Unbreakable, the latest from Sixth Sense director M. Night Shyamalan, is a fascinating mess. I have a feeling it’s gonna get beat up by many critics and probably will leave a lot of viewers befuddled and disgruntled. But I came out of it high on the sheer exuberance of the filmmaking and eager to watch it again right away–if only to understand what the hell I’d seen the first time.
At the grand old age of 30, Shyamalan has made four features that establish him as a rarity of rarities, a young Hollywood auteur of genuine talents and world-class commercial instincts. Like John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock, he seems most at home in a particular genre that he has made virtually his own. Though “supernatural thriller” is a handy enough tag for that niche, “spiritual suspense drama” is perhaps more accurate. In other words, Shyamalan has not only a characteristic entertainment style to sell, but a kind of philosophic worldview as well. The entertainment part of the equation tends toward the engrossing superficiality of most pop forms, while the philosophy aspires toward something like profundity: In that tricky combination reside both the potency of The Sixth Sense and the problems of Unbreakable.
About the only thing that had been given out about the new film’s story prior to its release is that it opens with a terrible train wreck and the mystery of why one man alone, David Dunn (Bruce Willis), survives it. That probably gave many viewers advance visions of a catastrophic, nerve-shattering opening reel a la The Fugitive. Well, guess again. The horrific train wreck happens, but Shyamalan doesn’t devote two seconds of screen time to it. Instead, he gives us an elegantly ominous prelude that’s easily one of my favorite scenes of 2000.
Dunn is seated in the train and the camera films him from the other side of the seats in front of him, positioned so that it has to slide back and forth to keep him in view between the seats. For example: It slides right to catch a view of a pretty girl who comes up and asks about the seat beside him; left to register his answer and interested look at her; right to catch her tummy revealing a little tattoo as she reaches up to put her bag in the overhead bin; left to see him quickly remove his wedding ring and deposit it in his pocket; right to observe her taking her seat as he offers her a magazine as a way of breaking the ice; and so on.
This is wonderfully adroit and expressive visual storytelling. As most of the scene takes place without a single cut, the peekaboo camera style keeps us guessing by creating a nonedited equivalent of a standard shot-countershot editing pattern. But it’s more than just clever. It’s also a neat encapsulation of Shyamalan’s entire imaginary universe, where people are always alone even when they seem together, where mortality constantly looms and where the invisible, the obscured, the unknown, is as at least as important as life’s daylight half.
The scene’s verbal component equals the visual. Shyamalan has a knack for oblique, understated dialogue, and here the conversation between Dunn and the girl is so natural and casual that you hardly register what it is he says that makes her suddenly reply firmly, “I’m married,” show him her wedding ring, then get up and move to another seat. Dunn sighs, puts his ring back on and gazes out of the window. The train wreck we never see comes just after the fade to black–unless you consider that, figuratively speaking, it has already happened.
Indeed, what does happen in this inaugural scene that connects to the rest of movie? What we learn later, as already noted, is that the subsequent train wreck killed scores of passengers while leaving Dunn completely unscathed. But maybe that’s not what really happened. After you see the movie, try on this explanation: In reality, the train wreck happened and no one died except him. The rest of the story is his dream of what his life would have been like if the equation had been reversed and he survived rather than perished.
That interpretation is perfectly viable, but there’s a problem with it, of course. It more obviously fits another movie: The Sixth Sense. In fact, the parallels between Unbreakable and its predecessor are numerous enough to perplex some admirers even while they clarify certain of Shyamalan’s core ideas. For one: Though his ancestry may be Indian, his dramatic landscape seems heavily imbued with Catholicism, including the concept of original sin. Both movies begin by showing their protagonists as guilty of some transgression (Dunn perhaps sins against his marriage vows only in his heart, but to the devout that’s as bad as the carnal deed), after which they are laid low by the punishment of a violent catastrophe. Both men appear to rise from the dead, but their real redemptions come only after a long ordeal in which a human intercessor leads them toward an understanding of their “real” nature, which has been hidden by their own incognizance.
The beauty of The Sixth Sense was that it gave these ideas a form that perhaps could not have been simpler or more organic. Indeed, that may be the problem with Unbreakable. Arguably, the only direction left for Shyamalan to go was toward greater complexity, disjointedness and at least partial, or occasional, incoherence.
In any case, after emerging unhurt from the train wreck, Dunn finds himself in the midst of challenges that most screenwriting pros might consider too diffuse and loosely related. As the opening scene hinted, he’s got problems with his wife (Robin Wright), while his 12-year-old son (Spencer Treat Clark) regards him with an odd mix of awe and suspicion. A stadium security guard, Dunn seems vaguely unhappy in his job. But his greatest perplexity takes the form of a man named Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who invades his life almost like a living question mark asking why he survived that rail disaster.
Shyamalan introduces Price early, showing him born (in Philadelphia, where the film takes place) with broken arms and legs. A decade or so later, he’s a curious kid obsessed with comic books. Come the present day, he is a rather fierce character who runs a tony gallery devoted to comic book art. But if comics are his occupation, Dunn becomes his preoccupation. Price seems to know something about the security guard that Dunn himself doesn’t know, which in turn holds the secret of Dunn’s miraculous survival.
If all this sounds not only intriguing but also rather convoluted and opaque–well, it is. The hallmark of Shyamalan’s style is a penchant for hushed tones and shots that isolate the main characters as if within the cathedrals of their own consciousnesses. In The Sixth Sense, this was appropriate in every way from the dramatic to the conceptual to the metaphysical. In Unbreakable, it alas only adds to the impression of too many solitudes with too little to unite them into any sort of whole, whether dramatic, conceptual or metaphysical. Every time Willis turns a corner, he seems to run into another story element (a high-school car crash, an aversion to water and so on) that you hope will be the connecting thread but that usually turns out to be another strand destined to be left dangling.
On a scene-by-scene basis, the film is enormously engaging to watch; Shyamalan’s craft is now so sharp and insinuating that he can make even the most mundane exchange crackle with energy and resonance. Yet he also sets up expectations that demand a tricky sort of payoff. Both Sixth Sense and Unbreakable might be called, for lack of a better term, dramas of retrospective revelation. That is, they depend on late-in-the-story disclosures that make you look back at everything that’s come before and suddenly understand it all differently. (Shyamalan didn’t invent this form: See The Crying Game, The Rapture and others.) The great thing about such dramas is that they have a built-in philosophical kick, since philosophy begins in the supposition that there’s a “real” world hiding behind the apparent; the tricky thing is that their revelations have to be both perfectly timed and comprehensively convincing.
In fact, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable alike depend on dual revelations that come at different points in the film’s latter half and relate to the two main characters. An hour into Sense, Haley Joel Osment says, “I see dead people,” which explains not only his dilemma but the story’s conceptual grounding to that point; then, the last scene tells us that Bruce Willis is in fact one of those dead people, which elucidates his dilemma and the remainder of the tale’s mysteries. In a narrative nuts-and-bolts sense, Unbreakable doesn’t work nearly so well because its revelations (don’t worry, I won’t reveal them) are late in arriving and somewhat defective, the sort that induce head-scratching rather than jaw-dropping.
Plus, philosophically, they seem a tad wrong-headed and sophomoric compared to those in Sixth Sense. Shyamalan’s earlier films evidenced a sensibility that looked at pop forms and saw in them the potential for spiritual meaning. When The Sixth Sense gave its expertly imaginative testimonial to the postmortem survival of souls, and to a “world of souls” surrounding the visible, it connected the moviegoer’s hunger for belief to a much older system of belief. Unbreakable does pretty much the opposite: It ultimately takes quasi-religious belief and asks you to invest it in the cheesy, ephemeral forms of pop art. It could be called Pulp Gnosis.
And that would-be title connects us to the final question that Unbreakable leaves hanging: Will Shyamalan turn out to be a Tarantinoesque tyro with one pop masterpiece in him, or a Catholic filmmaker like Hitchcock who converts his obsessions into a long string of great movies? For now, the jury is still out.