November 30, 2000

The Next Best Thing

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When writer-directors find immediate success, the follow-ups have a tendency to be overwrought, melodramatic push-overs. Paul Thomas Anderson gave us an utterly unwatchable Magnolia following the award-winning Boogie Nights. Paul Verhoeven, directed the acclaimed sexually charged Basic Instinct, and then delivered the utterly stupid, Showgirls.

M. Night Shyamalan made most of the American movie-watching public literally gasp with his debut, last year’s blockbuster The Sixth Sense. Now comes his next, his follow-up, Unbreakable. Did he fall into the trap?

Starring The Sixth Sense’s Bruce Willis and a fully-afroed Samuel L. Jackson, Unbreakable once again delves into the world of the supernatural — or at least the somewhat freaky. Willis plays David Dunn, who after a train crash, walks away as not only the sole survivor, but without a scratch on his body. He has never been sick in his life and seems to be, as the title implies, unbreakable. Jackson plays Elijah Price, a man who, due to a protein deficiency, is liable to break any bone in his body merely by falling down. Physically, he is the complete opposite of Dunn.

Elijah has a serious obsession with comic books and has come to believe they are a sort of modern folk tradition — the equivalent of scribbling heroic stories on cave walls. He believes that comic book heroes are the over-commercialized exaggeration of real folk heroes. In his mind, Dunn — with his miraculous health — is one of these heroes.

The supernatural, much like in The Sixth Sense, becomes a large part of this movie. Dunn realizes he has an ability to see the crimes of people he touches, adding to his super-heroic abilities.

Dunn’s quiet realizations of these strange coincidences and powers are Shyamalan at his best. They are subdued, they are understated, and they are believable. The film has a strange pace though; it mostly crawls, yet it seems compact at the end. Very little actually happens, yet there’s nothing wrong with that. The element of reality is skirted with shots that ground us in the Philadelphia street life and Dunn’s marital unbliss.

Robin Wright Penn (Forrest Gump) is a mess as Dunn’s wife. Jackson and Willis are putty in Shyamalan’s capable hands. They yell while being quiet, and tell us things without speaking, keeping the film moving forward while going nowhere. Wright Penn is capable of working at their level — take her barely clinging to the edge in Hurlyburly — but Audrey Dunn has not one redeeming line, one quality, or one angle to make us care that she’s there at all.

So let me answer the question everyone wants to know. Is this movie as good as The Sixth Sense? Do the surprises live up to those of its predecessor? In a word: No.

But that’s ok, very few films could. That doesn’t mean Unbreakable can’t be a good movie, too.

The Sixth Sense used symbols in an understated way. Unfortunately, here Shyamalan feels the need to balance the understated emotions of a superhero story about a guy who’s not a superhero with some incredibly trite or just plain overdone symbolism. Revelations come to characters when the camera is upside-down, a rain poncho becomes a super-hero cape, the names are too biblical to be ignored.

Unbreakable comes at the viewer much like the inside view of the about-to-crash train at the start of the film. You know it’s moving along, and you see the countryside moving outside the window. Things are calm yet the camera closes in on us, doesn’t let us look around. You know something bad is about to happen. We don’t have to see it to know.

While he keeps steady in the opening scene, Shyamalan can’t help but let the camera look around at the end of the movie, instead of sticking with the closed world he sucked us into.

Thankfully, while directors like Paul Thomas Anderson can fall off the face of the earth for all I care after making me sit through Magnolia, I can’t wait to see what Shyamalan does next.

Archived article by Jason Weinstein