Unbreakable is the fourth movie in M. Night Shyamalan’s already-stellar career (Shyamalan wrote and directed The Sixth Sense a year ago). Unbreakable is less amazing, less well crafted, and less universal in its appeal than its predecessor. Nevertheless, Shyamalan proves he’s a solid, capable filmmaker whom we’ll be seeing a lot more of in the future.
David and Elijah
PG-13 for violence
Both Willis and Jackson agreed to do this picture before either one had read the script!
Bruce Willis stars as David Dunn, a Philadelphia security guard whose marriage is all but over. Returning from a job interview in New York, Dunn’s train derails, killing everyone else on board. Dunn is the only survivor of the crash, and stranger still, he doesn’t have a scratch on him.
Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson) was born with a disease called osteogenesis imperfecta, which leaves his bones weak and brittle. Throughout his life, the smallest accidents resulted in broken bones. Naturally enough, Elijah is fascinated by the news reports of this man who appears to be unbreakable, and he contacts David.
But Elijah’s fascination with David goes deeper than mere envy. Elijah has always been enamored of superhero comic books. In fact he owns an art gallery dedicated to comic book art. Elijah believes that superheroes are a Jungian echo of true human potential. Maybe someone like David, who survives a train wreck without so much as a scratch, is the literal human manifestation of the comic book superhero.
Maybe Superheroes are Real
A lot of people are beginning to take comic book art seriously. Maybe the next step is to take comic book characters more seriously, perhaps as modern mythology, or even, as the film suggests, as folk tales of real human prowess.
At one point Elijah proposes to David that maybe Superman’s omnipotence is merely an exaggeration of robust health, that maybe x-ray vision is a heightened sense of empathy. Maybe superhero comic books are tapping into a subconscious reality that becomes obvious once we know what we’re looking for. Maybe superheroes are real; they are regular people like David, whose strength and constitution seem to rival Superman’s.
Like its predecessor, Unbreakable is well crafted. Eduardo Serra includes some well thought-out camera work, including a four-minute long conversation captured in a single take. The shot moves back and forth between Willis and a fellow passenger. It’s filmed as though it were footage edited from two camera angles, but it’s all done in a single take. Spike Lee did something similar with a handheld camera (see Mo’ Better Blues and Do the Right Thing), but never for four minutes straight. One could say that this camera trick is a mere flourish — that it’s Serra’s way of showing off. But it certainly does the film no harm, and it makes it more fun to watch.
Serra and Shyamalan also use another trick. The trick itself is nothing remarkable — they show an upside-down image when a character’s point of view is inverted. For example, David’s son is watching TV, hanging off the couch with his head on the floor. From his point of view, the TV is upside-down, which is how Shyamalan presents it. But Serra and Shyamalan’s genius is to repeat that simple trick to create a connection. The next time we see an upside-down image, it has two meanings: its own literal meaning, plus its relation to the previous occurrence of an upside-down image.
The acting in Unbreakable is impeccable. Bruce Willis brings sadness and vulnerability to the part of David. Having survived something so harrowing as a train wreck, and feeling the guilt of being the only survivor, he just wants to settle into a simple, plain life. Intriguing as Elijah’s ideas may be, David doesn’t want to be a hero.
Samuel L. Jackson fills the role of Elijah perfectly. He’s a bit eccentric — his silver Mercedes is lined with lots of padding. His kinky, tilted afro offsets the purple lamé lapels on his black overcoat. He is fierce and righteous when it comes to his area of expertise, driven and impatient when it comes to fools.
The two leads are good in their roles, and they seem to have a genuine respect (if not a liking) for each other. It’s not surprising that Willis and Jackson would do so well in their roles, because Shyamalan wrote the script with them specifically in mind.
Like the nation at large, I was impressed by Shyamalan’s last film, The Sixth Sense. I was eager to see if this next film would live up to my high expectations. It doesn’t quite; Unbreakable seems less universally likeable than The Sixth Sense. But Unbreakable is no sophomore slump, and Shyamalan looks like a force to be reckoned with. There is no doubt he is capable of another film as good as these last two. And hopefully many more.