First screened and reviewed in November 2000
Director: M. Night Shyamalan. Cast: Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Wright Penn, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard, Eamonn Walker. Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan.

Twitter Capsule: Starts out deeper, stranger, and even more beautiful than Sixth Sense. Later forsakes its most intriguing convictions.

VOR:   Memorable lensing. Inspired eye on Philly. Makes Sense more interesting, even if it's wonky. Fresh take on superheroes.

Photo © 2000 Buena Vista Pictures/Touchstone Pictures
M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable, like last year's otherwise dissimilar The End of the Affair, offers a depressing, definitive case of a film that experiences in its third and final act what I could charitably call a total loss of its convictions, or, less charitably, a total brain aneurysm. Everything that makes the first hour and twenty minutes of Unbreakable so beguiling goes almost totally out the window in the final half-hour. That fatal swerve essentially results from the movie's abrupt decision to embrace genre conventions that it had previously, proudly, and beautifully renounced.

Bruce Willis, also the star of Shyamalan's blockbuster The Sixth Sense, emerges unscathed from Unbreakable in more than one way. He contributes an impressive, controlled performance as David Dunn, a Philadelphia security guard who comes to realize that his body is preternaturally immune to injury. David, who seems to have been drifting through his life, his job, and his disintegrating marriage with the same ghostly detachment, first becomes aware of his "gift" when he survives a catastrophic train wreck that kills everyone onboard but leaves him with no scratches, no bruises, not a single broken bone. He is willing to write the incident off as simple good fortune, but the film's two other primary characters are much more taken aback. Audrey (Robin Wright Penn), the wife who has taken to sleeping in a separate room, interprets David's luck as providential intervention, a cue for them to seize a second chance for reconciliation. Meanwhile, Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a hot-tempered, physically frail collector of valuable comic-book art, insinuates himself into David's life after reading about the train wreck in a newspaper.

If the film seems to set up too easy a binary between the white, lower-class, laconic but hardy Willis character and Jackson's black, disabled, fast-talking eccentric, Elijah is one step ahead of the movie. The very reason he is drawn to David is because he believes that the two of them represent a sort of cosmic binary, an absolute yin/yang of the kind frequently established between comic book characters. David, disturbed more by Elijah's promptings toward self-searching than by his mercurial rages or strange sense of style, cannot deny the fact that he has never taken a sick day from work, and that he has previously, remarkably survived extreme physical traumas. That which would kill most people only makes David stronger. Elijah wants to know why, and within what limits, if any. Meanwhile, Audrey, who is perplexed by Elijah but not worried by him, only wants her marriage back. Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), the couple's young son, and the only other important character in the film, wants very much to believe that his dad is a superhero, though he isn't sure how to handle the gathering evidence for that idea.

If the plot of Unbreakable itself seems refreshingly cryptic, the film's gradual revelation of that plot offers even greater pleasures. Eduardo Serra, the cinematographer who made 1997's The Wings of the Dove so haunting, works similar wonders with his compositions here. Any man who can make working-class Philadelphia look as enchanting, and possibly as enchanted, as turn-of-the-century Venice knows what he's doing. And yet, the dark beauty of Unbreakable feels very dark indeed. Like the spidery circle of blood that emerges through a crash victim's bandage in an early shot, the creepy atmosphere of Unbreakable grows insistently but slowly, and in no single direction. Shyamalan withholds the scenes we expect—the train wreck is "visualized" only in an aerial shot of its disjointed aftermath—and keeps offering scenes we don't understand. The trick is that we want to understand them. Why does David have occasional, jarring insights into the lives of strangers? How did a near-fatal car crash bring Audrey and David together, and what are the weaknesses of a union founded on that kind of event?

The only element of Unbreakable's elusive first half that doesn't really work is the Joseph character. He seems to exist only to react to the older protagonists, or else because Shyamalan knows he hit big last year with a story about a young boy and he's willing to offer another one to keep the seats filled. Let's just say that lightning has not struck twice as far as Shyamalan's ability to identify or steward pre-adolescent talent. Joseph and Spencer Treat Clark, the actor playing him, both seem too aware that they are characters in a ghost story. By contrast, Shyamalan has elicited credible performances from Willis, Jackson, and Wright Penn, all of whom, like Toni Collette's character in The Sixth Sense, are more dramatically compelling than most people in horror films or even in most dramas. That Shyamalan writes such spare, moving dialogue for the scenes between Willis and Wright Penn only fuels our expectations that their domestic unease is as important to the movie as Elijah Price and his creepy conjectures.

I don't know what to say about the film's concluding sequences that can explain why Unbreakable goes so wrong, especially without diminishing its surprises. Part of the problem, however, is certainly that Shyamalan himself becomes far too preoccupied with surprise. The film's twists become increasingly illogical and increasingly inscrutable, until a berserk final scene in which Jackson in particular seems to be playing an entirely different person than he was previously. The elliptical shivers of Serra's camerawork become too deliberately portentous, as when his director prescribes an absurd, protracted close-up of a half-full, half-empty glass, or a genuinely chilling shot of a swimming pool that suffers from sheer overlength and dramatic overdetermination. Shyamalan also makes some frustrating chromatic blunders, as when he dresses some criminals "hidden" inside dismal brown-and-grey crowds in loud orange and vibrant lime. These color choices may be an attempt to incorporate the comic book aesthetic which is so important to the narrative, but that decision stands at odds with the film's carefully crafted realist elements, and we have a hard time crediting David for detecting villains that stick out like sore thumbs.

Worst of all, Unbreakable veers away from its own best qualities—its unsettling mood and its invisible horrors—and heads into a dead-end subplot about a standard-issue maniac from Central Casting. Suddenly the screen is cluttered with corpses, rape scenarios, and brutalized female bodies. Unquestionably, David is developing a darker view of the world, but Shyamalan confuses dark with lurid, the terrifying with the disgusting. You could almost recuperate these shifts as a statement about the grimness of "heroic" deeds in a depraved society, but even if that reading were ultimately persuasive, and I doubt that it is, Unbreakable would still be relenting from its more unique ambitions and settling for some easy, banal didacticism. Watching the film is like watching both Blair Witch movies, the tantalizing original and its crass successor, crammed into the same promising but finally misguided package. To that extent, Unbreakable confirms what The Sixth Sense suggested: that Shyamalan has a refreshingly cool, off-center approach to his high-concept material, and he surrounds himself with perfectly-chosen talent, but he still hasn't learned what to do with all of it. In other words, his storytelling is a lot more fragile than he thinks it is. Grade: C

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