Unbreakable is an odd movie. It is difficult to discuss without explaining the plot in a way which spoils the effect of watching it, so if you're concerned about spoilers, you're best off skipping to the end of this page for a final summation. Still here? Okay. Let's look at the story this way: David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is an ordinary man who survives a train crash unharmed when everyone else is killed. He is approached by Elija Price (Samuel L. Jackson) a mysterious stranger in a long purple coat. Price suffers from an illness which makes his bones extremely brittle, and he is intrigued this man who seems superhuman when he himself is so frail. With the help of this wealthy benefactor (who later ends up in a wheelchair), our hero begins to realise that he is not like other men, and may, in fact, be one of a rare breed of superhuman beings whose real-life exploits may have inspired the comic book versions. Yes, thought of this way, this is the stuff of comic books. Viewed as one of a series of movies including Mystery Men and X-Men Unbreakable sort of makes sense. It is a variant on themes and plots explored in superhero stories which takes an unusual angle on the action. Mystery Men was a parody which exaggerated everything in an already exaggerated world, X-Men was the opposite; a quasi-realistic depiction of incredible characters and situations. Unbreakable is closer in spirit to the latter, an attempt to explore the thin line between myth and reality, a journey along the fissures of the everyday through which the world of the extraordinary can occasionally be glimpsed. In this respect, it is also closely related to writer/producer/director M. Night Shyamalan's previous The Sixth Sense.

Though it really doesn't resemble it closely, the fact is that Unbreakable would probably not have been made had it not been for The Sixth Sense. It is a peculiar film with an intriguing but vague premise and characters who only become interesting in retrospect. It would have been difficult to pitch and almost impossible to make without severe distortion and interference had its creator not already stunned the moneymen with a $650 million hit. It is quite a personal film which emphasises family drama and emotional states over plot. It has been shot with an eye for mood and tone and is paced at a steady crawl which is far from punter friendly. It is very serious about a subject which could easily trip into apologetic self-parody, and, like its predecessor, concludes with a last minute revelation which supposedly contextualises everything which has gone before it (although in this case it also runs the risk of trivialising it). It is clearly the work of a writer/director with a genuine interest in what he's doing rather than in its commercial possibilities.

The film is often fascinating. Though there are some strikingly designed scenes and set pieces, the world the film portrays is only slightly different from our own, as much a question of a shift in perspective as in reality itself. The images have been carefully crafted with terrific attention to detail. Shyamalan, cinematographer Eduardo Serra and designers Larry Fulton (production), Steve Arnold (art), and Joanna Johnston (costumes) have been very clever with the palette of the traditional comic book. They subtly embody the texture, colour, and lighting of comic books in the film in a non-obtrusive and naturalistic way; virtually the exact opposite of what Warren Beatty and Vittorio Storaro cooked up for Dick Tracy. Its treatment of the superhuman is likewise deliberately mundane. As Dunn discovers his powers, there is no adrenaline rush to a swell of John Williams music. Instead Shyamalan creates a sense of unease and uncertainty to quiet underscore by James Newton Howard, and even the big action scene with which the film reaches its climax happens more as if in a waking dream than an outright fantasy. In this sense the film is quite un-Hollywood in its tone and style while being purely Hollywood in its theme. It's a peculiar mixture which stops short of breaking the mould (so to speak), but has its points of interest.

Bruce Willis could be accused of not doing very much, but his downplay is again part of the film (as it was in The Sixth Sense). His slow, skeptical, and uncomprehending realisation of his own nature takes place against a backdrop of martial and paternal drama which leaves him tired and vulnerable emotionally in a way his body is not physically. The result is an intentional schizm between the power and energy associated with a superhero and the more conventional rigours of married life for a normal human being. Rather than live an exciting and adventurous dual life, Dunn is consistently contemplative about who he is and what direction his life is taking. By the end of the movie there is only a suggestion that he has found himself in this new world, and even that is undermined by the final revelation (does he drop the whole thing knowing what he knows now or does he go on doing good deeds? was he really just lucky after all and found himself drawn into the ravings of a madman almost at the cost of his life?) Jackson also gives an interesting performance in these terms, though the film is not quite canny enough to suggest that his obsessiveness may hint at a deeper spiritual unrest from the outset. He seems more calm about his theories than he should, when a touch of edginess might have kept things more ambiguous throughout. The actor does a good job of conveying the physical distress of a person in his condition, but infrequently reveals its deeper effects until the script deems it appropriate. This is a cheat in the way that the end of The Sixth Sense was not, a shaggy dog story wrap up which comes off more like a punchline than an inevitable conclusion.

Apart from its superhero plot, the script, as noted, attempts to emphasise domestic and emotional drama and repeat the trick which made The Sixth Sense so compelling. Unfortunately this one is not quite as good. There are some genuinely effective scenes between Willis and Robin Wright Penn as the couple on the verge of marital breakdown, but the relationship between Willis and Spencer Treat Clark as his son is less authentic. The script seems uncertain about how to organise these characters relative to the two sets of concerns, and frequently seems to jump uncomfortably from 'real' to 'unreal' in a way which is more clumsy than it is ambiguous. It also takes a very long time about moving the narrative forward and is so low-key and (for want of a better word) 'arty' about it that the viewer is invited to seek depth and profundity which it simply doesn't have. This is not as rich and resonant a tale as it seems to think it is, or perhaps it just stretches the premise too far. The result is that the 'serious' character relationships just aren't interesting enough to hold it steady as the comic book plot gradually unfolds. It often feels too schematic for its own good and then wraps so quickly (with the aforementioned 'twist' and its unanswered questions) that you feel cheated. Rumours that it is the intended beginning of a trilogy await verification.

Unbreakable is nonetheless probably worth seeing. It's the kind of film you don't see very often from the main stream, especially since the 'auteur rampant' syndrome produced such misfires as Heaven's Gate and Mars Attacks! (talk about your bizarre juxtapositions). It is interesting though, especially in the light of the likes of X-Men. It is one to talk about with friends once you've seen it. But it will have trouble finding its audience. It is arguably too slow for casual viewers, not fast enough for juveniles, and just not meaty enough for cinephiles. It is has worthwhile elements for all of these groups though, and could strike any of them well if they are in the right mood beforehand. It is technically well crafted and tends to stick in the mind afterwards. It's not exactly fun, but it is not boring either. Yet it is also very easy to dismiss as a half-baked cinematic doodle which eventually tips its hand and becomes foolish, which is too great a risk to make it an unconditional recommendation.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.