Slow movies seem to be a rarity these days. Studios are churning out increasingly fast-paced films that assume all viewers suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder.
Enter M. Night Shyamalan, the celebrated writer/director of “The Sixth Sense,” the 10th highest grossing film of all time. Brisk plots and camera work are not things he caters to in his work, and “Unbreakable” is no different. Does slowness work again for him?
Well, sort of. “Unbreakable” is a very imaginative and well-made film, yet ultimately fails to deliver due to a plot that is disjointed and rarely gripping. Even a bottle of Ritalin will fail to prevent a yawn or a rubbing of the eyes for this one.
However, Shyamalan has a very precise and deliberate style that is refreshing in its attention to detail and intense focus on the characters. This slow purposefulness was very effective in examining the precocious little boy in “The Sixth Sense,” but it is less effective in dealing with the obtuse, often unclear and occasionally laughable subject matter of “Unbreakable.”
The movie chronicles the toils of David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a Philadelphia security guard who is, miraculously, the only survivor on a commuter train crash. Plagued by the guilt of being the only survivor, Dunn wonders what to make of his life and of his estranged wife (an underused Robin Penn Wright) and admiring son (Spencer Treat Clark). Soon he meets Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a sickly comic-art dealer who is convinced that Dunn is “unbreakable.” Impressed by this, Dunn starts to wonder if he indeed has a gift and starts to explore this in his daily life.
If the plot does not sound entirely absorbing, that’s because it isn’t. The central question of the film, whether or not Dunn is “unbreakable,” does not carry the same immensity or profundity of “I see dead people.” The somber and incredibly serious tone of the story lacks much comic relief, and seems always a good step beyond the audience’s involvement in Dunn’s journey. Price’s silly and pretentious ramblings about the mythic and deep qualities of comic books are another major detractor to the viewer who is taking the film too seriously.
Like “The Sixth Sense,” Shyamalan is concerned with the larger idea of human purpose. How will Dunn utilize his gift? What will he do with his life? As Price says at one point, “There’s nothing worse than not knowing what you are here for.” At least on this point, the film has a firm resolution.
“Unbreakable” has so many echoes of “The Sixth Sense,” at times it seems like Shyamalan used the same storyboards and just transferred the new characters. There’s a little boy who provides Dunn with insight, a very serious and troubled Willis, and a kinetic last five minutes that suddenly makes sense of the whole movie. Once again, the story is set in Philadelphia, and Shyamalan shoots his hometown of Brotherly Love as the most lonely place in America.
At only 30 years old, Shyamalan is already an original and talented filmmaker. Although “Unbreakable” may lack tangibility, it is still an impressive piece of cinema. The director likes to keep the camera in one place and let the actors move the story along with unforced dialogue. The intelligent acting, thoughtful cinematography and innovative vantage points make watching “Unbreakable” itself a stimulating experience. Shyamalan may have gotten a little ahead of himself on this one, but his cinematic vision has only strengthened and grown that much greater.