Thursday, June 26, 2008


Okay. I'm just going to come right out and say this:

In my humble opinion, 'Unbreakable' is M. Night Shyamalan's best film. If I wanted to be cynical, I could add that there's probably not that much competition, since 'Signs' didn't quite deliver and 'The Village' signalled a certain transition in terms of audience anticipation. You know: the moment it went from "wow, it's a new M. Night Shyamalan film, I must get me to a cinema" to "it's a new M. Night Shyamalan film, hope it's better than the last one".

But such things are easy to say in retrospect. Coming, as 'Unbreakable' did, just a year after 'The Sixth Sense', it was hard not to think of Shyamalan as the next big thing in American cinema.

If 'The Sixth Sense' was a slow-burn, character-driven, thoughtfully-directed piece of old-school film-making, then 'Unbreakable' was all of these things and more. Chief amongst its achievements is this: it stands as a weighty, intelligent, meticulously thought-out piece of work ... on the foundations of, frankly, Shyamalan's most far-fetched plot.

Now just hold it right there, buddy, I hear you cry. Surely nothing surpasses 'Lady in the Water' in terms of the just plain bonkers. Perhaps not, but 'Unbreakable' - if only in terms of narrative concept - certainly equals it. Think about it: 'Lady in the Water' is about a depressed janitor who discovers that a fairytale has come to life in the swimming pool of a residential apartment block; 'Unbreakable' is about a depressed security guard who discovers that he's actually a comic book hero.

The suspension of disbelief is just as great in either film; the difference is the way Shyamalan approaches it. 'Lady in the Water' acknowledges from the outset that a suspension of disbelief is de rigueur; it presents its story in bold strokes and primary colours; reminds us with every scene that, hey, this is just a fairy tale.

'Unbreakable' goes about things very differently. It takes as its main character a regular guy with regular problems. David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is a security guard at a football stadium, every game he patrols a reminder of the promising career he had as a sportsman in his youth prior to the car accident that consigned him forever to the humdrum existence of a troubled marriage and an awkward relationship with his son. He's introduced on a train, heading back from a job interview; the first pro-active thing he does in the entire film is surreptitiously slip off his wedding ring as an attractive woman settles into the seat next to him.

Minutes later, David experiences a moment of clarity: he senses something, knows that his life is about to change. The next we see of him, he's in hospital, a doctor bemused that not only is he the only survivor of rail accident, but he hasn't sustained even the mildest injury. His wife and son arrive at the hospital and he leaves with them before the conversation can continue.

Later, leaving a remembrance service for the victims of the crash, David finds a note under the wiper of his car asking him how many days in his life he's been ill? He raises the query at work; his boss begrudgingly offers him a rise ("clever way of asking for it"). Perplexed, he asks his wife if she's ever known him to suffer even a cold or a sore throat? Apart from two near-death experiences - one in a swimming pool as a child, the other the car accident - nothing has ever affected him, up to and including the train wreck.

The note leads David to Elijah Price (Samuel L Jackson), owner of an art shop called Limited Edition, so named for a limited edition comic book his mother gave him as a child ("they say this one has a surprise ending") as a sop to the illness that keeps him from the company of other children. Elijah has incredibly brittle bones; the smallest slip or tumble results in multiple fractures. The kids, as he reiterates momentuously at the end of the film, call him Mr Glass.

Elijah is almost a dark prophet; he chisels away at David's ennui, his surrender to a stagnant life. He asks questions that, finally, David cannot ignore or get around. His son believes Elijah from the outset and becomes dangerously convinced that David has superhuman powers. This leads to two standout scenes - one involving an exercise bench, the other a loaded gun - that are as squirmily tense as they are dramatically compelling.

Finally, David accepts who he is, and acts on it, but there is one more revelation to come ...

There are those who find the ending abrupt - and it is. But, I think, deliberately so. Shyamalan has said that his script was originally to have followed the traditional comic book three-act: the origin of the superhero, the application of his powers to the betterment of mankind, and his battle with a nemesis; but that the first act became the focus of the movie. Viewed in this light, 85% of 'Unbreakable' deals with the first act, 10% with the second and 5% with the third. Yes, the ending's abrupt, but watched a second or third time (and 'Unbreakable' definitely improves with repeated viewings), the clues are all in place. It was always heading towards that conclusion. Shyamalan's genius is to deny the catharsis of an actual climactic smack-down between superhero and nemesis.

Why? Take your pick: because he's not making a day-glo FX-laden comic book movie; because his protagonist, for all that he takes on the mantle of protector of the innocent, remains a regular guy; because the film is about the asking of questions, particularly that of one's purpose in life, and Shyamalan wants some of those questions to follow you out of the cinema.

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