The press materials label this new film by M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense) a "unique suspense thriller." Unique it is; but suspense thriller it is not. Rather, it is a gloomy, plodding journey into the psyche of a sweet, depressed guy, seasoned with a supernatural twist.
Bruce Willis is David Dunn, a Philadelphia security guard who mysteriously emerges unscathed from the derailment of a train that kills every other passenger. Dunn and his wife Audrey (Robin Wright-Penn) live in the same house but are emotionally and physically estranged and are on the verge of separating when the event occurs. But David's inexplicable survival inspires them to give the relationship a second chance.
The bulk of the plot revolves around David's encounters with Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson), an erudite comic book collector and gallery owner who tries to convince the survivor that he possesses superhuman powers that explain his invincibility. Elijah suffers from a disorder that makes his bones brittle and prone to fracture -- hence, we are led to believe, his uncommon fascination with Dunn.
Shyamalan is a young filmmaker who, it has been reported, envisions a movie in his head then re-creates that vision on film. And his visual style is certainly compelling. In Unbreakable, he manufactures mystery by shooting action on reflective surfaces, by framing shots upside-down, by peeking through the cracks between the seats of the train. The lighting of Bruce Willis' bald dome alone merits the director an award for eccentric, and admittedly lovely, art direction.
But Unbreakable, lovely as it may be, is doomed by its bizarre script. David and Audrey do not converse; they circle each other with inane questions and monosyllabic answers. Elijah's peculiarities are fascinating at first, but become simply annoying as the movie progresses.
Shyamalan's purported theme, voiced by Elijah, is this: "These are mediocre times, and it's hard for people to believe there's something extraordinary inside themselves." Well, David discovers what is extraordinary about himself. But there is no apparent release, no triumphant relief from the leaden discomfort he feels about himself and his place in the world, and the viewer is stuck, too, with no emotional release, no dramatic shift.
There are many similarities between The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, notably Willis' understated, world-weary character and the sodden, blue-gray visage of Philadelphia. But the fundamental difference between these two films is the latter's complete lack of humor. In the dogged pursuit of his vision, Shyamalan seems to have forgotten that the story needs a dramatic arch, that the characters need real red blood flowing through their veins to capture and maintain the audience. On the day I saw the film, the audience so desperately wanted a break from the somber quiet and deadly stillness of the film, they frequently broke out in nervous laughter at the most inappropriate moments.
Willis is superb here, as he was in The Sixth Sense. Who would ever have thought that the wise-cracking, smirking mischief-maker from Moonlighting would find his acting niche as a regular Joe who walks through life feeling melancholy and incomplete? No one does it better. Wright-Penn does not fare as well; she is anemic-looking and her character is poorly developed.
If the above were the only problems with Unbreakable, it might have been palatable. But the film is plagued with a cheap-shot ending that is simply ridiculous, not just distasteful but downright inedible. It feels as if Shyamalan, moving ahead full throttle, just yanked on the emergency brake and brought the film to a sudden, disingenuous halt.
The result is a complete derailment, and not even Dunn survives.