As someone who reviews movies for neither fame or fortune (come to think of it… why the hell AM I reviewing movies then?), I pride myself on being honest with the (maybe) six and a half people who real my stuff and so it’s confession time. I don’t actually rate The Sixth Sense as much as I should. The reasons for this I’ll one day divulge if I ever review the beloved ghost story; but while the masses seemed to flock to the famous tale of a kid who sees dead people, I personally embraced Shyamalan’s sophomore effort, the brooding, superhero movie: Unbreakable. Quite possibly the greatest non-comic book based superhero movie ever made.
Surviving a horrendous train crash is noticable enough but not only is David Dunn the sole survivor of a massive tragedy, but he managed it with a single cut, bruise, or broken bone. Coming to terms with this would be monumental enough but David is also in the middle of a collapsing marriage and struggling to bond with his withdrawn son but into his life hobbles Elijah Price, an art dealer obsessed with the art and mythology of comic books. Elijah has a condition that makes his bones as brittle as glass and figures that if he’s so fragile then it stands to reason that there must be someone in the opposite end of the bone density spectrum and so, thanks to David miraculous survival, he believes the humble security guard is unbreakable. Initially David is sceptical but certain facts start linking together, like Dunn hasn’t taken a sick day in his life, seems to be deceptively strong and has an aptitude for picking out “bad people” in a crowd due to a highly pronounced gut instinct. As David and his son bond Elijah subtly manipulates his way around the family and gets inside Dunn’s head, gently but firmly pushing him toward what the obtuse art dealer truly believes is their combined destiny. Inevitably David starts to succumb to Price’s urgings and heads out into the night to test himself in public but even if all the superhero stuff is real, is it going to protect the burnt out security guard from a very real weakness?
Coming off of a string of legitimately quality performances (oddly most starring Samuel L. Jackson), Bruce Willis was having somewhat of a resurgence thanks to his gentle and poignant role in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense and to be honest, the role of self doubting David Dunn seems perfect for him. A slightly banal yet decent man who is undergoing a mid-life crisis as he struggles through a quietly splintering marriage may not have all the bells and whistles of your usual Bruce Willis role but it definantly fits in with the Willis formula of No Hair = Acting Flair – that is until he himself wrecked it in the last two Die Hard movies… Alternatively, Jackson gets to ham it up as the socially blunt Price, a man who’s repeated injuries has made him bitter at the world as he limbs around in a natty purple coat and an angry afro. As intense as Dunn is sensitive, Elijah predicament has made him desperate for him to prove his theory about actual, living superhumans and Jackson does well to find the balance to make such a character believable both to the audience AND the other characters despite the fact that he’s an obvious prick.
But despite sterling work from both leads (as well as Robin Wright as David’s wife) it’s the director who is the real star here as his distinctive brand of dour, autumnal fantasy is in full effect. Giving the very real impression that everyone involved behind the camera seems to desperately need anti-depressants M. Night Shyamalan films everything in his usual mulling tones in long, unbroken shots as the camera lazily drifts between the players conversations. Dunn’s aborted flirting with a woman on a train in the movie’s opening is filmed entirely through a child’s POV as he peeks through the headrests of the seats on the doomed train and a flashback concerning the upsetting details of Elijah’s birth is filmed with people addressing each other in a department store mirror. It’s all very mature, dialed down stuff, literal light years away from other movies of the same time period that detailed superpowers (let us not forget this was released the same year as X-Men) and all the nuanced details that adapt comic book concepts are cerebral and fun.
Take the fact that everyone who could be considered a villain is attired in clothes that makes them stand out from everyone else (the serial killing sanitation worker wears bright orange, for example or a date rapist is wrapped in a lime green shirt) and acts like some sort of subconscious supervillain costume; even Dunn’s rain slicker give him a Batman-esque, avenging angel kind of vibe.
For a film that’s so restrained, Shyamalan laces the film with subtle humour that breathes life into proceedings and saves it from becoming too maudlin; the scene where David and his perminantly wide-eye son test the limits to his strength is a great example of how Shyamalan constructs his stories. It’s slow, deliberate and yet it’s completely engrossing and utterly fascinating; utilizing various different angles, blocking (notice how amusingly the son gets further away the heavier the weights get due to David’s safety concerns) and James Newton Howard’s gorgeous score plays up David’s heart breakingly noble journey of a man who’s sacrificed the promise of his youth for a love that has faded and who has another chance to realize his true potential.
In some ways, Shyamalan’s compulsive need to deploy a twist before the credits roll almost capsizes Unbreakable before it’s done and the final realization that Elijah isn’t so much David’s Professor X but in fact is his Lex Luthor felt a little rushed when the film was released. However, what with the film now retroactively being part of the director’s Eastrail 177 trilogy (name for the rail disaster David survives) along with Split and Glass, the rather abrupt denouement now plays much better, therefore making the only weakness this masterpiece had simply melt away.
While the promised battles on the horizon promised by Unbreakable’s ending may have been somewhat mishandled by 2019’s Glass, this first installment remains an evergreen, restrained meditation in a sub-genre known for splashy colours and skintight lycra.