Friday, February 25, 2011

Unbreakable

Director M. Night Shyamalan has become something of a joke in Hollywood for a string of a commercially and critically lambasted films over the last several years, but at the beginning of the new millennium, he was being pegged as the next Steven Spielberg or Alfred Hitchcock. Unbreakable (2000) came right in the middle of his hot streak, which had begun with The Sixth Sense (1999) and ended with Signs (2002), but now, some people are looking back on these three films and questioning whether they were any good to begin with. Although I wouldn't call it a masterpiece, Unbreakable holds up fairly well and offers a unique take on the comic book genre.

Security guard David Dunn (Bruce Willis) miraculously survives a train derailment in which all other passengers are killed. Even more amazing, he doesn't have a single scratch on him. This draws the attention of Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a comic book gallery owner suffering from a condition causing his bones to be very brittle. As a child, other kids called him "Mr. Glass." He leaves David a note asking when was the last time he was sick. Neither David nor his wife Audrey (Robin Wright Penn), can answer that. Elijah has spent his whole life looking for someone on the other side of the health spectrum, and he believes David might be some kind of superhero.

Unbreakable is a very slow and moody piece. There are no big action scenes, no over-the-top characters, no wild and spectacular special, and no overly-muscled physiques in smashing tights. The movie ponders what it would actually mean to be impervious to injury. David gradually discovers the true nature of himself and his life and what the ramifications that would mean for his family. The best scene to illustrate this is when David's son grabs a gun to shoot him so he can prove his father is unkillable. It's a frightening case of hero worship.

My big complaint would the film moves too slow at times. I appreciate that Shyamalan uses long takes and doesn't give into rapid-fire editing of many of his contemporaries, but there are times he belabors a scene long after the point has been made. Other reviewers have pointed how all of his characters in his films speak exactly the same way: hushed, short simple sentences with restrained, calm emotion. For David, that makes sense because he's just been through trauma, but it feels monotonous when everyone talks that way. Jackson gives more life to his character with an underlying anger and resentment, but everyone talks as if every line of dialogue is profound understatement. It works here for the most part, but I can see why later in Shyamalan's filmography it's stilted and awkward.

I suppose I should mention there is a twist. I think it's pretty neat, although it does feel tacked on. It isn't as mind-blowing as The Sixth Sense, but it's serviceable and not as asinine as other twists I've seen.

Unbreakable is an effective low-key thriller that plays with superhero conventions. The most disappointing thing about it is it shows how much talent Shyamalan shows here and why it's a shame he's been slumming. Here's hoping he gets back to this level.

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