Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis in Unbreakable.
(© 2000 Touchstone Tictures. All rights reserved.)

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unbreakable has the same oppressive atmosphere as The Sixth Sense. The characters inhabit a world of emotional estrangement and portentous pauses. At any second, their world might crumble into dust or twist into a horribly tangled mess. But whereas The Sixth Sense revolved around the subject of death, Unbreakable revolves around ... I can't tell you. Well, I could, but that would probably ruin the movie for you. Unbreakable is an incredibly fragile movie. It relies upon its central situation/deception to an even greater degree than The Sixth Sense; however, if you knew what that central conceit is, you might well laugh. That's one reason it's virtually impossible to tell what the movie is about from its trailers or television commercials. They leave the impression that the movie is about living with the aftermath of a tragic accident.

Peter Weir's Fearless tread this terrain. It starred Jeff Bridges as the survivor of a horrible plane crash. While a tragic accident does play an important role in Unbreakable -- mostly as a catalyst -- significantly, this sequence takes place off camera entirely. Unbreakable isn't really interested in the psychological effects upon a survivor. Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan uses this event as a way of introducing us to our lead characters and to the chain of events that forever link them in a positive-negative relationship.

David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is the survivor of a train wreck -- the one-and-only survivor. And Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) is his polar opposite, a man with bones so brittle that he has suffered 54 bone fractures over the course of his life. Price seeks out Dunn as a way of understanding their differences. So instead of treading on the same turf that Fearless navigated -- primarily the horrible guilt that goes with surviving a horrible accident -- Unbreakable revolves around the strange relationship that develops between Dunn and Price. Dunn's wife (Robin Wright) rightfully finds Price to be creepy and disturbing. But Dunn feels compelled to hear what Price has to say, and through his interaction with Price, Dunn comes to a staggering realization (which, once again, I can't tell you about).

stills from Unbreakable
[click photos for larger versions]

As mentioned previously, The Sixth Sense revolved around death. This is a great subject for a mysterious movie because we don't understand completely what happens to us after death. Even those people who put their faith completely in their religion can't point to their scriptures to describe the hereafter. As much as we like to think we understand life and death, we don't know what happens when a person dies. Is there a soul that continues to prowl the material world? "I can see dead people," says Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. Does the soul visit St. Peter at the pearly gates? And what happens to our bodies if and when the soul leaves? Can another force inhabit our shell (as in zombie movies)?

Horror movies have effectively mined our uncertainties and fears regarding death for well over 70 years in movies such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and Night of the Living Dead. Instead of using a topic with such impressive, long-standing credentials, Shyamalan opts for a less universal central conceit, and in the process, Unbreakable stumbles rather badly. Shyamalan has chosen a subject that he no doubt feels close to, but it has none of the plausibility or familiarity that makes The Sixth Sense so unsettling and troubling. We've all felt goosebumps after a damp breeze flows across our necks on a late evening. But we don't know what it's like to encounter the comic-bookish situation postulated in Unbreakable. However, Shyamalan treats the subject with complete seriousness. There are no traces that Shyamalan has his tongue in cheek or that he's aiming for satire or parody.

Like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable is filled with angst and despair. But in this case, the angst and the despair are at the service of an innately silly premise. Some people will love the juxtaposition of angst and comic-book sensibilities. But many people in the audience will just stare in disbelief. In a large part, this schism will be caused by Shyamalan's failure to find a new tone for Unbreakable. He merely appropriates the tone of The Sixth Sense and transposes it to Unbreakable. In the process, he disregards the crucial differences in his subjects and how those subjects require different approaches.

In retrospect, I suspect Unbreakable is one of those movies that will improve with each viewing. Once you begin to understand how it will thwart your expectations, you can sit back and watch the pieces fall in place and then appreciate how carefully crafted the movie truly is. But if Shyamalan had utilized a different style this time around, then he wouldn't have to ply his audiences with perceptions that are alien to the world that his characters inhabit.

[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]

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