Unbreakable  (2000)

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M. Night Shyamalan is a very skillful filmmaker, and the story here is original and memorable. Bruce Willis plays David Dunn, a man who comes out of a disastrous train wreck as the only survivor, and slowly has to face the evidence that he is inhumanly invulnerable to physical injury. Samuel L. Jackson (a comix geek in real life) plays a comic book collector with extremely fragile bones, who hears about the wreck and urges Dunn to consider the possibility that he might be more special than he believes he is, and is not meant for an ordinary life. His theory is that the fictional heroes of comic books express some kind of collective awareness of the existence of occasional people like Dunn in real life — people who are born with a purpose of protecting others, which Dunn is not fulfilling. Gradually Dunn starts to believe the theory... as do we... but the movie carefully ensures that the evidence of Dunn’s superdom never quite crosses the line from persuasive to proven. Even as we’re convinced, the possibility that some or most of it might be bullshit is never quite banished.

The acting is fine all around... particularly Spencer Treat Clark as Dunn’s preteen son, a quite demanding role. I wouldn’t have cast Bruce Willis, but he’s all right. And of all the Samuel L. performances I’ve ever sat through, I think this one is my favorite. His final speech evokes horror and heartbreak at the same time like few others I can name.

I love the way this movie is shot. Many scenes are filmed with only a single handheld camera, but they have none of the jerky Lars von Trier pseudo-amateurish feel you normally expect from that kind of shooting. Instead, this film’s cinematography (by Eduardo Serra) is masterful.

Shyamalan shows that he can build a powerful life-changing scene for his characters out of nothing but a few silent gestures. He can make something lyrically beautiful out of a scene where one man kills another with bare hands... and he does so by filming it with an approach that’s the exact opposite of the flashy Hong Kong / Bullet Time style that’s fashionable nowadays for fight scenes. (James Newton Howard’s score certainly doesn’t hurt either.) When he’s on, the man is one hell of a director.

Since this is Shyamalan, of course we expect a surprise twist... and it was indeed surprising, though nothing so extreme as the classic twist of his The Sixth Sense. (He didn’t get away from surprise twists until Signs, which is, by the way, not nearly as good as Unbreakable.) And it’s worth noting that the twist fully preserves the ambiguity in how we see Dunn’s superness — on one level it seems to fully affirm that this is a comic book story, but on another, Dunn’s final action decisively refutes that role... without making him any less heroic.

For ordinary moviegoers not interested in comic book stories, the premise of this story is a mighty strange one and may be hard to digest as something to take seriously and find something meaningful in. But that’s what Shyamalan does — he takes a premise that would be at home in a cheap B movie, and makes art out of it... Signs being the ultimate example of working from a B-movie premise.* This is especially valuable because he’s doing this at a time when the rest of Hollywood is doing the exact opposite: turning “art film” into just another formulaic genre with its own tired, endlessly recycled conventions.

And oddly, the film’s weakest points may be precisely there: sometimes art-film conventions such as slow pacing and static tableaux intrude too strongly. The scenes where this is an issue generally work well when you’re absorbed in the experience, but come across as much too mannered and unnatural if you walk into them cold.

For those who take any interest at all in comic-land, or are just willing to entertain an unusual kind of premise, this film is highly recommended. It’s a true original. Of all the superhero-themed films I’ve reviewed here, this is the finest.

* The Happening is another example of this: where Signs riffs on a fifties flying saucer B movie, The Happening pays the same tribute to a seventies nature-strikes-back B movie. Too bad it ended up sucking. Sadly, since Unbreakable every new film he’s made has been significantly less good than the one before it.