M. Night Shyamalan's "Unbreakable" is an ambitious effort -
to deconstruct the myth that people may have special superhuman powers
- but it fails to rise beyond that very notion. And yet, as evidenced
by Shaymalan's previous effort, "The Sixth Sense," he has an uncanny
ability to draw the audience in with precious directorial tools - atmosphere
and subtle, introspective performances.
Bruce Willis, who also starred in "Sixth Sense," is a security guard
named David Dunn who has just survived a catastrophic train crash. It
is so catastrophic that everyone on board the train dies except for
David. He does not have a single wound! How can this be? His wife (Robin
Wright-Penn) does not recall a single day in their 12 year marriage where
he ever got sick, much less suffered an injury. His idolizing son (Spencer
Treat Clark) is worried about his father, arguing that he may have special
powers to the point where he wants to show off his father's athletic
ability to other kids. I mean, who on earth could survive such a train
crash with nary a scratch?
Enter the cryptic Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a comic-book
gallery owner who has a medical condition where the bones in his body
are practically brittle - he was born with broken arms and legs and walks
around with a purple cape and a glass cane! He looks like a comic book
action hero! Price is interested in David's case, and assumes that David
must have superhuman powers. After all, David is able to...oh, I would
not dream of revealing much more than that.
"Unbreakable" is the psychological version of "X-Men," a supposedly
analytical study of one man's amazing ability to survive tragic accidents
that should otherwise leave him for dead. The problem is that Willis
hardly engages us. He seems to walk around as if in a trance, virtually
catatonic to the point of being a zombie. Wouldn't Willis's character,
David, at least wonder why he survived the crash? And why his life seems
indifferent considering there is the potential of a divorce from his
wife? How about the scene where his son threatens to kill him with a gun?
Wouldn't David feel any emotion about his curious condition and how it
may be affecting others? The problem is that his wife seems to be in a
bit of a daze herself over their marriage.
The nature of David's condition brings up all kinds of philosophical
questions. I thought writer-director Shyamalan might invite us to ponder
the answers but he refuses to. Once David discovers his gifts and abilities,
the film shifts into a thriller-of-sorts where the madness of the world
and its inhabitants shakes, rattles and rolls David. Unlike the underrated
"Fearless" that dealt with how one comes to grip with surviving a tragedy,
"Unbreakable" merely turns into a cartoonish version of itself, expunging
all drama and tension for the sake of some minor thrills. The surprise
ending is not so much a surprise as it is a hindrance, and we are thus
left with more questions than answers. That is not necessarily a hindrance
in itself (I do love unsolved puzzles) but here it is the result of an
I will say that M. Night Shyamalan has a gift of his own - he knows
how to appropriate the right kind of atmosphere and mood. There are
superbly visceral moments of fear and dread, such as the scene where
David walks among the families of the dead passengers who are perplexed
at his survival, the train station scenes where David observes every
person walking near him, and a precious moment between David and his
son where words are silently exchanged.
There is a lot to admire in the choice of actors. Leaving out Willis's
zombie state, I loved the electric presence of Samuel L. Jackson - a
truly unbreakable actor who is irresistible to watch. Robin Wright-Penn
does not have much to do in a relatively thankless role but there is some
compassion and humanity in her character. Spencer Treat Clark is no Haley
Joel Osment but he does have some affecting scenes of his own.
"Unbreakable" is often fascinating and haunting but its central lead
character walks through the film in such a daze that you wish someone
would break him.
Copyright © 2000 Jerry Saravia