I’m caught in a dilemma here. On the one hand, here’s a fascinating film that I want to dissect for pages and pages. On the other, this is one of these movies that you should know the least about before watching it. All I knew, I got from the teaser trailer: Bruce Willis is this dude who was in a train that derailed, all 131 passengers died… except him. And not only did he survive, he doesn’t even have a scratch on him! Then we’re shown Sam Jackson with an awful afro, telling Bruce’s character that he might know the truth about his true nature or something. That’s it, and I’m gonna try to leave it at that. I might have to divulge a little more, but only enough to express why I feel this is such an amazing picture.
You must see this movie, if only to witness something all too rare: a Hollywood picture that turns out to be one big ballsy art film. It’s beyond me how writer-director M. Night Shyamalan even got Touchstone and Disney to put all this money into producing and wide releasing a movie destined to confuse -if not enrage- audiences. I mean, Shyamalan’s previous movie “The Sixth Sense” did end up becoming the 9th biggest box-office hit of all time, but for all its quiet pace, subdued tone and cerebral story, at its core it remained a good old ghost story.
Now, “Unbreakable”… I guess I’d have to call it a comic book movie, even though it’s somehow anything but… Yet it’s exactly that. See what I mean? What Shyamalan does, basically, is explore the possibility of a real life super-hero. Usually, super-hero movies are pure fantasy. Even a brainier venture like “X-Men” is packed with gizmos, flying vehicles, colorful creatures, explosive confrontations… While in “Unbreakable”, there are no special effects, no elaborate sets, no flashy costumes…
“Huh?”, you might be thinking. I know. I have to put this into at least some context, but don’t worry, no real spoilers. Ok, so that dude Bruce Willis is playing, his name is David Dunne. He doesn’t feel any special, au contraire. His life is going nowhere, to the point where just getting up in the morning fills him with sadness. He lives in a greyish Philadelphia neighbourhood with his wife (Robin Wright-Penn) and their son (Spencer Treat Clark), but it hardly feels like a family anymore. His wife and him are practically separated, living together only until David moves to New York, and father and son are also distant. So David keeps working as a security guard at the football stadium while he tries to get a job in the Big Apple when BANG!,he finds himself in that horrible railroad accident, of which he’s the sole survivor.
That’s when Elijah Price (Jackson) enters the picture. A wealthy collector of rare comic book art, he believes he found in David a genuine real-life super-hero. He himself is quite the opposite, suffering from a rare disease that makes his bones more fragile than normal, so he constantly breaks his arms or legs. But, the way he sees it, if there can be someone like him who’s overtly weak and vulnerable, wouldn’t there also have to be somebody out there with superhuman capacities? As Elijah hammers him with questions, he finds out that indeed, David can’t remember ever getting sick or hurt. And doesn’t he sometimes have strange intuitions about people, too? Could he, as crazy as it sounds, be… unbreakable?
You’re getting a better idea now? Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet! The film is about how David comes to grasp with his condition and what it can be used for. In a way, this is his “origin story”. It’s hard to describe, but there’s something electrifying about the process of watching Everyman gradually discover what he’s truly capable of. As the film unfolded, I often found myself grinning madly and getting chills, that whole “Rocky” feeling where you want to stand up and cheer… Shyamalan finds a simple but smart way to communicate this feeling by making us watch some of David’s progression through the eyes of his son, who’s just at the right age to believe in comic book heroes. This leads to some wonderful scenes like when the kid watches his father pumping iron, or the breakfast scene when Dunne pushes the morning paper over to his son… Whoa! And then there’s our big kid Elijah, who takes it even more seriously… and.. and… Man, I wanna keep going, but since I believe in spoiler-free reviews… I’ll just point out that I personally felt the ending was brilliant, and that it works perfectly into the comic book spirit of the film.
As you can probably tell, I really, really enjoyed “Unbreakable”. Shyamalan is a filmmaker not quite like any other. To go and make an art film deconstructing the pathos of comic books, you need a very unusual sensibility. I’m sure it would be fascinating to talk with him about how he writes. As a director, he also does a great job. For better or worse, he never takes the easy way out. He never just shoots anything conventionally. He often goes for those long and longer shots around his actors instead of just cutting back and forth between each character’s lines of dialogue, or he’ll go for that voyeur look, sticking his camera outside looking in through a window, or he’ll shoot the characters’ reflection in a mirror or a television… Sometimes, he end up getting gorgeous shots, and he crafts some scenes to great effect. Other times, you just want him to put the damn camera on a tripod and let us see what’s going on, but it’s not too bad. It’s still refreshing to watch a director who experiments with the medium even if he doesn’t always succeed.
So there, “Unbreakable” is not pure perfection. It could have used being a little faster, brighter and livelier. Then again, even as it stands, it’s an awesome experience. Bruce Willis creates another character that he’s bound to be remembered for, along with John McClane and Butch Coolidge. From his first scene, in which he flirts with a young woman on the train, he made his character intriguing to me, especially with the way the usual Willis cockiness is nowhere to be seen. And then it was all the more interesting to see him gradually getting his groove back. Sam Jackson is also very good in the film, as always. It’s interesting how it’s actually Jackson who seems the strongest of the two, spiritually at least. There’s also a lot of stuff that he conveys that you don’t realize until after the final revelation; just watch him in the comic book shop scene.
I think what I love the most about “Unbreakable” is how it not only rocks you while you’re watching it, but it keeps rocking even louder afterward. It’s been a couple of hours since I saw it, and I’m still under the spell. I want to see more adventures of Bruce Willis’ unbreakable hero. I want McFarlane Toys to make me a Willis action figure in a green raincoat with ‘security’ tagged on the back, and a Sam Jackson one with the purple trench-coat and the glass cane! Well, for now, I’ll just go see “Unbreakable” again as soon as I can. It’s easily one of the year’s best movies. “It has begun…”