Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Wright, Spencer Trent Clark
*** out of *****
With 1999’s The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan established himself as a writer-director to be reckoned with. His spooky thriller’s ending may have surprised audiences, but the film’s enormous success (over $300 million in ticket sales and six Oscar nominations) was an even bigger surprise. The film’s quiet somber tone was unusual in an era in which thrillers are frequently loud and crass. Now Shyamalan has reunited with his Sixth Sense star, Bruce Willis, for Unbreakable. Although he is once again exploring supernatural terrain and doing so with an almost depressingly serious manner, Shyamalan's new film is more hopeful. As in The Sixth Sense, the hero is haunted by life's missed opportunities, but here his second chance comes in his present life.
The film opens in 1961 with a woman giving birth to a baby whose arms and legs are broken even as he is delivered from the womb. Soon, the scene shifts to the present and a fateful train ride that will claim the lives of all the passengers but one: David Dunn (Willis), a former athlete now working as a security guard, is not only the lone survivor of the train accident, he emerges from the wreckage without so much as a scratch on him.
David becomes an obsession with Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson), a dealer in original comic book art who, it becomes clear, is the baby from the first scene now grown to adulthood. Whereas David apparently has never been sick a day in his life, Elijah is as fragile as the glass cane he relies on for support as he hobbles about. As portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson, he is as single minded as an Old Testament prophet. Having lived life vicariously through the pages of comic books populated by superheroes, Elijah is fascinated by those who have cheated death.
Is David a superman as indestructible as one of the comic book characters that Elijah idolizes? Elijah believes he is, and his convictions influence David's son who, at one point, even attempts to fire a gun at his dad to prove that his father is a real life Superman.
As in The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan sprinkles clues to the twist that will come in the climax. Those who saw The Sixth Sense may not guess the surprise, but they will likely notice the hints only because the first film has conditioned us to expect them. That is precisely why Unbreakable fails to deliver the emotional impact of the earlier film. The surprise in The Sixth Sense was, indeed, a surprise. The surprise in Unbreakable, though by no means predictable, is expected. We're waiting for it, and watching for clues throughout in the hope of guessing what it will be.
If Unbreakable is fated to give its audience a sense of déjà vu, it still packs a wallop of its own. Shyamalan once again favors a quiet slow pace for his story, and Edward Serro's cinematography superbly captures the dark rainy ambience that adds to the gloomy tone of the film. The cast is excellent with Willis once again demonstrating, as he did in Pulp Fiction and The Sixth Sense, that he is much too good an actor for the action films that he has so often been showcased in. He beautifully conveys the sadness of a man whose life has failed him. His marriage is in name only, and his relationship with his son is equally adrift. Robin Wright as his wife is his equal, and, as their son, Spencer Trent Clark, performs admirably. But Jackson, in the most flamboyant role, almost steals the picture.
In Unbreakable, Shyamalan is clearly following a formula. With the mega-success of The Sixth Sense behind him, he knows it's a proven one, but one hopes the spooky thriller with the twist ending doesn't become a rope around his neck. Even the most talented filmmaker is not unbreakable.
Brian W. Fairbanks
Originally published at Paris Woman Journal
© 2000 Paris Woman Journal
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