a film by M. Night Shyamalan

This is one of the best “comic book movies” I have ever seen, because it takes a new and very human look at the fundamental archetype of comic books—the virtually indestructable superhero. How does one find out he’s a superhero? What if he’s not particularly excited about the prospect? How’s he supposed to juggle his new duties with family?

Unbreakable, the new film by M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense) doesn’t exactly answer all these questions to our satisfaction. But that’s okay, because what it’s really about is two men completing a painful journey out of a crippling depression. It’s about one man who finds his purpose with the help of the other, an unlikely mentor who knows his purpose all too well.

David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is on his way home from an unsuccessful job interview in New York. An attractive young lady sits next to him on the train, and Dunn surreptitiously removes his wedding ring as a prelude to a half-hearted attempt to make time. In just moments, Shyamalan and Willis have already painted an unmistakeable image of a desperately sad man at war with himself. As the girl gets a clue and moves to another seat, the train speeds out of control. The windows rattle. Something is very wrong.

We never see the disaster that follows. Instead we cut to the intractable sadness of David Dunn’s face as he watches the only other survivor of the accident bleed to death in a hospital emergency ward.  Hundreds have died, but Dunn doesn’t have a scratch on him. When his son (Spencer Treat Clark) and wife (Robin Wright Penn) come to retrieve him, Shyamalan and his actors again paint an indelible image of a man estranged from himself and from the two people who love him most—and they do it without a word. This is terrific filmmaking.

Now  Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) enters the picture. Price is a cripple, a victim of the genetic disease, osteogenesis imperfecta. His bones are brittle, and break with the slightest provocation. As a child he nearly retreated from the world, cowed by fear of injury and the taunting of his schoolmates, who called him Mr. Glass. Price’s mother wooed him back to the land of the living by baiting him with comic books. That single fateful act of love and desperation has given Elijah an unbreakable inner strength and a terrible purpose. For years he has searched for his polar opposite: a real, live, indestructable superhero. When he sees reports of David’s miraculous survival on the news, Elijah thinks he’s found his man at last.

This is the beginning of an odd, antagonistic relationship, as Elijah tries to bring David Dunn face-to-face with his destiny. The movie doesn’t always work. It’s fantasy, sure, and we’re willing to suspend disbelief. But I had trouble believing that an indestructable forty-something security guard who used to play college football would have absolutely no inkling that he was somehow different, that he was completely unaware of his enormous strength, or that it had never, ever occurred to him that, wow, I just don’t ever seem to get hurt.  And Jackson, over six feet tall with a straight spine and white sclera, makes a somewhat unconvincing OI sufferer (most victims are a least a little on the short side, with twisted spines. And the whites of their eyes turn blue, like Fremen).

But these are quibbles. Despite a deliberate pace and brooding tone, Unbreakable holds our interest. It succeeds because it’s really about David Dunn’s search for himself. And by “himself” I don’t mean David Dunn, superhero. I mean David Dunn, Father. Husband. Decent Human Being With Something To Contribute. It’s this slow process of self-discovery, revealed by Shyamalan’s excellent direction and the solid performances of his cast, that keeps us watching and involved.

Having now seen two of his films, I begin to detect some patterns in Shyamalan’s work. He loves secrets and surprise endings. He’s meticulous, and sets up shots that are rich with content and meaning, even if they look stark or dreary. His films, while lacking in flash and action, are rich and absorbing. I like the way he makes movies, and I think he’s the man to watch for those who love the cinema of the fantastic. Now, some of you may remember that Sullydog spanked the The Sixth Sense when it came out. No, I don’t take it back. I know a lot of people think it was some kind of masterpiece. I don’t agree. It could have been a superb movie, but I still believe it was hopelessly marred by a cheap, hackneyed and completely unnecessary “surprise” ending. In Unbreakable, Shyamalan tries that same trick again.

But this time, it works.

Superman meets Abraham Maslow. Sullydog approves.

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