Unbreakable, from M. Night Shyamalan, Is a Fascinating Mess

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

the latest supernatural thriller from Sixth Sense director M. Night Shya-malan,
is a fascinating mess. I have a feeling it’s gonna get beat up by many
critics and probably will leave many viewers befuddled and disgruntled. But
I came out of it high on the sheer exuberance of the filmmaking and eager to
see it again right away–if only to understand what the hell I’d seen
the first time.

at the grand old age of 30, has made four features and established himself as
that 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. "Supernatural
thriller" is a handy enough tag for that niche, but "spiritual suspense
drama" is perhaps more accurate. Shyamalan has not only a characteristic
entertainment style to sell, in other words, 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 is that it opens
with a terrible train wreck and the mystery of why one man alone, David Dunne
(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 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 the window. The train wreck we never see comes just after the fade
to black–unless you consider that, figuratively speaking, it has already

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. 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,

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, etc.) 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 The 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
, etc.) 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 both depend on dual revelations that
come at different points in the films’ latter halves 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 wrongheaded and sophomoric compared to those in The Sixth
. 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.

we march merrily along toward the death of film, the year 2000 now has a landmark
date to place alongside those of recent years. Last Tuesday, Nov. 14, representatives
from Disney, Miramax, Boeing and the AMC theater chain publicly saluted the
fact that Miramax’s comedy Bounce is the first film to be digitally
distributed to theaters via satellite feeds.

As Variety
noted, there are still only about 16 theaters in North America equipped for
digital projection, but once the industry works out a plan for sharing conversion
costs between the studios and theaters, expect that number to skyrocket.

Digital projection
per se eliminates film from movie theaters, but "prints" must still
be brought in some form, such as CD-ROM or videotape. Digital distribution by
satellite eliminates even that. It is, in effect, the final technical step in
converting film houses into tv facilities, and thus cinema into television.

How long will
it be before you’ll be able to see "first run" performances of
things like Survivor and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire at the
local ’plex? Any bets?