After the cultural phenomenon that was The Sixth Sense garnered over $600 million in worldwide box office revenue and a plethora of Academy Award nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay, to name a few), M. Night Shyamalan found himself in a position to make practically anything he wanted. So, the following autumn, Shyamalan came out with his follow-up film Unbreakable, a movie seen as something of a disappointment in the eyes of the general public upon initial release. It didn’t get negative reviews, but the reception was lukewarm in comparison to the preceding film. However, not only do I find Unbreakable to be a superior effort to The Sixth Sense, whose only minor failing lies in its abrupt ending, but it also ranks as one of my favorite films of the first decade of the twenty-first century.
Bruce Willis stars as David Dunn, the lone survivor of horrific train wreck. Not only is he the only one to make it out alive, but he has done so without a single scratch, let alone broken bone, on his body. Some time later, he is contacted by the strange, possibly unhinged, owner of a comic book art gallery named Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who believes him to be superhuman. His rationale for this is that he has been born with hollow bones, easily breakable, and believes that if there is someone like him on this earth then there has to be someone on the opposite end of the spectrum, someone who is unbreakable. The movie follows David’s initial disbelief of Elijah’s crackpot theory as it transforms into his superhero origin story.
This is my favorite Shyamalan film and the first time he really proves himself as something of an auteur (if you’ll forgive me using the term) building off the tone of The Sixth Sense (which was not his first feature film, coming off the heels of Praying With Anger and Wide Awake, the comedy with Rosie O’Donnell that no one saw) to create a cohesive style between the two of them. The tone is incredibly somber and the minimalistic manner in which the story is told is apparent. While it is the origin story of a superhero, Unbreakable essentially boils the genre down to a drama instead of a rock’em sock’em affair. It is spends more of its time dealing with an on the rocks married couple (with David’s wife played by Robin Wright) trying to make it work again, a son desperately clinging onto his father in fear of losing him, and David’s relationship with Elijah, who is revealed as the antagonist in the film’s closing minutes.
If there is any problem I have with Unbreakable, it is how it ends. The movie introduces a twist literally in the last two minutes, that Elijah made possible the train wreck that starts the film and several other disasters as a means of finding a man like David. The Sixth Sense did this, too, introducing a twist ending so close to the end, but it sowed up all loose ends in a more satisfying way than here, where we must be given how it turns out though the use of inter-titles. It makes for a somewhat unsatisfying finale to an almost perfect movie. I would be under the impression that the last thirty minutes or so had been cut from the movie entirely had it not been for the end credits rolling. It also introduced something of a reliance on Shyamalan’s part towards the twist ending and ultimately led to diminishing returns in quality. I’ll debate Signs as not having a twist ending as all, but there is an obvious slide in “Got’cha” moments from The Sixth Sense to The Village as far as the twist endings are concerned. I will admit to being genuinely surprised the first time I saw Unbreakable, but the movie could have built itself a truly great ending to accommodate an already excellent film.
Unbreakable is an incredibly effective superhero drama (who would have thought there would be a hybrid film like that thirty years ago) that in many stretches amounts to his very best work. When I talk about the Shyamalan of old, the one capable of making interesting movies, it is this movie that comes to my mind more frequently than any other.
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