Unbreakable (2000) Dir: M Night Shyamalan
An under-appreciated gem. That's how I would quickly describe director wunderkind M Night Shyamalan's follow-up to The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, an ambitious film of stunning power that shows Shyamalan's remarkable growth and maturity as one of today's most talented directors.
When David Dunn (Bruce Willis) emerges from a horrific train crash as the sole survivor, miraculously unharmed - and without a single scratch on him he meets a mysterious comic-book dealer suffering from congenital bone disease, Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) who soon presents David with a seemingly far-fetched theory; he believes that, however unreal it may seem, both of them are connected. As Elijah puts it, 'We're on the same curve, just on opposite ends'. Interrupting his life at odd moments, it is Elijah's presence and probing that force David to confront his destiny on a journey of self-discovery and purpose.
Although at first glance it might not seem so, Unbreakable is a superhero film at its root (and the best one thus far, at that), but Shyamalan's aesthetic turns it into something far more intriguing. The concept itself is very interesting and ponders us with many questions, 'What if there were heroes among us? What if there were seemingly normal people who had been sent to protect us? To guard us?' All these what if questions are given both a place and answer in this film, and it is the sheer impact they have that makes the film all the more original and exhilarating. Shyamalan clearly knows how to deal with ordinary themes and transform into something extraordinary, because that is precisely what he does in this film and he does it incredibly.
First of all, Shyamalan's direction is simply excellent. He gives the film a more or less cold and distant feel which nonetheless doesn't prevent us from feeling for the characters. Philadelphia (his usual filming location) is presented as a dark, rainy place where the unexpected can easily happen. He makes great use of Eduardo Serra's outstanding cinematography to a very effective extent; almost every single scene is done without cuts in order to give the actors more freedom and reflections are also employed to represent Elijah's disease, thus giving his nickname Mr Glass a more profound significance. Far-off and bizarre-angled takes are used and many upside-down shots are included, too. The sound design is excellent and the editing is merely wonderful. It just could not get any better.
The acting, as always expected from a Shyamalan film, is also fabulous. Bruce Willis gives his strongest performance to date and Samuel L Jackson is utterly electrifying in his role. The actors seldom raise their voices; almost every time there is a piece of dialogue, it is spoken in low, subtle tones which symbolise the delicacy and slowness of the film. Robin Wright Penn and Spencer Clark also deliver pleasantly solid performances as Dunn's wife and son, respectively. Apart from that, James Newton Howard's haunting score flawlessly suits the mood of the film, which is as heroic as it is phenomenal.
Many hints of comic book themes are ingeniously given in the film, although some may be less evident than others. For example, isn't it ironic that David Dunn, the apparent hero, wears a rain poncho with SECURITY emblazoned across the back? Or that both his name and surname start with the same letters, just like Spider-Man and Hulk's alter-egos, Peter Parker and Bruce Banner? Is it just coincidence? Or is it all an astute nod from the director? Personally, I'd go for the latter.
The film might be slow, yes, maybe even too slow for the average moviegoer. But Shyamalan's brilliance gives us plenty of twists and turns that are delivered at the precise time, making the story all the more compelling. Every scene is set up so perfectly, layered with such meaning, with such passion and love for filmmaking that the film rapidly absorbs us. What Shyamalan wants to do is to challenge the audience. To provoke them, to make them keep guessing and guessing, to show them that there is still innovation and originality around. And does he succeed? Oh yes. There are some true moments of pure brilliance here; the train station sequence, for instance, is a technically excellent mini-classic.
Many people have complained about the ending. Some call it weak, others say its simply preposterous, yet I have to disagree. Sure, it doesn't have the impact that the one in The Sixth Sense had, but tha'ts because the movie doesn't wholly rely on it; it's solely like icing on a cake. In my opinion, it is a very credible and unexpected one which suits the movie very well, an ending which leaves us wondering about other things we didn't know about.
On the whole, Unbreakable is an engaging and beautiful experience. It is very uncommon for a film to both confuse and enthral, yet this is what Unbreakable does. It manages to establish Shyamalan as one of today's most inventive and original storytellers and proves that he is not a simple one-hit-wonder but a magician with many ideas up his sleeve. Shyamalan takes us on a mind-shattering tour-de-force which captivates and hypnotises. And, many people will disagree with me, but I think that this is his best work to date, even superior to its predecessor. Unbreakable is, without a doubt, a fantastic, astonishing film created by a transcendent genius.