Criminally Neglected: Unbreakable

M. Night Shyamalan. Just reading that triggered some kind of reaction inside all of you, didn’t it? 

"Comic. Do you speak it?!"
This is a man who arrived on the scene in the biggest way possible back in 1999, when his film The Sixth Sense took the entire country by storm. This was a small, intimately constructed thriller so character-driven and devoid of Hollywood fakery, that the possibility it succeeding must have seemed remote to its investors. Yet, not only did it work, but thanks to a clever advertising campaign combined with a phenomenal twist-ending and a catchphrase destined for parody in a crappy Wayans Brothers movie, it’s become part of the bedrock of our cinematic culture.

After such a auspicious introduction, the name M. Night Shyamalan inspired awe and excitement in moviegoers for years after. Nowadays, it’s almost captivatingly sad to see how the career of M. Night Shyamalan has gone from being one of promise (Roger Ebert referred to his film Signs as “the work of a born filmmaker”), to one of endless ridicule and copious Razzie nominations. Shyamalan, by the work of his own hands, has become one of the biggest punchlines in movies.

Even Nicolas Cage has had a Bad Lieutenant since his career starting gargling toilet water—there’s occasional fresh glimpses of the greatness that we all remember. With Shyamalan, the downturn began with Lady in the Water, which has to be the single most egomaniacally fueled piece of filmmaking most of us have ever seen. You remember that one, right? The one where Shyamalan cast himself in the part of a writer who’s told by Bryce Dallas Howard that his writing will “change the world”? Oh, did I mention that the entire film was based off a bedtime story he told his kids?

There’s going back to the well, and there’s dumpster-diving for scraps.

Follow that up with The Crappening—er, I’m sorry, The Happening—and you arrive at a time when just the text of Shyamalan’s name on the screen during previews for Devil sparked uncontrolled groaning, laughter, and boos from audiences. His most recent space wreck, After Birth—After Earth, dammit, why do I keep doing that?—brings it all full circle by omitting his name from the trailers completely. This is where we are now.

It’s simply because this is where we are now that it’s important to remember Unbreakable. Unfairly dismissed by many fans of The Sixth Sense who were expecting more of the same, Shyamalan’s second film starring Bruce Willis completely shifts gears. In the same year that saw the rebirth of the conventional comic book film with Bryan Singer’s X-Men, Unbreakable’s heroic origin story was a quiet, introspective, totally different breed of animal, and it’s only become clearer over the years that this is Shyamalan’s magnum opus.

The film begins with David Dunn, played by Bruce Willis, on board a train destined for disaster. It derails and kills every single passenger, except him. He not only survives from the wreck, but is completely unharmed. He doesn’t have a single scratch on him. Sporting the biggest case of survivor’s guilt since Noah, he finds a note stuck under his windshield wiper that begins a long-awaited change to an otherwise mundane and unsatisfying life. It reads simply: “How many days of your life have you been sick?”

"See this look? It's the only
one I own."
He can’t remember ever being sick. When he asks his wife, Audrey (a terrific Robin Wright-Penn), she honestly can’t remember either. Enter Samuel L. Jackson as an eccentric art gallery owner with an obsession for comic book folklore and a penchant for the dramatic. Jackson believes that comic books represent a form of history that someone must have felt or experienced. The idea of a man flying around in tights and saving damsels in distress may sound ridiculous in any practical sense, but perhaps it is nothing more than “an exaggeration of the truth.” The prospect of his father being something more than a security guard for minor league football arouses the interests of David’s son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), and his need for this to be real affects him in a deeply profound way. Like any child who sees trouble in his parents’ marriage, his world is already on shaky ground.

This gives us a unique hook to draw us in and help us connect with ordinary people on the precipice of something remarkable. Shyamalan doesn’t give us the normal money shots you would expect from a “superhero film”. What he does show us are intoxicating scenes of intrigue, dialogue between compelling characters, and intersperses that with slices of life and humor that feel organic to the situation, not inserted for timing. All of this is done with such flawless pacing and exquisite attention to detail that it truly is painful to realize that all of these masterfully executed elements… are now completely absent from any new M. Night Shyamalan film.

As time marches on, the moviegoers of the future are more apt to know about—and quickly dismiss— “the hack who made The Last Airbender,” than they are to seek out “the Academy Award-nominated director of The Sixth Sense.” And that’s a damn shame, because the guy who made Unbreakable could direct circles around most any guy out there today; the douche who made After Earth couldn’t unlock the door to movie magic if you gave him a skeleton key and a $140 million budget.

There was real talent here. What happened? Moments in Unbreakable approach and even succeed in achieving perfection. Notice the impeccable framing in the scene at the hospital when Bruce Willis wakes up after the train wreck. The long takes and perspectives composed to keep us as grounded in reality as possible. The moody and stunning cinematography by Eduardo Serra. James Newton Howard’s singularly epic and extraordinary score. And of course, there’s the screenplay and direction of M. Night Shyamalan, a filmmaker whose vision was still uncompromised by success; his only ambition was to make the film he wanted to make. I prefer to remember him this way.

 —Blake O. Kleiner

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