Following the phenomenal--and completely out-of-nowhere--success of The Sixth Sense, it would have been easy for writer-director M. Night Shyamalan to follow that act with another eerie tale of the supernatural. All early indicators, in particular Disney's publicity campaign, paint Unbreakable as exactly that: a creepy thriller "from the director of The Sixth Sense." Unbreakable is indeed "creepy," but not in the way moviegoers are expecting (and, perhaps, desiring); the film gradually evolves from one thing into another animal entirely, its true nature slowly but surely "creeping" to the fore. What Unbreakable becomes is certain to divide the opinions of audiences and critics alike, but that's exactly what makes it a much more fascinating film than its predecessor.
That said, Unbreakable shares many qualities with Shyamalan's last film. Star Bruce Willis is back, this time playing David Dunn, an everyman Philadelphia security guard. Unexplained cosmic phenomena are again involved, here David's miraculous survival of a devastating train wreck and the fact that he emerges from the accident completely unharmed--which piques the interest of Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), an art dealer suffering from a crippling bone disorder. What unfolds from here occurs at the same languid pace that for me was a major factor in The Sixth Sense's ruin.
But in the case of Unbreakable, the slowness works more in its favor. In Sense, the deliberate pacing underscored how nothing really happens from the "I see dead people" confession (which already takes about an hour to get to) to the pull-the-rug-out twist ending. Here, the crawl is a mirror of the rate at which David comes into his own--a progression which is itself reflective of how Shyamalan takes his time to fully reveal what exactly he's trying to accomplish with this film.
All I will say about Shyamalan's ultimate aim is that it is could not be more radically different from expectations--so far off, in fact, that the film will undoubtedly leave many viewers with quizzical looks and a feeling of grave disappointment. But once the film is removed from those preconceived notions, the element of surprise proves to be Unbreakable's greatest virtue, not to mention a quality richer and more elegantly pulled off than it was in Sense. In that film, the shock came in a quick, last-minute burst that jolted everything that preceded it into a new perspective. Here, the film's final turn is the culmination of what had been a movie-long build; the exhilarating final "click" in a puzzle whose pieces had been working their way--with ever-increasing speed--toward alignment.
Crucial to the persuasiveness of Unbreakable's story are the grounded performances. Willis is in the same lower gear that distinguished his Sense work, and he nicely disappears into the character and his uncertainties. Jackson's role offers a little more latitude, but his portrayal is firmly rooted in reality despite Elijah's rather unique hairdo (which proves to be an effective touch by the film's end). Robin Wright Penn and Spencer Treat Clark are fine as David's wife and son, respectively, but they are saddled with the weaker parts of the story. Wright Penn's subplot--the Dunns' rocky marriage--could be written off as being unnecessary, but it is actually integral in creating a believably real world in which some rather fantastical occurrences take place.
And that, right there, is likely to be the common complaint about Unbreakable--that it's unbelievable. Of course, that gripe is completely absurd, given that most audiences will be going in anticipating a just-as--if not more--unreal horror show of sorts. Having already concocted a ghost story that was less about scary apparitions than it was about people, Shyamalan makes a lateral move with Unbreakable, attempting to bring that same down-to-e
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