Unbreakable and other Shyamalan films

Lady in the Water opens tomorrow, and I may post some thoughts on it then. In the meantime, it occurs to me that I have written formal reviews of almost all of M. Night Shyamalan’s previous films over the years, the only exceptions being Praying with Anger (1992) and The Village (2004) — so I figured I’d round up the links to those reviews and gather them together here.

As always when dipping into the archives, I can see all sorts of things that I would like to revise, whether for content or style. But these reviews represent what I thought at the time. FWIW, The Sixth Sense is the only one of these films that I have re-visited since its initial release, and it is the only one I own on DVD.

And because my review of Unbreakable is not otherwise available online, I am posting it in its entirety below. The thing that strikes me about that review now is that I never refer to the one thing about the film that has lingered in my memory of it, namely Shyamalan’s use of long, uninterrupted takes. Plus, when referring to the twist ending, I do not use the metaphor that I have used in all my discussions of the film since then: it is as though Shyamalan were slamming on the gas and the brakes at the same time.

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Wide Awake (1998; dvd)
Review: BC Christian News, Apr 1998

The Sixth Sense (1999; dvd)
Reviews: ChristianWeek, Aug 1999; Christianity Today, Jan 2000

Unbreakable (2000; dvd)
Review: Vancouver Courier, Nov 2000 (see below)

Signs (2002; dvd)
Review: BC Christian News, Aug 2002

– – –

Unbreakable — 2.5 stars out of 4

by Peter T. Chattaway

Unbreakable has a lot in common with The Sixth Sense, the surprise spook-story hit that nudged its way into the ranks of the top ten box-office hits of all time early this year. It is written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. It stars Bruce Willis. And it is a solemn tale about a person who has supernatural powers and must find a way to come to terms with his gift, and use it responsibly.

Willis plays David Dunne, a security guard who survives a train wreck without getting so much as a scratch, while all the other passengers die. David is soon contacted by Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a comic-book zealot who has been keeping an eye out for just such an incident, hoping to find an invulnerable man. Elijah has extremely fragile bones — the kids back in school used to call him “Glass” because he shattered so easily — and he’s been waiting his whole life to meet someone at the opposite end of the vulnerability spectrum.

Reluctantly, David begins to jog his memory and explore his abilities. There is no record of him ever being sick or injured. (However, he can, apparently, trim his fingernails and shave his head.) He discovers he can bench-press several hundred pounds. And he learns he has the ability to visualize people’s evil deeds simply by touching them. Finally, one day he decides to use his power to do some good, so he ventures out into the world, hiding his identity behind a hooded poncho which, when seen from behind, resembles a superhero’s cape.

That’s right, Unbreakable, for all its high-minded seriousness, is a superhero movie. But unlike films such as X-Men, which tap into teenage alienation and offer young audiences plenty of action and special effects, Unbreakable has been made with grown-ups in mind. David, ignored and unappreciated by his employers at the football stadium where he works, is plagued by dreams of what might have been; he had a promising football career himself until he and his girlfriend Megan (Robin Wright Penn) were caught in a car wreck together back in high school. Now, years later, they have a son and their marriage is on the rocks.

These sorts of relationship issues are central to Shyamalan’s films, and you have to admire him for even trying to make a film that starts with such a pulpy premise and then treats it like real drama. More often than not, and with the help of some solid performances, he keeps these two aspects of the film in balance — but on at least three occasions, he loses control of his material.

First, there is a scene in which David’s 12-year-old son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) brings a gun into the kitchen and threatens to shoot his father, to force him to accept his invulnerability. This is a highly drastic move on the boy’s part, but it passes with little consequence. Second, there is the scene in which David, out on his first night of vigilante justice, stops his first criminal. There is a realistic clumsiness in how he goes about this, but the music at that point strives for something more heroic and feels rather out of place.

Third, and most crucially, there is the ending, which, as you’ve probably heard by now, contains a plot twist that revises everything you thought you had seen up until that point. Shyamalan pulled this stunt before, of course, in The Sixth Sense, and he tips us off early on that he will do it again when Elijah’s mother gives him his first comic book and says, “They say it has a surprise ending.”

But while the gimmick brought a satisfying sense of closure to The Sixth Sense, here it just feels muddled. The last scene is further hampered by the use of and-then-he-did-this title cards, of the sort that normally appear at the end of true stories and comedies; no sooner has the film complicated things, than it tries to resolve them with a few sentences. It’s as though Shyamalan had a sequel or two in mind but, sensing something was amiss, abruptly called them off.

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  • Unbreakable is the only movie I’ve ever seen on opening day, and I liked it both then and when I had a chance to watch it again a few weeks ago.

    The most striking thing to me is how he allows the marital relationship to be explored almost solely by the actors- with long, lingering shots, and little dialogue allowing both Willis and Robin Wright Penn to form the relationship. It seemed like Shymalan was in no hurry to reveal what was the nature and cause of their discord.

  • yeah, my favorite Shyamalan film is Unbreakable. also one of my all-time favorite comic book/superhero movies. probably one of my favorites, period.

    i love the dark, slow mood of the whole piece; it’s like a graphic novel dispersed through a modern, non-showy film noir – and much better at it than that Tom Hanks vehicle, Road to Perdition.

    the opening scene, from the child’s vantage point, watching as Willis tries and fails to flirt with a passenger on a flight, i think, is beautiful and describes so well – by showing – that discord that gabriel talks about above. i didn’t feel that it was gimmicky or hashed. just well done.

  • Thom

    I can’t remember where I heard it first…but the idea was apparently testing the water-and had it been more successful, would have been some sort of trilogy.

  • Total agreement here re: the long, lingering shots, and especially the one on the train at the beginning.

  • this was one of the few films i knew NOTHING about when i sat down in my theater seat (i usually research the heck out of films mostly because of insatiable curiousity and my spoilers-nature). it also turned out to be one of the best theater experiences i’ve ever had. it’s been years, but i vividly remember that almost chills-wonderful dawning realization of what i was watching (a superhero movie) done in a way i never imagined it could be. i love comic book films, but it’s not hard to be one step of filmmakers these days. this one, however, had me mesmorized. the ending wasn’t as strong as the rest of the film for some reason, but i still count it as one of my favorite films. must blog about it someday, heh.