Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan shot to fame in the summer of 1999 with the release of his highly effective "The Sixth Sense," which, due to having one of the most extraordinary twist endings in film history, gradually became one of the top-grossing motion pictures of all time. "The Sixth Sense" was such a powerful stunner, in fact, that it possibly helped and hurt Shyamalan's future directing efforts. The film's success proved that he was a fresh and exciting new filmmaker, but also put a very large feat over his head in attempting to top its predecessor.
Everyone who sees M. Night Shyamalan's latest endeavor, "Unbreakable," will unfairly be comparing it to "The Sixth Sense," which is a shame. In its own way, "Unbreakable" is as just as much a one-of-a-kind film, if not quite as air-tight in every aspect. Both movies are similar in many stylistic ways, and it will always be clear who is at the helm here for anyone whose seen "The Sixth Sense." Both movies are moody and foreboding, and their intentionally gloomy cinematography stands as a symbol of where the characters stand in their lives. There is even a subplot in both concerning marital discord. The similarities stop here, as "Unbreakable" is a completely different type of movie, with separate goals in mind, and a gratifying payoff that isn't quite as shocking as the one in "The Sixth Sense," but every bit as necessary in completing Shyamalan's complete intentions.
David Dunne (Bruce Willis) is a Franklin Field security guard in Philadelphia who is traveling home from a job interview in New York by train. Following a failed attempt to strike up a fling with a pretty fellow passenger (Leslie Stefanson), the train is involved in a tragic freak accident leaving 131 passengers dead, and one survivor: David. Even more mysterious is the fact that David is not only alive, but escaped completely unscathed of even a minor cut or bruise. Returning home to his young son (Spencer Treat Clark) and a lifeless marriage to his wife, Audrey (Robin Wright Penn), David takes up where he left off with his job as security guard, but grows intrigued when he receives a note on the window shield of his car asking how many days he has been sick in his life.
The writer of the note turns out to be comic book art dealer Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who was born with a rare disease leaving his bones terribly brittle and particularly apt to injury. When David finally realizes that he has never grown ill before, nor has he ever been injured (save for a near-drowning as a child), he is aided by Elijah in progressively setting into action the true reason why he survived the train crash, and more precisely, why he was put on the earth.
It's no secret to say that "Unbreakable" is sort of like a reality-based superhero movie, since this plot development is hinted at even before the first frame of film and comes into play fifteen minutes in. What is so special about the picture, however, is in the way that it follows this story thread throughout, unfolding with a deliberate pace that remains intriguing due to its great amount of detail and character nuances. To give away any more of the movie than has already been mentioned would be criminal, as much of the film's satisfaction evolves from not knowing where the story is leading.
While the relatively slow pace of "The Sixth Sense" helped to make the frightening sequences all the more startling and the ending all the more meaningful, the occasionally lethargic tone of "Unbreakable" proves problematic. Although never boring or tedious, the movie is nearly devoid of anything resembling happiness or humor. The characters remain in depressingly downbeat lives free of any sort of joy, and it is difficult to grow close to anyone because of this approach. We care about their welfare, even as we wish they would show a little more human emotion aside from overwhelming sadness. It is Shyamalan's one downfall, but should be noted.
Ever since wisely realizing his career was at a standstill with his endless action movie roles, Bruce Willis has found a much-needed resurgence in his career, and rightfully so. Willis is very good as the confused protagonist, and his low-key performance does nothing but help to convey a character filled with insecurities and flaws, who isn't quite sure how to mend the damage he has done in his life, particularly with his rocky marriage. Samuel L. Jackson, as the elusively kind Elijah, brings added flavor to his role of a man who turned to comic books as a child as a way of dealing with his health problems.
The supporting cast have less-meaty roles, but some are just as memorable. Robin Wright Penn poignantly presents Audrey as a physical therapist who spends her time helping others when its her own life that needs the most mending. She longs to recapture the spark in her relationship with David, as sees his surviving of the crash as a strong sign that the time to do such a thing is now. As David and Audrey's pre-teen son, Spencer Treat Clark has got the whole brooding-kid act down flat, but doesn't have enough to work with to make him entirely sympathetic. And Charlayne Woodard, as Elijah's loving mother, projects nothing but sweetness and caring in a movie that is otherwise absent of such adjectives.
"Unbreakable" is a mostly spellbinding drama that may not be the spectacular achievement of Shyamalan's last film, but why does it--or should it--have to be? There is no doubt that he knows exactly how to write and direct thought-provoking pieces of work, and he has only confirmed this here. In the end, the movie finds the one vital missing link that puts everything that has come before into perspective. The conclusion is unpredictable and a little surprising, but it's necessary, rather than a simple plot device to one-up "The Sixth Sense." Ultimately, "Unbreakable" is a truly impressive rumination about the importance of finding meaning in every person's life, and not letting that purpose put to waste.
©2000 by Dustin Putman