Comic books. There, I’ve said it. You’ll have no more clues from me regarding the delicious secrets writer-director M. Night Shyamalan tucks away in Unbreakable, only to let them spill out by the film’s end with a twist that will spin your head around. Bruce Willis gives a hypnotic, implosive performance as David Dunn, a football stadium security guard with a wife, Audrey (Robin Wright Penn), who is alienated by his roving eye, and a twelve-year-old son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), who thinks Dad could have been superman if a car accident in college hadn’t ended his football career. One day, David takes a train home to Philadelphia from New York. The train derails, killing all 118 passengers, save one. David is unbroken — not a scratch. Maybe he is superman, or something more mysterious.
Unbreakable is guaranteed to creep you out big-time. But let’s take stock here: The thirty-year-old Shyamalan, born in India and raised in Philly, is the wonder boy behind The Sixth Sense — the 1999 phenom that scared up six Oscar nominations and became the ninth most successful film of all time. Now the man who had everybody seeing dead people writes and directs a new scary movie that again stars Willis, again features a sensitive boy, again flirts with the supernatural and again ends with a humdinger. Hmm. It seems a little early for Shyamalan to be repeating himself, even to ride a gravy train. He will no doubt be mau-maued for doing just that, but only by those who aren’t paying attention. Unbreakable develops themes of identity, alienation and spirituality found in Shyamalan’s first two films — 1992’s unreleased Praying With Anger and 1998’s failed Wide Awake — not just in The Sixth Sense. Karma, good and bad, is integral to Shyamalan’s faith and his work, just as the practicalities of medicine — both of his parents are doctors — root his stories in reality. In short, this is not some hack dabbling in the paranormal for a fast buck. Thrill-kill plots, cardboard characters and zap-pow editing are not for Shyamalan, who takes his good, thoughtful time to snare audiences in his dark web.
After the train wreck — a Shyamalan tour de force that rejects the clich — Â¡s of burning metal to let you feel the sheer, rocking terror of being inside a passenger car that is speeding out of control — David starts doubting his own luck. Then he meets Elijah Price (the estimable Samuel L. Jackson), who deepens his doubts. Elijah runs the Limited Edition, a gallery devoted to comic-book art, which he believes is our last link to an ancient way of passing down history. “They call me Mr. Glass,” Elijah jokes, referring to the brittle-bone disease that has made him ultrasusceptible to injury since birth. Fragile Elijah sees David as his polar opposite.
Jackson makes Elijah a figure of intense fascination. Limping along on a cane, favoring long coats, an exaggerated hairstyle and a penetrating gaze that levels fools like a laser, Elijah is something of a comic-book figure himself — just off normal. Elijah pushes David to see that he, too, is just off normal but hiding it, afraid of the gift that might set him apart and give his aimless life a purpose.
That’s the setup, and to say more would take us into spoiler territory. Shyamalan also believes in comic-book truth, even if it sometimes gets cartooned for commercial purposes. None of that crass exploitation for Shyamalan and cinematographer par excellence Eduardo Serra (Wings of the Dove, What Dreams May Come). Maybe you’ll think the film’s odd angles — characters glimpsed from ceilings or between cracks — are just arty showing off. But in modeling his film on a comic book’s multiperspective frames, Shyamalan finds a style that stays organic to the mesmerizing story being told.
Whatever frustrations you may have with Unbreakable — Wright Penn’s underwritten role, a sentimental drift in the love story, the reliance on coincidence — there is not an unfelt minute in it. Audrey asks her husband when he first thought they might not make it as a couple; his answer stings: “I had a nightmare one night, and I didn’t wake you up so you could tell me it was OK.” Unbreakable refuses to close its eyes to nightmares, especially the waking variety, involving secrets that make a marriage fester or motives that might drive a child or his father to murder. Shyamalan is a magician; like the best comic-book artists, he works by indirection to reveal how good and evil battle for dominance in the world. “Real life doesn’t fit into little boxes that were drawn for it,” Elijah tells David as the film hurtles toward its shattering climax. It’s rare that a movie leaves you pinned to your seat, wanting to see it again — right now, this minute — to work out the pieces of the puzzle. You don’t need a sixth sense to realize that the mind-blowing Unbreakable is one of those movies.