Unbreakable

Poster
2000
M. Night Shyamalan

9/10 (stilted dialogue; pretentious)

This film is not nearly as bad as people said it was when it came out. What happened was that people were expecting another “Sixth Sense,” which is understandable without being fair. After the impressive twist ending of “Sixth,” though, what does Night’s first movie really have that the follow-up doesn’t? Moody cinematography with deliberate pacing and slow tracking shots? Bruce Willis in one of his best roles? Annoying kid? A unique take on an old story? “Unbreakable” has all of them, plus one Mr. Samuel L. Jackson (I wanted to write “Samuel fucking Jackson” but then I realized that the “L.” sounds much more badass).

For those who read/heard the bad reviews for this movie and then avoided it, I’ll give you the basic story. Jackson is Elijah Price, a man who was born with a genetic disease that makes his bones incredibly easy to break. Being confined to a wheelchair or hospital bed for much of his life, he got around to reading comic books and thinking, eventually coming up with the idea that if he was born this brittle, there had to be someone born who was the opposite of him, which is to say practically invincible. After Willis’ David Dunn is the lone survivor of a horrific train crash, Price becomes convinced that Dunn is this “unbreakable” man. You don’t need to know more.

What Shyamalan has done here is create an utterly realistic and unique portrayal of a comic book “origin” story. Amazingly, people actually criticize this movie by saying the opposite, that the story is not that original. But what is the last superhero movie that you saw that was not based on an already-existing source material (comic, TV show, graphic novel, etc.)? Shyamalan’s story is unique in that respect alone, that he is creating his own mythology here. Follow-up question: what is the last superhero movie that you saw that even approached the level of realism in this film? Score another point for Shyamalan.

This is the most impressive point of the movie: coming up with a new idea based on an old idea, and completely re-doing it in a way that twists the audience’s understanding of the genre at its root. The entire movie is a commentary on the mythology of comic books. We invent these superheroes to reflect our desire to be saved from real-life “villains.” We have everyday heroes as well that do the saving: soldiers, policemen, good samaritans that stop the burglar, the passengers of Flight 93. But at what point do these heroes cross the line into superhero-dom? It is this line that Shyamalan is examining here, and the crossing-of-the-Rubicon moment, when Dunn embraces his fate, is precisely and powerfully executed. The ending, though not as gimmicky or unforeseen as the one from “Sixth,” also plays with the audience’s concept of villainry. I don’t want to give any more of it away, I will just say that I love Shyamalan for having picked the most fascinating angle from which to view this phenomenon.

Bruce Willis was praised for his performance here and in “Sixth,” and I thought he did well, but he still doesn’t blow you away. In both films, he’s simply playing the role he’s best suited for: a grim, sad man who has been beaten down by life. (As an aside, I would say that he probably displays his best acting in either “12 Monkeys” or “The Fifth Element.”) Jackson and Robin Wright are also good, even though the subplot between Willis and Wright gets tedious. As for other flaws, they are the same ones that plague “Sixth.” The characters talk unlike anyone in reality (everything they say is so incredibly weighty and momentous that you feel like you should hear the strings surging in the background), it’s a little slow, and it just feels kind of pretentious. Again, this is nothing that we shouldn’t have already expected from Shyamalan based on “Sixth Sense,” so why he was criticized for it with “Unbreakable” I have no idea.

Ultimately, this movie is as good or better than its predecessor, it just suffered from unfair expectations. Viewed out of this context, an unbiased viewer will have to grant its qualities, or at the very least recognize the inventiveness of the story even if they didn’t enjoy it. What seems unarguable to me is that Shyamalan’s first two films are by far his best. But regardless, I challenge you “Unbreakable”-haters to rewatch this excellent film with an open mind.

25 March 2010

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