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Unbreakable

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 12/28/06 09:46:13

"Compelling, but needed a little more room to breathe at the end."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Reviewing a movie like "Unbreakable" not only takes extraordinary skill at waffling (you have to bend over backwards not to reveal anything), it also requires a case of selective amnesia, because the movie is two-thirds of a remarkable atmospheric thriller. But a movie like this lives or dies on the strength of its ending, and in this case the prognosis doesn't look good.

Was the writer-director M. Night Shyamalan compelled to deliver a whammy on the level of the twist ending of his big hit The Sixth Sense? Hard to say, but it's a bit of a non-whammy -- not a dud, exactly, but a disappointingly conventional capper.

We'll start from the beginning. Bruce Willis must have enjoyed working for Shyamalan last time, because he returns here as security cop David Dunn. We meet David on a train from New York to Philadelphia -- a train that derails and crashes, killing the other 131 passengers but leaving David unscathed. His mirror image, it seems, is a brooding loner named Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who coincidentally is often seen in reflections. Elijah has osteogenesis imperfecta, a rare disease (one in every 20,000 Americans is born with it) that makes the bones brittle and easily broken. Elijah, a devout comic-book reader, sees David as a parallel figure, an unbreakable man, perhaps even a superhero; then again, Elijah may also be just a lonely guy who's read too many comics, and David assumes the latter to be true -- even though he can't remember the last time he was sick.

Shooting once again in the overcast, unflashy locations of Philadelphia, Shyamalan and cinematographer Eduardo Serra work from a palette of blues and grays; the entire city has five o'clock shadow. And Shyamalan, as he did in The Sixth Sense, lets the scenes play out in calm, hushed intimacy. The domestic scenes involving David and his estranged wife (Robin Wright Penn) and troubled son (Spencer Treat Clark) are done with exquisite tact and economy -- you get the sense that Shyamalan really wants to make dramas with supernatural elements, not supernatural thrillers. Shyamalan takes us in close, picking up sad and angry whispers; his people almost never raise their voices. The actors, particularly Jackson, seem to relish the small, subtle notes Shyamalan encourages them to play.

Unbreakable takes pains to set up its gloomy world and then, like The Exorcist, introduces odd occurrences that are all the more disturbing because they feel real -- they feel like the unbelievable-and-yet-it's-really-happening events we've all experienced. An extended sequence in which David pays a visit to a dangerous man is a top-notch exercise in suspense and the glimpsed horrors of violence, even though it leads to a rather clumsy bit of fighting (then again, the clumsiness may be the point). The little moments are also terrific, as in a silent breakfast-table scene when David shows his son a newspaper article and, from the expressions on their faces, we can take our pick of several possible emotions.

The movie goes along so well and smoothly, and then takes a rollercoaster dive into ... well, let's just say this isn't The Sixth Sense, whose ending flipped the entire story around and gave you that satisfying click when everything came together in your head. There's no click here except the writer-director pulling the trigger of his plot's unloaded gun. Without spoiling anything, I'll say that I like the concept of the ending -- it does make sense -- but it's far too abrupt, and the use of "this is what happened next" titles at the end (usually reserved for movies based in fact) just makes us wish there were more movie, more of a wrap-up. Shyamalan, elsewhere so skilled at "show, don't tell," seems to forget that here. The film needed more beats, more scenes, a smoother ramp up to the end revelation.

I would rank "Unbreakable" with "Sleepy Hollow," another hypnotic mood painting that seemed too eager to get to its chintzy "Murder, She Wrote" denouement. These directors should have more faith in their power to enthrall us; Shyamalan's achievement here is that he creates a mood that seems all but unbreakable, only to break it.

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