M. Night Shyamalan used to be such a promising filmmaker. His breakthrough picture, The Sixth Sense, was a word of mouth sensation. A Hitchockian horror shocker with a whammy of an ending, the film was a massive success, and made Shyamalan's oft-mocked name a household word. His next release, another pairing with Bruce Willis entitled Unbreakable, was highly marketed, but did less than expected at the box office and received mixed critical reception. However, in the wake of Shyamalan's subsequent releases, Signs, The Village, and Lady In The Water, we can now look back at Unbreakable as the last time Shyamalan bothered to make a film with actual character and a story that wasn't made entirely to support a ridiculous twist ending. If only he could have continued in such a strong vein instead of descending into self-parody.
Bruce Willis stars as David Dunn, a security guard with a crumbling marriage. Despite his estrangement from his wife (Robin Wright Penn), the two still live together for the sake of their son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark). However, it looks like they may never get another chance of happiness when a train on which David is riding is derailed, killing everyone inside. Everyone, that is, except David, who is miraculously entirely unharmed. A few days later, he finds a note on his car from Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) suggesting that he might have some answers. Dunn meets Price at his art gallery, devoted to comic books, where Price throws out the theory that Dunn is, in fact, a superhero. At first, Dunn is skeptical, but Joseph is certain that Price is right. And over time, Dunn discovers that he can do more amazing things than he ever even dreamed.
Unbreakable was a comic book film before the genre found a resurgence in popularity with the 2002 release of Spider-Man. This, combined with the fact that it is an original story, and not based on a well-known character, explains why the movie was not well received at the time of its release. However, as comic book movies go, it's better than 90% of the releases in the genre. Shyamalan directs the piece with a sure hand, not overplaying the graphic novel aspects, letting the ideas and visual cues slowly seep in around the edges. While the film does open with a text about comics, and at times a few shots scream "Hey look at me!" but overall Shyamalan is content to let the story flow.
Unbreakable has without a doubt the best characterization of any of Shyamalan's films. Bruce Willis' portrayal as David Dunn is an understated bit of work, proving once again that his acting range is still very underrated. Robin Wright Penn also does a great job as Dunn's wife. Sensitive but hesitant, she's willing to give their relationship another try, but is worried that it's just a false start. Spencer Treat Clark is no Haley Joel Osment, but he's no slouch. He's particularly great in one key scene involving a gun. In fact, Unbreakable also features Shyamalan's best directorial moments: scenes of tension and suspense that are so effective because we care so deeply about the characters.
Perhaps the best cast member is Samuel L. Jackson. Known for playing strong and often loud men, Jackson's role as Price, the man with bones of glass, is some of the most internal work he's ever done. Price is responsible for the "surprise" ending of the film, but unlike Shyamalan's other twist endings, Unbreakable's ending is simply a logical extension of the comic book theme. The movie does not hinge upon the ending, nor is the script written to support it. The picture is about a David's journey and how it affects the people around him, and the ending is simply the resolution of Price's character arc. Price also offers some of the most arresting visuals in the film. From his glass cane to the stunning sequence where he tumbles down a flight of stairs, Price is central to Unbreakable.
That, in a nutshell, is the secret to Unbreakable's success as an artistic venture. Shyamalan tells a straightforward tale with style and quiet confidence. He doesn't try to run rings around the audience or wow us with his "amazing" authorial prowess. He doesn't cast himself in a lead role (he has a small cameo where he doesn't stand out in any way), and has enough faith in his story and his actors to not try and impress anyone, and in so doing ends up with the best and most substantial film of his entire career. Shyamalan should take some notes from his own work if he wants to salvage his catalogue from the one-note joke it's become.
The Blu-ray Disc: