by Marc Kandel
Its time for some simple appreciation of a film I happen to love, warts and all, and consider M. Night Shyamalan’s opus in an increasingly uneven resume, happily viewed for a moment of uplifting catharsis - or when I really feel like knocking the ever-loving poopers out of something. And if you just want to go the snarky “Unwatchable” or “Unremarkable” route, you just come ‘round n’ say it to my face Sonny Jim.To discuss the film at length is to spoil. Enough time has passed that I can discuss in detail without ruining anyone’s movie night, but if you haven’t seen it don’t taint a fresh viewing. See it, keep an open mind, and if you don’t like it, break the DVD into a few jagged shards, gently nudge ‘em up in your softest, darkest, South-most body cavity with some little care, and do twenty jumping jacks; this action will not provide any insight or enhance your enjoyment of the film, it is your gruesome penance for being a dumb bastard.
"Shyamalan’s Best- no exceptions."
David Dunn, lone survivor of a horrific train derailment is approached by Elijah, a comic-book art purveyor suffering from a debilitating physical condition which allows him the perspective to put forth an extraordinary theory on how David survived catastrophic tragedy without a scratch while for Elijah, merely walking from one end of a room to the other presents life-threatening peril. Dubious at first, David slowly discovers the truth of his existence, but at what price?
Shyamalan’s films center around damaged people wandering perilously along the edge of the forest, close to being lost forever, discovering path and purpose (taken to a disastrous literal extreme in the misfire The Village). The surprises and supernatural elements are tools to move the central goal forward. When it works, we have a Sixth Sense, an Unbreakable, even a Signs which, plot holes aside, can be taken as a lovely tale of a man rediscovering his soul. The treat is the journey, which is where many viewers of Shyamalan’s films sometimes stray in their perceptions of the work entire. I can appreciate pulling the rug out from under someone as much as the next cafeteria prank victim- but to me that’s just icing- you tell me really grabs you more in “Sixth Sense”: Dr. Malcolm Crowe revealing his blood-soaked shirt or that veeeeeery first time some barely seen shape slithers across the hallway behind Cole as his breath freezes in his lungs? Any last minute reveal is gravy that but complements the full, sumptuous meal meticulously slaved over by the director and his sterling casts of performers.
My love of Unbreakable comes from the heart displayed in the movie from all involved, and the admiration of Shyamalan’s overhauling what makes this genre work, without cheating the viewer of the ideas and concepts that make superheroes pop. Shyamalan creates a dreary, mundane world, populated with despairing, weary characters, and injects hope and wonder- not with spectacle but quiet, carefully spooned dollops of the unreal that bring revelation, redemption, truth and horror. The film is a mélange of careful, beautiful imagery, captivating performances, and intricately stacked tension and release- all that and you still get your balls-out street justice.
The cinematography by Eduardo Serra is a sophisticated, subtle palette- Shyamalan chooses the typically comic-villainous colors of Green and Purple, further separating them into “good” and “bad” colors - the resultant look is vivid and rich, each shot hit from different angles so that each reflects what could be a different panel on a page (a more subtle approach over Ang Lee’s outright panel layouts in The Hulk). A bluish haze serves to underscore the drab world David Dunn inhabits. Our vivid colors are provided by Elijah, impeccably styled in rich purples and exaggerated tailoring, his Frederick Douglas hairdo stabbing the sky, his eyes blazing intensity whilst David mopes around in earthy olive and moss green work clothes, pale, lost and beaten, his eyes always searching.
Bruce Willis outdoes himself. David Dunn is a quiet, beaten man with little charisma or energy masking reserves of strength and nobility as he shuffles through his tattered life- numb in shock and grief. At the beginning, some may see a minor resemblance to his tired, stoic boxer Dutch of Pulp Fiction, but Dutch is far more wry, calculated and frantic, whereas David has long since lost his verve, passion and any sort of plan, and the performer is careful to present two different men whose divergences become rather obvious as the film picks up steam.
David’s progression to truth is a delicate journey of missteps, disappointments and tiny moments of wonder. One of the best hints of David’s extraordinary ability is a fun, understated scene where he and his doting son test David’s strength during a routine work-out (bolstered by a soft yet vaguely iconic ascending hero theme by James Newton Howard on strings and piano, turning in a winner on scoring chores). The scene is a nice tease: David strains to lift the not inconsiderable weight (the sound of his grip sliding against textured metal alone gives the audience a sense of tremendous effort), and even with the payoff, we must still question the veracity of Elijah’s assertions thanks to Willis’ labored, uneasy exertions. A deleted scene does exist where David lifts weight at the stadium gym where he works leaving the entire football team with their jaws agape, putting the question of his paranormal strength to bed, but this scene was rightly cut as it leaves little to the imagination, the necessary information conveyed in the much more intimate, subtle scene between David and his son which further textures their relationship.
Two scenes cement this movie for me as a thing of beauty- both amazing payoff moments from the intricate build. The first is David committing to his role and entering the lion’s den, the second Elijah’s revelation and unnerving triumph. These moments cut to the quick, simultaneously illustrating the frightening difficulty and uplifting rightness of confronting evil, and the joy, magic, and awful terror found in purpose.
David dons his Security poncho, now a costume, and steps into Pennsylvania Station. Raising his arms up he accepts himself and we feel weight lifting from him, helped again by a resounding master-stroke from composer Howard, as dialogue defers to musical purity and the playful hero-theme hinted at throughout is replaced by the real deal, an eight-note melody of calm strength and clarity with an undercurrent of warning and dilemma- a warning for evildoers, or for David himself?
In Shyamalan’s world, it’s not a matter of flying in and throttling the bad guys- there are tough choices and hard-fought battles to be had. When David confronts his chosen adversary (a horrific crime in progress versus other misdeeds where the damage is done and the victims alive and not in immediate danger) the struggle is shot from a fixed angle, and it’s an ugly site to behold, grounded in a bleak, vicious battle for survival. There are no multi-angle flips of dazzling agility, no Chinese opera kicks, flurries of parried punches, or witty dialogue exchanged- there is only quiet, inexorable, brutal justice, and our only hint that David may have some advantage is when his side doesn’t cave in as his sickeningly strong adversary savagely throws his arm into David’s ribs again and again and again, knocking him back through a wall as David tenaciously wares his foe down, locked at his throat, giving not an inch, determined to stop a madman. David’s face is obscured by his hood, an avenging spirit ripping this evil monster from the world; A riveting, bold choice by Shyamalan that deliberately avoids a sensational, climactic battle with John Buscema style comic book poses and jumpy kinetic action in favor of a realistic, prolonged, disturbing confrontation. James Newton Howard raises the volume of his music, a sad yet uplifting melody of justice as the brute’s strength slowly ebbs and David at last, fully becomes the man he is supposed to be.
And now the hard medicine- Elijah Price’s reveal. I’ll admit to being quite surprised. In fact, I was horrified and upset, as the fraction of good David struggled to bring the world throughout the film seems hopelessly buried under the immense weight of evil Elijah has committed in his search for David (yes, in that moment I weighed human lives in numbers, and didn’t even realize it until much later). It’s too much to take, David’s jaw slack in grief, disgust and disappointment, Elijah’s eyes wide, glowing, tearful in terrible joy, ecstatic to an almost sexual level as he closes the circle of his life and announces his identity. He has found his place in the world, given meaning to his pitiful condition, his hard, agonized life, and God help us, we are somehow complicit, having grown to love this man and his wonderful ideas and discoveries, to respect him, to empathize with him and worry for him as he literally breaks himself in his feverish quest.
Of course, his defeated, bitter fit in the comic-book store earlier gave us pause, a rather childish, off-putting act by a manically-depressed man that made us wonder how many marbles were actually rolling around that voluminous head, but he guided our friend, unearthed a savior, he did good… Didn’t he? It’s rare I have been so pained from a revelation on film. Even Fredo’s betrayal did not hurt so. And the flashbacks, the dead stare and jagged movement as Elijah removes himself from his crimes, punishing his unremarkable world, scattering the pieces off the board that clutter up his search for a king- it actually stung. We are privy to so many moments of beauty and pain with Elijah, from his birth to his lonely childhood to his meager triumphs and bitter disappointments, so many times where his hope might have been dimmed but wasn’t… or so we thought. At the same time, his unbridled jubilance is a stirring thing, this poor, feeble man who needed to know there was a reason he was brought into the hard, dangerous world so terribly frail and flawed. Samuel L. Jackson has done solid, memorable work, but for me his portrayal of Elijah surpasses every other great performance he has brought to the screen.
It’s these final moments of this film that will either have viewers’ jaws dropped, heartbroken perhaps, but nodding appreciatively at the only way the film could have ended, or walking away muttering curses, rolling their eyes at their perception of sloppiness, obviousness, and that text ending which takes a rather unsatisfying “Unsolved Mysteries” turn to no real purpose (that too hits a sour note with me). A friend of mine that I first saw the film with was disgusted. She felt too many things were spelled out, and the finale was stupid- she wanted the final shot to be a handshake and David’s eyes widening and then a fade, as if that would have imparted any more pathos, cleverness or information that the actual ending provided. We’re not friends anymore. Her feelings on Unbreakable are not what ended the friendship, but I’m sure that’s where it started, right in that theater, at that film. I bet she didn’t figure out anything and just made that whole thing up to appear opinionated and pithy. Filthy Whore.
These days, it's the high of chic to stomp on ol’ M. Night, and perhaps there’s something to that after the bitter disappointments of The Village, the even more poorly received Lady in the Water, which wasn’t terrible but didn’t come even close to the standards set by his prior work. There’s also that ever faithful yet debilitating hobby of pointing out flaws in the logic of The Sixth Sense and Signs (Honestly, space-faring aliens that can’t master a doorknob or grasp the concept of a wetsuit? See, I’m not immune either). But I find Unbreakable above such reproach- I don’t see very much to call B.S. on, the logic the film presents stands the test of reason and even the “twist” ending which people put so much stock in, makes perfect sense within the frame of the picture and the themes that are so important to not just this film but all Shyamalan’s works- the individual finding happiness and fulfillment by discovering and acting upon their unique, specific purpose in life.You thought Peter Parker had problems? Try slipping on David Dunn’s shoes for a couple hours. It's a refreshing walk, and a worthwhile journey- one of my favorites.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=4345&reviewer=358
originally posted: 08/18/07 06:53:01