46 – Unbreakable

M. Night Shyamalan’s follow-up to the wildly successful masterpiece The Sixth Sense is at once arresting and mesmerizing, despite some plot problems. Unbreakable reunites Shyamalan with his Sixth Sense star, Bruce Willis, and reunites Willis with his Die Hard: With a Vengeance costar, Samuel L. Jackson. There are infinite movies in which a solid storyline was done in by mediocre acting; this is not one of those movies.

Willis stars as David Dunn, a security guard at a fictional college (the film is set in Philadelphia, however). David’s life is listless, dulled by sadness. Even though he lives in the same house as his wife (Robin Wright Penn), they sleep in separate rooms – he with their son – and he’s even traveled to New York to interview for a new job. However, the train carrying David back to Philadelphia from New York collides with another train. The disaster costs over 100 people their lives – and only David walks away. Like Jeff Bridges’ character in Fearless, David must reevaluate his life, but unlike the Bridges character, he’s not sure his survival has any kind of deep meaning attached.

Enter Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson). As we see from the opening scene, Elijah was born with one of those ever-popular (in movies) rare bone disorders. This one means his bones are extremely porous. When Elijah meets David, he’s already suffered 54 breaks over the course of his life and gets by with a cane. Elijah’s vocation is comic-book owner and collector. And he feels that David’s survival really DOES have some kind of meaning. You see, Elijah’s life is basically consumed by comic books, and he sees parallels between the fantasy worlds they depict and the real world itself. Elijah has been searching for years for his opposite – while he is perpetually lame, he figures, there must be one who never gets sick or injured. And he believes David is that person.

First, a word on the atmosphere. With The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan conveyed a setting in which a whisper was as powerful as a shout; he carries that ambiance here. Every word, every syllable to escape a character’s lips is emphasized greatly. This would be a hindrance if the story were truly hokey, but there’s a lot of intrigue afoot here. This is one movie that will make you want to keep watching it. “What does it all mean” you’ll ask. Don’t look for easy answers, though. There are plenty of tricks in this movie, and while none are on the level of the ending of Sixth Sense, none are parlor tricks, either.

Also, Shyamalan gets stellar performances from his stars. Willis is graduating from the macho singlemindedness of his Die Hard days into more-mature, low-key, highly emotional roles. And Jackson’s understated, quiet but insistent in his convictions. There are some people who feel that had Haley Joel Osment (sorely missed here, in the role of the son) not turned in such a good performance in The Sixth Sense, Willis might well have been nominated. It’s possible he’ll garner one for his work here.
David Dunn is bitter, but spent. He can’t figure out where his life is, where it has been, or where it’s going, and he’s drifting through it. His wife and his son realize this, and it’s led to the disintegration of the marriage. But the train wreck changes everything. In his wife’s eyes, David’s survival gives them a second chance to love again. And his son now thinks his dad’s pretty much invincible (and his opinion is supremely buttressed by the initial visit David has with Elijah, which the son witnessed). Everything’s been changed, and yet…David is still lost. He knows no more than he did before the horrific crash (which, by the way, is not seen). It’s up to the rantings of a handicapped comic-store owner to give him perspective. Let me expand on the style of Shyamalan for a moment. What scared me the most about The Sixth Sense was that there was so much quiet. The silence was absolutely deafening at times, and that only served to heighten my apprehension. It’s much the same in Unbreakable. You don’t know what’s coming, but with each creeping moment your heart will flutter like a hummingbird’s wings. The expectation, as Shyamalan has learned, is more deadly than the evil.

When you watch this film, stick with it. It’s not a long film, and every scene is filled with importance. What’s more, you care about the characters. You root for David to understand what’s going on, for him to reconcile with his wife (who’s not portrayed as a shrew), for him to reconnect with his son. Most of all, of course, you want to know the secret to the mystery yourself. That happens only in the last 30 seconds of the movie. Like new classics such as Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, and (of course) The Sixth Sense, every scene needs to be examined carefully. This is no Sense, but it’s every bit as dramatic and satisfying.

Unbreakable: 9

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