UNBREAKABLE ***** USA 2000 Dir: M Night Shyamalan. 106 mins
Writer-director Shyamalan’s follow-up to the widely praised THE SIXTH SENSE shared a nuanced, understated Bruce Willis performance, an autumnal Philadelphia backdrop, an impressive juvenile actor (here, Spencer Treat Clark) and a sombre, thoughtful approach to familiar genre material. An expertly constructed comic book origin story from the era before Marvel movies dominated Hollywood, it follows security guard Bruce Willis’ dramatically changing life after he emerges as the only survivor of a horrific train derailment. Brittle-boned comic book obsessive Samuel L Jackson persistently contacts Willis, insistent that he is his direct opposite, an “unbreakable” latter-day superhero.
Character driven and deliberately keeping the expected set piece action off-camera (including the catalytic train wreck), the movie becomes a serious, moving dramatic piece about the enduring need for the kind of escapist, wish fulfilment fare offered by the comic book world. Opening as an authentic study of the lone survivor of a tragic event, it unfolds as a credible story of self-discovery, with lengthy takes and meticulous shot composition (frequently taking on the form of comic book frames), while crucial exposition is subtly conveyed via deceptively low-key individual moments. Jackson, cast against type as a vulnerable, physically frail character, makes a riveting transition from downtrodden outcast to defiant mastermind, figuring in perhaps the most satisfying twist of Shyamalan’s career. One sequence in which Willis’ young son points a loaded gun at his father, determined to prove his invincible status, is a beautifully handled example of the filmmaker at the peak of his powers – imperceptibly shifting from suspenseful to funny to genuinely, wrenchingly moving.
Review by Steven West