Unbreakable (2000)

Directed by M. Knight Shyamalan

Endings are incredibly important to successful stories, some more so than others. Two examples that immediately come to mind are Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, where the third act takes a very unexpected direction, and M. Knight Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, where the ending comes out of the blue (though a second viewing shows it as inevitable).

Although he had made two previous movies, Shyamalan’s career as a writer/director begins with The Sixth Sense, as far as public awareness of him goes. But that movie was a double-edged sword.

On one hand, the film’s incredible success likely made making movies a bit easier as he was now a bankable director (or so I imagine). On the other hand, I’m pretty sure both the public and the studios wanted, “another one like the other one.”

It’s rare, however, for the kind of movie that The Sixth Sense is to work as well as it does. I think of them as Twilight Zone movies (or Night Gallery movies): films that rely on a surprise twist at the end. It’s not often they work well and, when they do, it’s easy to tire of them quickly. In a sense, they are gimmicky. Done rarely, they’re riveting; done often, they’re tedious.

I think M. Night Shyamalan knows this and feels the same way. So when approaching Unbreakable, the film that followed The Sixth Sense, this was likely a concern.

You get the sense as you watch Unbreakable that he was trying to avoid the surprise ending. On the other hand, you also get the sense that stories of that kind are his natural inclination.

So what kind of movie comes out of all that? A very good one, I think.

Describing what Unbreakable is about is a bit misleading. Based on a description, I personally wouldn’t be overly anxious to see it. The movie is about the beginnings of a superhero – a comic book character.

What is nice about Shyamalan, however, is how disinterested he seems to be in the elements others are drawn to and, because of that, his movies are much more compelling than what might be expected.

From beginning to end, Unbreakable is about a man (Bruce Willis as David) gifted with unusual powers and his reluctance use them or even to acknowledge them. The movie is also about his nemesis (Samuel L. Jackson as Elijah), the man that forces David to recognize who and what he is.

A movie that you would expect to be an action film in Shyamalan’s hands becomes a puzzling psychological (and emotional) thriller. The focus is on suspense, not big action set pieces. The movie focuses on the characters, not on what they do.

So it becomes a slower paced film with an oppressive feeling of foreboding that builds almost from the very start. You know after a time that something connects the characters of David and Elijah, but what is it? You see from the start that they are physically opposite. But what else is there?

Inevitably these questions are answered with an ending that has something of the “surprise” feel to it, though not nearly to the extent as Shyamalan’s previous film. It’s not missed either.

Unbreakable is a moody film about self-recognition. It also contains what Shyamalan’s films all contain: a mix of fantasy and reality with the emphasis on the reality, which is what makes them work well.

On Amazon:

Leave a Reply