Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Unbreakable




US 2000
dir M Night Shyamalan
cin Eduardo Serra
stars Bruce Willis, Samuel L Jackson, Robin Wright Penn, Spencer Treat Clark
107 min

Unbreakable is a movie quite unlike any other major-studio Hollywood film of the year 2000 though this strangeness seems to have been taken, somewhat oddly, for granted. Its also, arguably, the best. That doesn’t mean its flawless Shyamalans a control freak, unsuccessfully trying to mask his immaturities and weaknesses with dazzling technique. But hios movie does simultaneously entertain, absorb, challenge and fascinate, even though many may well (short-sightedly) dismiss it as ludicrous.

David Dunn (Willis) is a security guard who emerges the sole survivor from a terrible train crash: unscathed, unbruised – unbreakable? Hes contacted by Elijah (Jackson), a brittle-boned comic-book dealer who claims to know the secret of his miraculous survival… From a remarkably original (and simple) premise, the story unfolds with a refreshing solemnity – a stately, almost lugubrious sobriety. Perhaps it does start to falter around the half-way mark, as if Shyamalan wasn’t sure where he wanted to head, but there’s something exhilarating about the way he navigates this tricky territory – Dunn starts getting some jolting, Dead Zone-ish premonitions, visions given the apt twist of looking like closed-circuit security-camera footage.

Such touches are typical of Shyamalans consistently impressive direction The compositions and camera movements show a Kubrick-like level of control restrained bravura. Everything is subtly colour co-ordinated, with Jacksons wardrobe of mauves and purples especially delightful. Shyamalan blends Kubricks precision with a Hitchcockian desire to put the audience through it, to manipulate them at every step of the way. The low-key music echoes Bernard Herrman; Shyamalan pops up in a wrong-footing cameo; an early hospital shot from Williss perspective quotes The Birds.

Hitchcock never wrote his own scripts, of course, and this is where Shyamalan stumbles a little. He ear for dialogue is occasionally tinny (There are two reasons why Im looking at you like this, says a medic early on), and some aspects of the story remain fuzzy, notably   Dunns water aversion, while there’s too much emphasis on the mysterious car crash which brought Dunn and his wife (Wright Penn) together. Examined rationally, the twist ending makes no sense, for reasons which can’t be spelled out for fear of spoiling the plot. The film builds an powerful, lingering atmosphere, but, as we think back over the developments, we start snagging on countless loose ends and gaping holes.

The implausibilities may be too much for many viewers – but perhaps, as with David Finchers The Game, they actually elevate the movie to a new level. The ending isn’t realistic, but it makes perfect sense in terms of the movies comic-book framework, and its central idea that an individual may attempt to make sense of his place in the world by means of a powerful (though bastardised) medium, halfway between art and commerce. Comic-books or, we may infer, cinema. The finale suggests that, as with Hitchcocks best pictures, Unbreakable is perhaps intended as a very deadpan kind of black comedy, one in which the humour remains tantalisingly close to the surface, but always latent. Its usually laughable when a director ends a fictional movie with what happened next captions, but Shyamalan pulls it off, partly thanks to Jacksons astonishing, subdued, heartbreaking/terrifying delivery of his final line, partly due to the way the ensuing caption is so marvellously right for those comic-book traditions.

Its important to stress that Unbreakable isn’t really a complex film. Like its main character, It takes a single theme inversion and obsesses over it: applies it to the movement of its camera, constantly reversing or inverting the image, like images onto film, like images onto the human eye. Attentive viewers will spot (via a glimpsed newspaper cutting) that the maiden name of Davids wife is Audrey Inverso its no accident that this name sounds like one of the Fantastic Four. But that’s about as far as Shyamalan wants to go there’s no epecially intricate deeper meaning. Such a reading would be out of place in what is not, really, an intellectual film. Its a movie. Shyamalan tells an unusual, strikingly original story and that’s it. He takes mainstream cinema about as far as it can go, as far as it can go before it starts being something else. Perhaps hell never strike so lucky again. Who cares? Unbreakable is a film that the vast majority of todays directors, whether arthouse or mainstream, may never match. Shyamalan included.

5th Jan 2001

by Neil Young