Sometimes I think that writers come up with a catchy hook, whether it is a moment, a twist or even just a catchy phrase, around which they try to weave an entire story. This is my theory about how M. Night Shyamalan, writer-director of "The Sixth Sense" and the just-released "Unbreakable," works.
In many ways, "Unbreakable" shares "Sense"'s labyrinthine guessing-game structure. Both films circumvent around a discovery that, once revealed, put the work into a different context. Shyamalan may have taken some viewers by surprise in "Sense," but they come to "Unbreakable" as a somewhat savvier bunch, and put him in the unenviable position of trying to tell a story that cannot be reduced to mere gimmickry.
"Unbreakable" never quite gets to that point, in large part because its creator never lets the audience sit back and enjoy it.
This is a movie that needs to stay several leaps ahead of its audience until the end, or it loses them, but Shyamalan's mordant tone and episodic storytelling provide too many lulls, allowing minds to try and piece together this puzzle when they should instead be buoyed by an undercurrent of laughter.
David Dunn ("Sense" alum Bruce Willis), an unhappy Philadelphia security guard, returns home from a job interview in New York when his train gets into a major accident, killing every passenger but himself, leaving him virtually unscathed. When pestered by Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a man whose name seems to have been even more Biblically inspired than his own, David questions his own mightiness, realizing that never once in his life has he even been sick.
Elijah, however, rests on the other end of the invincibility spectrum, having suffered from a brittle bone disease since birth. His proclivity toward injury has made him a loner, instead keeping company in the world of the comic books his mother (Charlayne Wodard, wonderful in her small role) introduced her introverted young son to as a means of luring him out of the house.
Much like Willis helped the Haley Joel Osment character figure out how to use his special gift, Elijah decides to help David identify his gift so that he can use it wisely, for reasons that he explains at length. "Unbreakable" is the kind of movie that calls too much attention to itself. It keeps reminding you of just how clever it is.
This is only one example of just how talky "Unbreakable" is. Characters give away full amounts of exposition in a singular conversation. For a director who already has proven to be quite adroit at filming scenes of quietude, Shyamalan's unrelenting use of dialogue as explanation disappoints. It makes him look as though he has come up with a great idea, and he wants to make sure that everyone understands every bit of it.
For example, Elijah explains that the storytelling form of comic books hearkens all the way back to the early form of Egyptian hieroglyphics while seated in front of a wall of such symbols. Had Shyamalan trimmed down Elijah's speech so that he only made a vague comparison to the superhero myths of yore, his background would have been a subtle example. Instead, his scene is visually redundant at best.
Shyamalan uses a highlighter throughout "Unbreakable," drowning out ambient sounds, zooming in on key objects, drawing attention to key lines. If you do manage to miss a clue to his "mystery," not to worry; he's bound to repeat it at least once or twice to make sure you catch it.
This is not to say that all of the images in Shyamalan's work are as inefficient. Many of his sequences are crisp and contained, with long camera shots able to capture details that might have otherwise remained hidden. The goal of this is clear: It shows how in any given moment there is more going on than we are aware of, robbing us of a certain level of comfort. Also, cinematographer Eduardo Serra's series of sneaky low angle camera shots empowers just the right character at just the right time.
Shyamalan hits rockier terrain when trying to mine the domestic turmoil at the Dunn home. David and his college sweetheart Audrey (Robin Wright Penn), have adjusted to their estranged marriage, but their son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) bears the brunt of it. Joseph takes refuge in the idolatry he has of his father, which mirrors Elijah's reverence for comic books.
Willis' best acting always has been in one-on-one work, particularly opposite those a generation younger than him, and "Unbreakable" continues that trend. Robbed of his trademark smirk, his smile-free face is infinitely more expressive - particularly his eyes, which direct the audience's subconscious attention off-screen and reinforce the theme that there is something out there we can't see at first sight - than any of his dialogue delivery. Jackson, too, makes the best of his more limited role, a study in measured, dignified intensity.
WARNING: DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THIS MOVIE YET. Just in case eyes wander, I won't actually say what the twist here is, but there are actually two. The first is a two-part realization with cause and connection left unexplained by Shyamalan, depriving "Unbreakable" of any believability and undermining its oh-so-serious tone. The second "twist" isn't a twist at all; we see it coming from the screen text that precedes the opening credits.
I have another complaint about the turn of events "Unbreakable" takes here. Shyamalan steers one of his characters into a life of vengeance, turning his movie's tone into a decidedly pro-violent one. This is not necessarily a flaw, but certainly an observation worth mentioning.
"Unbreakable" is Shyamalan's third outing as writer-director in as many years, and he needs to watch out before he reduces his signature style to mere formula. Just like the protagonists of his last two films, he, too, has a very special gift. He's quite confident and clearly passionate about it, but it remains misdirected.