"These are mediocre times," Samuel L. Jackson tells Robin Wright Penn. "People are losing hope. Many have a hard time accepting that there could be extraordinary things in themselves as well as in others. I hope you’ll keep an open mind."
I think I watched Unbreakable with an open mind — open enough, after a first viewing, to return for a second. And I don’t have a hard time accepting, and acknowledging, that there are extraordinary things here. Like M. Night Shyamalan’s last film (last year’s monster hit The Sixth Sense), this is a well-crafted thriller with an engrossing storyline, involving characters, masterfully crafted suspense, and a structure that rewards repeated viewing. Artistically, it’s a strong, bold, well-made film; if The Sixth Sense hadn’t been such a tough act to follow, critics would be hailing Unbreakable as a masterpiece.
And yet… where’s the hope? Where’s the sense of wonder or triumph, of joy, peace, awe, or gratitude? Why do I find Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon so much more compelling than David Dunn (Willis)?
Like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable is about a character with unusual gifts learning to find his place in the world, learning to help others in need. And I accept that, like the young protagonist of The Sixth Sense, whose power led him to help a young girl expose her own mother as a murderess, David Dunn cannot exercise his gift without confronting darkness and evil.
But the prevailing note, in the last scenes of The Sixth Sense, was one of tranquility and peace. (If you haven’t yet seen The Sixth Sense, skip the rest of this paragraph.) First, we see a chipper Haley Joel Osment backstage in the school theater, chatting with a woman who years before died there in a fire: no longer terrified of his ghosts. Then in the car, in a deeply affecting scene, his mother (Toni Collette) simultaneously comes to grips with her son’s gift — and with a message of approval and affirmation from her own long-dead mother. And then, finally, comes Bruce Willis’s great revelation that what looked like growing estrangement between himself and his wife was something else entirely: a revelation that brings emotional release, for us as well as him.
Whereas in Unbreakable… well, suffice to say, it’s not that way. Such "hope" as Shyamalan has to offer is less persuasive and less memorable than the fears and horrors he conjures; the overall impression created by his film is an ultimately dehumanizing, depressing one.
An important storyline in the film centers on a ghastly crime involving domestic invasion, murder, and imprisonment. Something is then done about this crime; but the resolution is unsatisfying, and on my way out of the theater I felt much more depressed about the possibility of such a crime actually being committed than inspired by anything that happened afterward. The brutality of this sequence was gratuitous and disproportionate to any kind of emotional release or payoff; the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth. And then there’s a still further turn of events that doesn’t exactly tilt the scales toward an inspiring vision of goodness; if you’ve seen the movie, or if you do see it, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Here’s a film that’s preoccupied with the question of the main character’s possible calling to a heroic life, and what’s to be done about it — but isn’t nearly as interested in what he ought to do about his calling as a husband and father to be a "hero" to his wife and son, whom he’s on the verge of abandoning as the movie opens. To be sure, his son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark, gracefully following Haley Joel Osment’s acclaimed performance) does hero-worship David; but the poor boy so desperately wants to believe in his dad that David doesn’t actually have to do much in the way of being a good father, the way he does have to go out and fight evil in order to be a super hero. And it’s the same with David’s wife Audrey (underused Robin Wright Penn), who’s so utterly open and receptive to her husband (I won’t name the song she calls her favorite one night out to dinner with him, but the title speaks volumes) that he can mend his marriage essentially any time he wants to, just by deciding not to leave.
Despite my misgivings, I’m glad I saw the film. The storytelling is sophisticated and expert, the dialogue well-written and economical, the camera work creative and interesting. Several standout sequences are especially riveting, from a thrilling scene in which David puts himself to the test, to a white-knuckle moment in which Joseph confronts his parents’ skepticism with startling directness, to a gripping chase scene at ordinary walking speed that derives an enormous amount of dramatic tension from the introduction of a simple subway stairwell. The pacing alone, deliberate and contemplative, is refreshing; it’s nice to see a movie where the director isn’t afraid to take his time.
And, of course, when a mother gives a young boy a comic book and tells him, "They say this one has a surprise ending," attentive viewers will realize that Shyamalan is practically taunting them to try to figure out his tricks. Even so, it wasn’t till my second viewing that I was able to appreciate the careful construction of the story and the ingeniously planted clues I’d been looking for the first time around but had somehow missed.
Shyamalan’s boldness and imagination haven’t failed him; but somehow the heart of The Sixth Sense isn’t here. Moments before that film’s final revelation, I knew that something was still lacking — there was an absence of closure that I understood the movie had to provide; and when it came, it was completely satisfying. With Unbreakable, I was itching for satisfaction that I didn’t get, and in its place I was offered something that, while undeniably interesting, scratched where I didn’t itch.
Why, I haven’t come across a fairy-tale premise calling for such childlike wonder and acceptance since the taxation of trade routes was in dispute and the greedy Trade Federation set up a blockade around the planet Naboo.
A ubiquitous tagline and a mind-bending climactic twist made M. Night Shyamalan’s breakout hit The Sixth Sense a monster sensation — yet this deliberately paced, psychologically sensitive paranormal thriller is much more than a one-trick puzzle movie, and holds up well to multiple viewings.
With The Village, Shyamalan has gone to the well once too often. Whether or not you see the anti-climactic twists coming is almost beside the point. For the first time, Shyamalan has created a puzzle movie populated by characters we can’t identify with, living in a world we can’t relate to. The viewer has no stake in this story; he comes to the Village a stranger in a strange land, and remains so through the course of the film.
Signs has the
heart that was lacking in Unbreakable, but stumbles badly
in its treatment of the paranormal, in this case the world of
"X-Files" / "Twilight Zone"
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.