Overlooked Film of the Week- #66
The work and career of M. Night Shyamalan is barely discussed anymore. When we look at the films he directed, it is easy to see why. The guy has not had a hit in over fifteen years and sadly, it seems like he does not even try anymore. The guy had three (arguably) hits, movies I love very much. Those movies were “The Sixth Sense” in 1999, “Unbreakable” in 2000 and “Signs” in 2002. I felt “The Village” in 2004 was a modest effort, but there was so much wrong with the script and the characters that I can’t just gaze over the flaws of that film. Then there is “Lady in the Water,” “The Happening,” “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth” and I sit back, puzzled by how wrong Shyamalan’s career has progressed. It is so sad to see an artist with so much talent and so much potential crumble quick before our eyes, especially for a guy who was being hailed as the next Steven Spielberg. But at the same time, with so many negative reviews and bad press, it is easy to forget the minor merits of his once thriving career.
“Unbreakable” is a superhero movie for people who are getting tired of the superhero genre. It’s a movie that is subtle about what it wants to be, but once you figure out where the film is headed, you will be giddy with cinematic joy. This was also a great showcase for both Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson. While I would not classify “Unbreakable” as a full-fledged action movie, Willis embraces everything he is asked to do in the movie. What results from Willis’ work is some of the best acting he has ever done. Samuel L. Jackson has always been reliable onscreen, but he also absorbs the character like water on a sponge, and he delivers another exclusive performance.
The film security guard David Dunn (Willis), who seems to be drifting through life, trying to find some kind of meaning within it. He gave up a promising career in football to be with his wife Audrey (Robin Wright) after a terrible car accident. When we meet Dunn in the movie, he is off to New York for a job interview, and he becomes the sole survivor of a terrible train wreck that killed everyone else (a total of 131 passengers). Dunn eventually comes into contact with Elijah Price (Jackson), an art collector who was born with Type I osteogenesis imperfecta, a rare disease that makes his bones easy to break. Price is instantly drawn to Dunn and being an avid comic reader as a boy, Price believes that Dunn was put on Earth to protect the world from evil. Dunn is immediately skeptical, and then he slowly begins to test himself, mostly from the encouragement from his son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark). Dunn finds that he can bench 350 pounds of weight; he realizes that he was never sick in his life, and he has a sense of danger that seems to be keener than usual. Eventually, he comes to believe that maybe Price was right about him and figures out how to be a hero.
I must also point out that both Robin Wright and Spencer Treat Clark do outstanding work in their roles. Wright is given enough room to become a believable, real person; she is never just a convenient, detached wife. In turn, Clark does not play the typical, detached child. I think Clark’s work was some of the best acting from a young actor of the decade. There is a harrowing scene where Joseph tries to shoot Dunn to prove that his father will not die from the bullet, and it is the one of the most intense scenes in the whole film. The scene works because Clark makes us feel all of Joseph’s angst, his pain, his sorrow, his need to prove something substantial to his father. Easily, the most mind-boggling thing about this movie is the idea that Clark never became an A-list actor the rest of the decade, but perhaps acting was never something he decided to pursue. But I do love his piercing performance in this movie.
There is an excellent use of the surprise ending in “Unbreakable.” After “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable” and “Signs,” I thought M. Night Shyamalan was going to become the king of surprise endings. Sadly, that never happened as the ending to “The Village” (or the three surprise endings, if I am being accurate) did not come close to the bar Shyamalan raised for himself. It is probably a good idea he never attempted another surprise ending since, and it is also a little heartbreaking that he could never “wow” us with an ending afterward. The ending to “Unbreakable” puts a clever bow on the finished product. It is an ending that is absolutely thematically sound, not something that feels forced or shoved into the mix. It was an ending that felt very much in the vein of comic books and superheroes, the very thing Shyamalan was trying to channel in this movie. This is all my way is of saying that this is a movie that defines “blowing the mind,” something that really elevates the material presented in the film and once again, a nice way to end an already great movie.
If you haven’t had the chance to see “Unbreakable” or if you are jaded because you only know Shyamalan’s name from his late, miserable work, I think you should give “Unbreakable” a try. You might like what you see and you may feel a small hinge of sadness from what Shyamalan has lost over the years. If the rumors are true, and Shyamalan is serious about making a sequel to “Unbreakable” then I will be a happy boy, indeed.