UNBREAKABLE

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan

With Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Wright Penn and Spencer Treat
Clark

***1/2


UNBREAKABLE is one of the most unusual genre films to come out of Hollywood in years, confirming the promise of Shyamalan’s THE SIXTH SENSE while abandoning much of its gimmickry. One of a number of recent films examining  the cost of a brush with mortality, its exploration of shell-shock makes it a kissing cousin to David Gordon Green’s   GEORGE WASHINGTON and Shinji Aoyama’s EUREKA, although Peter Weir’s FEARLESS is its most obvious American precedent. Its resemblance to these films isn’t just thematic: Shyamalan’s pacing is almost as slow and his tone no less muted than Aoyama’s.

David Dunn (Willis), a college-stadium security guard whose youthful football career was ruined in an accident,  is the sole survivor of a massive train wreck. Elijah  (Jackson), an art  gallery owner and obsessive comic book fan who suffers from a bone disease that’s led to 54 fractures in his 39 years, tracks down  David, convinced that he’s a real-life super-hero. Leaving a calling card on David’s car during a funeral service for the accident victims,he gradually insinuates himself into David’s life. At first, David takes him for a con man, but as he recalls that he’s never had a sick day and  has uncanny intuition about who might be smuggling weapons or drugs into the stadium, he takes Elijah’s notion of his invulnerability seriously. However, he remains quite “breakable” emotionally, with his marriage to his college sweetheart (Penn) now on the rocks.

UNBREAKABLE opens with a title card about comic books, which are key to Elijah’s definition of himself and the roles that David and his son (Clark) will come to play.(In fact, they serve much the same role as American history in GEORGE WASHINGTON.)  Shyamalan seems to appreciate comics both as a kind of modern mythology (the words he puts in Elijah’s mouth about their iconographic significance are probably his own) and on a formal level . Obviously, comics and cinema have certain points of contact, particularly in framing, and the former have often done their best to suggest motion within the limits of a two-dimensional space. Shyamalan’s choice of camera angles suggests an interplay between the two media, although not in a particularly obvious way. UNBREAKABLE is a world away from the over-the-top flash, fast cutting and bright colors of X-MEN and other recent comic book adaptations. Instead, it often uses relatively long takes. The early scene in which David chats with a woman onboard the train, where the camera constantly remains in motion facing - and re-framing - them from the seats in the next row, could serve as  a textbook model of a dynamic conversation scene directed without typical shot/counter-shot editing.

The first half of THE SIXTH SENSE struck me as quite effective, but I thought it went downhill around the time its ghosts became visible to the audience, culminating in an ending seemingly designed to make one want to see the entire film again. On the other hand, UNBREAKABLE  sustains everything that worked in THE SIXTH SENSE for its entire length. Here, Shyamalan successfully balances austerity and drama, while gradually modulating towards the latter. He creates a funereal  mood well enough to suggest that he could adapt Henry James’ story THE TURN OF THE SCREW as well as British director Jack Clayton did in his 1961 film THE INNOCENTS. Like THE SIXTH SENSE, UNBREAKABLE pivots around a twist ending of sorts, but this one feels far less like a gratuitous third-act mindfuck. While surprising, it’s quite logical in retrospect, given the story’s references to comics.

UNBREAKABLE leaves little doubt that Shyamalan is as big a comic book geek as his characters, yet it grounds its notions of heroism and villainy in an evocation of palpable physical and mental vulnerability. Saying that it tests their real-world relevance wouldn’t exactly be accurate, since the film doesn’t quite take place in our world - David Ansen’s accurate complaint that “Willis and Penn don’t look or act like any working-class Philadelphia couple you’re ever likely to meet” misses the point - but it explores them with surprising rigor.  (More so than GEORGE WASHINGTON, which tacks on similar themes in its final hour far more willfully and pretentiously.) Rather than simply describing David’s mood of depressed, traumatized, Shyamalan’s style reflects it. His eye still outclasses his storytelling ability, but he has enough visual talent to make UNBREAKABLE a triumph of atmosphere.

Physical disaster is only a touch away for Elijah, who spends most of the film in a wheelchair, while David’s life drifts away from him in less obvious but equally painful ways. For all the genre conceits Shyamalan plays out (including an ending that stays true to a heroes-and-villains template), he takes everyday life - especially  the nervous uncertainty of trying to resurrect a failing marriage - just as seriously. The “date” between David and his wife , in which their conversation casually moves from her favorite song to the reasons why he now treats her and their son so distantly, is quietly devastating.

The same delicate hush pervades almost the entire film. (Shyamalan shows far more interest in the crash’s prelude and aftermath than the accident itself.) UNBREAKABLE is no less  wispy than an Alexander Sokurov  film, yet it also has enough emotional force to avoid becoming  an exercise in empty, New Age portent, although its jerry-rigged pop spirituality remains a little off-putting. (Perhaps one has to be as big a comic geek as Elijah to take it as seriously as he  does, and  I’m not.) In a year where Hollywood hasn’t been able to produce anything better than fun but disposable pulp like CHARLIE’S ANGELS and GLADIATOR, this improblable synthesis of SUPERMAN and EUREKA is  a welcome Thanksgiving surprise.