Revered or reviled, M. Night Shyamalan's movies are sure-fire guarantees for hot debate. With Unbreakable (2000), his second main feature, he tackled the superhero genre after his runaway success with the ghostly yarn, The Sixth Sense, the year before. But the rot that tends to plague intelligent and highly individual auteur from Tinseltown evidently set in quite early with the filmmaker, who, with Unbreakable, managed to utterly divide audiences with his frustratingly obtuse narrative style and - in what would foreshadow his later movies -something of a lack in proper thematic pay-off.
Attracting Bruce Willis back under his wing after the pair enjoyed the experience and success of The Sixth Sense, the seed seemed ripe for another bout of clever, incisive and left-field examinations of a well-known and loved genre. Playing stadium security guard and deeply disillusioned family man, David Dunn, Willis portrays a man whose dormant superpowers have led to a severely unfulfilled life due to his sincere incomprehension of their existence. Returning to Philadelphia from a job interview in New York - an effort to break away from the stagnant marriage he has with Robin Wright Penn's Audrey - his train derails and everybody onboard is killed. Everybody that is, except for him. David Dunn emerges from the horrific wreckage completely unscathed, his miraculous escape making him a sort of local celebrity.
But this notoriety attracts the obsessive attention of Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), the esteemed owner of a gallery called Limited Edition, a gallery that celebrates the imagery from comic books and the superhero genre. Born with a genetic disorder that means his body doesn't produce enough of a certain protein to stop his bones from breaking and healing properly, Elijah is a fragile shell of a man, his mind and his perceptions acutely honed in compensation. Encouraged to live life and not hide away throughout his difficult childhood, Elijah found solace and comfort in the pages of comic books and their mythology has inadvertently shaped his outlook and his destiny. In the staunch belief that if he lies at one of the spectrum - frail and easily broken - then somebody else must reside at the opposite end - strong and unbreakable. A superhero. This quest to find such a person has led Elijah to scour the world's events - disasters, accidents etc - in the hope that he will eventually discover someone with the same attributes that his comic book heroes possess, somehow proving his theory that the superhero mythology is actually based on some kind of hidden historical truth.
David Dunn seems to fit that profile. He appears to be unbreakable.
With Elijah pestering him and his own half-forgotten past yielding yet more clues that appear to substantiate the outlandish notion that he is some sort of “protector”, Dunn's events to carry on his normal life fail. The sadness that he feels each and every morning when he wakes up gradually begins to fade away as, more and more, the evidence mounts up and Dunn begins to feel ... more than he once was. The trick, of course, is that he has always been this way. But, afraid and unsure of these emotions and sensations - he has a disturbing ability to detect the motivations and, in some cases, the crimes of certain individuals that he comes into contact with - he has let them eat away at his confidence and sense of well-being. Elijah, though, sees through all this and seems determined to help Dunn achieve his full potential. But the final truth will be damaging and, once the two men set off along this path, there will be no turning back from its shattering conclusion.
Like all of Shyamalan's movies, Unbreakable is both fascinating and infuriating. A highly unique and individual filmmaker, Shyamalan's visions are peculiarly idiosyncratic - emotionally powerful yet oddly disconnected; chock-full of ideas, yet somewhat loathe to fully explore them. His patented twist endings - all of which I think have been quite obvious right from the word go - can often be a distraction to the narrative flow of the preceding movie, possibly even rendering the film completely superfluous once the rug-pulling has taken place. The Village and The Sixth Sense are prime examples of this. But Shyamalan is working hard to craft fables ... and within that spectrum of the imagination he can, and does, get away with pretty much anything. Well, if you discount The Lady In The Water, that is - which it is hard to deny went too far into the realms of insubstantial and meaningless tedium. He paints pictures of mood and introspection, taking big concepts and whittling them down so as to remove any temptation for conventional and formulaic extravagance. For Shyamalan, the meat of the matter is in how the incredible affects the mundane. His films chronicle relationships - husbands and wives, families, friends - and, through crazy stories he seeks to explore what makes these bonds work, and what has the capacity to destroy them, which is quite commendable. The problem lies within the structure of these stories and how he constantly refuses to deliver the narrative flow that your own instincts inform you should occur. The feeling you get with his films is that he is not only not telling you the full story, but that he is not actually telling you the right story. Just like his central character here, of David Dunn, we are often left slightly bewildered and vaguely unsatisfied by the unfolding tale. That queasy feeling of “did I miss something?” prevails throughout his work.
Unbreakable can't help but follow this template to the letter. Even though the story goes somewhere pretty important and revelatory, there is still the nagging thought at the end of it all that it hasn't actually gone anywhere.
Shyamalan deliberately avoids showing us the BIG moments in his films. The alien invasion in Signs (which, by the way, I think is his best production by far) is the most overt example. And here he allows us to visualise the pivotal train crash without actually showing anything at all of it. Likewise, he doesn't really show us Dunn's embracing of his powers in anything resembling the conventional manner. No Peter Parker scaling walls and leaping between buildings here! A slowly escalating realisation of potential is one thing, but Shyamalan teases us with snippets of greatness here and there that we will not have fulfilled. Arguably, the scumbags that Dunn gleans crimes from in the signature train station sequence - particularly that loathsome sack of offal that smashes a bottle over an innocent woman's head in a vicious drive-by - leaves you thirsting for more vengeance, yet we are privileged to witness just the one bout of heroics. Surely something of a montage during the credits, or merely just a glance at some press-cuttings would have served better. Once this carrot has been dangled, it is both unfair and unwise not to allow us more than just a nibble. And the character of Elijah Price, at first a deeply intense and intelligent creation, becomes nothing more than a two-dimensional device. Jackson is great in the role, but Price is uncompleted, Shyamalan - who, of course, wrote the film - too smitten with the face-value ethics of this warped eccentric to make him a fully rounded character. Elijah's shadow looms large over the proceedings, but it remains just an insubstantial cloud of metaphorical mentor. And I'm afraid that those who have already seen the film can't really, in all honesty, say that the ending works. Projected first part of a trilogy - which I've never bought into - notwithstanding, the climax is patently ridiculous and further seems to establish the idea that Shyamalan first comes up with a final twist and then works it backwards. And not altogether successfully for Unbreakable has many holes and many diversions that simply don't add up. Does Dunn have memory loss? Why doesn't he know how many sick days he has had? I must admit I can't recall the exact number of mine either - real or bogus (!) - but I'm absolutely one hundred per cent certain that I would know if I'd never had any! And the thing with water possibly being his Achilles heel, his Kryptonite, is ... well, lame as hell. This is Shyamalan suddenly remembering that superheroes are meant to have some form of weakness to balance out their powers and allow for a moment of jeopardy.
And pacing is hardly his strong point either, with Unbreakable moving at a funereal trudge. A film doesn't have to be slow to be dark, melancholic and moving.
The thing is, Shyamalan does two things incredibly well. No matter how you feel about his storytelling abilities, he does create a wonderfully tangible atmosphere and he always coaxes marvellous performances from his leads and the numerous child actors that he uses. Haley Joel Osment was superb in The Sixth Sense, as was Bruce Willis. And here, again, Bruce Willis excels in what is quite a difficult role, as well as interacting with supreme believability with another child star. Spencer Treat Clark wasn't exactly the best thing about Gladiator, but his crucial relationship with his almost estranged father in Unbreakable is a credible and touching one. The scenes of their mutual realisation of Dunn's latent abilities are wonderfully understated and both reveal textures of character that entrench the film in reality. Willis plays Dunn as a frightened man, so lost in the unwitting suppression of his own powers that he cannot properly adjust to the world around him. There's a hint of David Cronenberg's Scanners to this element of an advanced individual falling foul of his own perceived outsider status, and Willis is superb at giving Dunn a dogmatic, quietly spoken yet protective instinct, especially where his son is concerned. His indecision and loss to articulate his feelings of dislocation and disenchantment are nuances that the actor excels at bringing to the fore without any showy histrionics or heavy-handed scenery-chewing. The pivotal weight-training sequence is also a great development that captures both the awe and the fear of the situation that is opening out to Dunn. It is a long, virtually wordless sequence, but it manages to be simultaneously a character bonding session for Dunn and Joseph and a plot-shifter in that we all come to realise the resonance of the evolution that is taking place.
The beginnings of a costume - Dunn's hooded raincoat from the stadium - is a nifty idea and comes across almost as an artist's conceptual design for a half-thought-up character. The moulded padding inside Elijah's car, coupled with his elaborate walking cane and melancholy wizard's attire are other delicious clues as to the story's basis in the comic book world. The violence, when it comes, is also quite well handled. Definitely not of the typical heroic style, Dunn's retribution does, however, carry a cathartic release that we feel almost as much as he does. And his air of defeatism and general reluctance is possibly the greatest disguise that a superhero could have - certainly more convincing than Clarke Kent's glasses.
Normally a fan of James Newton Howard's scores - and his music for Shyamalan's Signs is a classic - I am, nevertheless, slightly underwhelmed by his work on Unbreakable. The attention is on mood and an ever-darkening atmosphere of motivation and intent yet, much like the film itself, it never seems to fully develop. There is a hero theme that is finally revealed at a crucial juncture but, again, this is so full of yearning and so long-drawn-out that it comes across as quite anticlimactic and nowhere near as rousing as it should be. Like so much of the film, the score appears to be in earnest.
Yet, for all its sins, miscalculations and deliberate eccentricities, Unbreakable is still fine, if unusual entertainment. It definitely takes a couple of viewings for the film to work its spell, I feel. The first time I saw it - upon its theatrical run - I was disappointed. I admired the offbeat angle that Shyamalan had taken, and the gathering storm of mood that permeated the movie. But the lack of true, conventional pay-off and a rather trite twist ending left me feeling somewhat sour towards the film. Characters felt only sketched-in and the story woefully under-developed. Subsequent viewings on DVD have been bitter experiences too - my own misgivings about what I think should be in the film as opposed to what actually is in the film clouding my judgement somewhat unfairly. In fact, it was not until viewing this Blu-ray release a couple of times for the purposes of this review that I began to finally unearth something of emotional worth out of it. Now, admittedly, with most movies you shouldn't have to do that - work hard to appreciate and enjoy a director's vision, I mean. And M. Night Shyamalan seems to demand this trial of patience and understanding from an audience more than most. But, Unbreakable does inevitably grow on you. The story may lack consequence and possess that “Is that all?” quality that drives some people nuts, but it works well as a mood piece and its slant on the over-crowded superhero genre is actually a welcome alternative to the non-stop barrage of CG action that dominates it. The psychological angle of such an evolution is one that is addressed more and more often these days - with Heroes, X-Men, Spidey, Batman etc all delving deeper into the dark duties of the powerful “few” - but nothing attempts to ground such a transformation in the heart of a lonely, crumbling family-man with no-hopes, no dreams and seemingly little more than the mundane existence of an average working-Joe to get him up in the morning with as much everyday realism as this. Therefore, Unbreakable's place within this bulging category is perhaps an important one that shouldn't be overlooked. This begrudged “coming-to-terms-with-it” will never happen with The Village, I might add. I can't recall actually hating a film as much as I did with that and I do think that Shyamalan has blown his own trumpet too often now and has wound up believing his hype. However, I am still bound to see The Happening, just for the sheer curiosity of discovering how he manages to thrust the otherworldly into another run-of-the-mill situation. I just hope that he doesn't forget to throw some sense into it, as well.
Unbreakable gets a 7 out of 10. It is well produced, evocatively filmed and boasts great performances from Willis, Jackson and Clarke. I've no doubt that something wondrous is in here somewhere, it's just that Shyamalan should signpost it a bit better.