(Note: This is a slightly longer review than the type I usually go for. It’s intended to be similar to the Great Movies column Roger Ebert does on his website. The idea here isn’t so much to introduce readers to a film, but to show why I like a particular film so much, delve a little more into its subtleties, and make readers want to take another look at it. Hope you enjoy.)
There was once a time when M. Night Shyamalan was a promising, young, visionary director. Back in 2002, Newsweek went so far as to run a cover story proclaiming him “the next Spielberg.”
Ah, those were the days…
Looking back over his filmography, the general consensus is Shyamalan has never quite been able to top himself since his stunning debut, The Sixth Sense. Quite the opposite, in fact – with the exception of Signs, the critical community’s response to Shyamalan’s work has grown more and more negative with each subsequent feature, culminating in nearly universal disdain for his most recent film The Last Airbender.
How the mighty have fallen…
No doubt, The Sixth Sense was loved by the majority of critics and moviegoers alike, and ultimately it may be the film Shyamalan is most remembered for.
For me though, nothing quite beats his sophomore effort, Unbreakable.
The film has a simple premise: David Dunn (played by Bruce Willis) is the sole survivor of a horrific train crash. Not only does he survive, he is completely uninjured. Is he a superhero? Mysterious comic book collector Elijah Price (played by Samuel L. Jackson) intends to find out.
My favourite moments come early. The first four or five scenes – covering the birth of Elijah Price, David Dunn’s train ride, the crash, and the immediate aftermath – are brilliant. Shyamalan plays most of them out as long single takes. My personal favourite of these is Dunn’s awkward interaction with an attractive passenger on the train, viewed through the eyes of a little girl sitting in front of them. The camera peers between the seats, moving from Dunn to the woman and back as they converse.
Shyamalan has a great sense of visual storytelling, and for me it’s never been better than in those early scenes in Unbreakable. Where possible, he fills in character histories with actions, rather than dialogue (i.e. Dunn’s quick move to pocket his wedding ring on the train, the later scene in the hospital where he and his wife hold hands only just long enough to humour their son).
And it’s not just the actions of the characters that give the audience visual cues - Shyamalan also uses editing to his advantage. Take a look at an early scene between Dunn and his wife on a stairwell. Shyamalan never shows them in the frame together, instead opting to cut back and forth between the two, emphasizing their strained relationship by separating them even when they’re engaged in conversation. Contrast this with a later scene when they are out on a date. It’s shot in one continuous take, and the only camera move is a push in on the couple, highlighting their reconciliation. For film students, this movie brings up a ton of things to talk about in terms of the craft of filmmaking.
To be clear, Shyamalan doesn’t do anything particularly revolutionary or mind-bending in Unbreakable. But the guy clearly has an appreciation for good cinema and knows how to craft sequences (or did know, at any rate). He’s not one of those directors-for-hire who just shoots a bunch of footage then cobbles something together in the editing room. He’s more an auteur – someone who knows what he’s after before he starts rolling.
Of course, the film is not without its flaws. The plot isn’t exactly airtight, and neither the dialogue nor the acting are entirely consistent. Additionally, there are a few moments in Unbreakable where M. Night’s camerawork is simply distracting. For example, when a young Elijah gets his first comic book from his mother, we first see it upside-down, from his perspective. He slowly turns it right side up so he can read it, but the camera turns at the same time he does. So from the audience’s perspective, the book stays upside-down momentarily. The camera then continues spinning, finally returning to its original position so we can see the cover, now right-side up. I remember seeing this film in the theatre when it first came out, and I can still recall the audience groaning about that.
Maybe Shyamalan was just toying with us. It’s clearly something he enjoys doing. Consider an early line from Elijah’s mother as she describes a comic book to him. “They say this one has a surprise ending,” she says with a smile. Ah, self-referential humour.
The film proved to be fairly polarizing when it was released. It still sits at just 67% on Rotten Tomatoes. Among the most common criticisms were that the showy visual style was pretentious, and that Shyamalan was simply trying to duplicate what The Sixth Sense had already done, right down to the final twist.
I vigorously defend the film against these claims. I’ve already spoken about my affection for the filmmaking in Unbreakable. There’s a difference between something that’s pretentious and something that is well thought out. Happily, this film falls into the latter category. As for the twist, it does feel a little like a magician doing the same trick twice in a row. But goddamned if it isn’t a pretty good trick.
I also recall some people mentioning the scene where Dunn’s son nearly shoots him as being a low point in terms of acting and scripting, saying it bordered on comedic even though it was meant as deadly serious. I actually thought the actors pulled it off fairly well. It’s a difficult scene to do convincingly and while they didn’t nail it, I thought the take in the film worked well enough to move things along.
The acting in the film is generally solid, with Bruce Willis and Robin Wright putting in good work as a couple whose relationship is on the rocks. Spencer Treat Clark plays their son. He’s not quite so effective and shows a tendency to overact, but it’s still a decent performance. Samuel L. Jackson ventures a little too far into comic book territory at times, but this is mostly owing to the rather ridiculous look his character has (Frederick Douglass hair and a bizarre combination of a purple jacket and black gloves). All in all, his acting is quite good.
The film does have a somewhat uneven feel, mainly because the filmmaking in the latter half doesn’t quite sustain the magic from the earlier scenes. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, it just feels much more conventional. To be fair though, the details of the plot dictate there’s less time for long shots and artful setups. The focus is much more on fast-paced action.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the score at some point. James Newton Howard has worked with Shyamalan on every one of his Hollywood films, and I don’t think the duo have ever been better together than they are here. The soundtrack is worth picking up for the “Mr. Glass/End Titles” suite alone. It combines a handful of different themes heard in places throughout the movie to wonderful effect.
With so many recent reminders of how bad M. Night Shyamalan can be as a director, it’s sometimes hard to remember how good he once was. The Sixth Sense may get all the attention, but don’t overlook Unbreakable either, it’s a gem of a film.