Unbreakable

A film Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan



Unbreakable is the fourth feature outing from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (who here adds an additional hyphen as -producer). After two undistinguished and little seen efforts, 1992's Praying With Anger and 1998's Wide Awake, Shyamalan hit it big last year with The Sixth Sense, which has risen to become the 10th highest-grossing movie of all times and has set revenue records in the video-rental market.

There is nothing like astounding and unexpected financial success to get Hollywood's attention, and Shyamalan quickly became "the flavor of the month." Unbreakable attempts to capitalize on the reputation of The Sixth Sense, employing the same star (Bruce Willis), the same unhurried but edgy tone, the same center in family dynamics.

But Shyamalan had an almost insurmountable obstacle to overcome in trying to build on the success of his former film without inviting unwelcome comparisons. In the end, because of the choices he made there are many similarities between the two films. It is impossible not to compare them.

In spite of its overwhelming financial success,The Sixth Sense was not a particularly noteworthy film. It was well made, the camera work was its most consistently excellent aspect, and the acting - especially that of Willis - an actor whose work I don't generally like, - was fully competent. It was a well-made, highly professional product, better than the average, but not a lot better. There was very little that was exceptional about it. Its phenomenal sales-success is, in my opinion, another triumph of mediocrity.

Although still slightly above average, Unbreakable is not any better. In fact, it is not quite as good. Perversely, this is in part due to Shyamalan's growing competence as a film-maker. His ability to use the purely visual aspects of the film (color; camera placement, perspective and movement; editing rhythm, framing, etc), supported by an effective music track , a spare, literate script, and restrained, ambiguous performances from his actors - and meld them into an effective emotional tone, evokes (even more effectively than it did in his previous film) a sense of unknown menace.

Unfortunately, in this case, that mood is created in service of a plot that is contrived and ultimately leads to no satisfactory dramatic resolution. The sense of artificiality, of having been manipulated to no purpose, has to leave viewers feeling a bit abandoned. The Sixth Sense's "surprise" ending at least suggested some sort of resolution to the mood Shyamalan created there. Here, a similarly sudden ending - which is so incomplete that he attempts to rescue it with a couple of written inter-titles presented as a sort of epilogue - seems like a betrayal of whatever emotional energy has been put into the story up to that point.

Most of the fault lies with the script. Shyamalan tries to create a sense of disorientation, of menace - much as he did in Sixth Sense - by blurring the line between fantasy and reality, between fact and fiction. In Unbreakable, this leads to the creation of so many loose ends and unanswered questions that the confusion created is merely annoying rather than titillatingly eerie.

"Magical realism" is an effective tool in movie making. The ability of "movie magic" to realistically depict environments and events that are otherwise the stuff of fantasy - characters who can fly, for instance - can expand the filmmaker's vocabulary of symbolic language. But when the creation of such imagery is not linked to compelling emotional situations or important psychological questions, it becomes an empty exercise, a victory of style over substance.

This is the problem with Unbreakable. Shyamalan has developed certain tools to a very polished degree. He has assembled a talented cast and crew, and gotten enough money to take the time to work with them. But the job he sets himself is not worthy of his tools. The story he tries to tell is much less interesting than the way he tells it.

So the successes of Unbreakable are successes of technique - and they are not inconsiderable. The Director of Photography is Eduardo Serra, whose work in such films of exceptional beauty as Passion of Mind, Tango, Wings of the Dove and even the unbearable What Dreams May Come (where the camera work and art direction were the only redeeming features) has established him as one of the finest artists in his field. He gives the images here a range of texture and weight that is truly remarkable. There is a scene that is viewed from without through the flapping curtains of an open window that is an original piece of camera-work destined to become a classic.

The music is never heavy-handed. It is simple and quiet, but manages to suggest dislocation because its rhythms are just slightly out of synch with the editing rhythms, and its melodic and harmonic tone is constantly suggestive, but never fully resolved. It creates an effective edge of tension that is never over-emphasized or employed to try to "enhance" an ineffective scene. It works as a disturbing undercurrent to the visual images.

The performances are intense, but restrained. Bruce Willis is a more pressurized, tenser character here than in The Sixth Sense, but he uses stolidity, a kind of heavy, underemphasized, almost depressive sense of alienation that plays effectively. The one time Shyamalan allows him to be "cute," in a scene at the breakfast table, it doesn't work, and it breaks the whole mood. His unflappability and level-headedness in the face of the inexplicable - together with some mysterious powers he appears to posses - creates a set-up for a much stronger finale than the movie actually delivers. In a way the strength and honesty of his performance emphasize the artificiality of the plot.

Samuel L. Jackson creates a character who inspires both faith and doubt. His intensity here gives credibility to his seemingly fantastic theorizing, yet that same fervor, turned up just a notch or two, introduces doubt that the character is what he appears to be. Jackson manages to maintain this tightrope act very effectively up until the film's final sequence, when Shyamalan's clumsy plot sends him crashing to earth. But it is largely due to the interplay between Willis's mountainous passivity and Jackson's electrical hyper-vitality that the film works as well as it does.

Robin Wright Penn is suitably depressed and hopeless as Willis's estranged wife, and her subtle shift of emotion as their life seems to be coming back together is one of the more compelling emotional threads of the film. Unfortunately, it is eventually, unsatisfyingly tossed away by Shyamalan as just another red herring.

Spencer Treat Clark gives a reasonably naturalistic performance as Willis's and Penn's son. His struggle to build a relationship with his distant, depressive father is one of the most touching sub-plots, and well depicted on both sides. Clark occasionally falls into child-actor cuteness, an occupational hazard few are able to escape, but for the most part, he does a good job with a deeply-conflicted, sparely-written character that must have been difficult for a child to understand. Shyamalan, whose treatment of Hayley Joel Osment's character in The Sixth Sense was iconic rather than naturalistic, shows delicacy and skill in drawing Clark out in this more realistic role.

Unbreakable is a film that shows great promise - rather more promise than accomplishment, in fact. But Shyamalan is only 29, and has lots of time to learn. He shows himself, as he did in The Sixth Sense, to have a facility for creating powerful images on the screen, and negotiating the complex balance of elements that supports those images in a film. If and when his screenwriting matures (he also penned the unfortunate screen adaptation of Stuart Little), or if he decides to put his considerable directorial talents to the service of others who are better able to create interesting and successful narrative lines, he will eventually make films that are more thoroughly satisfying.

But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.