Following the phenomenal--and completely out-of-nowhere--success of
_The_Sixth_Sense_, it would have been easy for writer-director M. Night
Shyamalan to follow that act with another eerie tale of the supernatural.
All early indicators, in particular Disney's publicity campaign, paint
_Unbreakable_ as exactly that: a creepy thriller "from the director of
_The_Sixth_Sense_." _Unbreakable_ is indeed "creepy," but not in the way
moviegoers are expecting (and, perhaps, desiring); the film gradually
evolves from one thing into another animal entirely, its true nature
slowly but surely "creeping" to the fore. What _Unbreakable_ becomes is
certain to divide the opinions of audiences and critics alike, but that's
exactly what makes it a much more fascinating film than its predecessor.
That said, _Unbreakable_ shares many qualities with Shyamalan's last
film. Star Bruce Willis is back, this time playing David Dunn, an
everyman Philadelphia security guard. Unexplained cosmic phenomena are
again involved, here David's miraculous survival of a devastating train
wreck and the fact that he emerges from the accident completely
unharmed--which piques the interest of Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson),
an art dealer suffering from a crippling bone disorder. What unfolds
from here occurs at the same languid pace that for me was a major factor
in _The_Sixth_Sense_'s ruin.
But in the case of _Unbreakable_, the slowness works more in its favor.
In _Sense_, the deliberate pacing underscored how nothing really happens
from the "I see dead people" confession (which already takes about an
hour to get to) to the pull-the-rug-out twist ending. Here, the crawl is
a mirror of the rate at which David comes into his own--a progression
which is itself reflective of how Shyamalan takes his time to fully
reveal what exactly he's trying to accomplish with this film.
All I will say about Shyamalan's ultimate aim is that it is could not be
more radically different from expectations--so far off, in fact, that the
film will undoubtedly leave many viewers with quizzical looks and a
feeling of grave disappointment. But once the film is removed from those
preconceived notions, the element of surprise proves to be
_Unbreakable_'s greatest virtue, not to mention a quality richer and more
elegantly pulled off than it was in _Sense_. In that film, the shock
came in a quick, last-minute burst that jolted everything that preceded
it into a new perspective. Here, the film's final turn is the
culmination of what had been a movie-long build; the exhilarating final
"click" in a puzzle whose pieces had been working their way--with
ever-increasing speed--toward alignment.
Crucial to the persuasiveness of _Unbreakable_'s story are the grounded
performances. Willis is in the same lower gear that distinguished his
_Sense_ work, and he nicely disappears into the character and his
uncertainties. Jackson's role offers a little more latitude, but his
portrayal is firmly rooted in reality despite Elijah's rather unique
hairdo (which proves to be an effective touch by the film's end). Robin
Wright Penn and Spencer Treat Clark are fine as David's wife and son,
respectively, but they are saddled with the weaker parts of the story.
Wright Penn's subplot--the Dunns' rocky marriage--could be written off as
being unnecessary, but it is actually integral in creating a believably
real world in which some rather fantastical occurrences take place.
And that, right there, is likely to be the common complaint about
_Unbreakable_--that it's unbelievable. Of course, that gripe is
completely absurd, given that most audiences will be going in
anticipating a just-as--if not more--unreal horror show of sorts. Having
already concocted a ghost story that was less about scary apparitions
than it was about people, Shyamalan makes a lateral move with
_Unbreakable_, attempting to bring that same down-to-earth human element
to a different type of surreal-by-definition genre. One's ability to see
just how well he has pulled off this even more unconventional task simply
depends on one's willingness to accept the new rules Shyamalan adopts for