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Shyamalan Breaks Out a Genre-Defying Hit

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Staff Writer

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Starring Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Wright Penn, Spencer Treat Clark

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements

Viewer, beware: the plethora of similarities between Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense is highly misleading. Yes, both movies were written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan; both feature Bruce Willis in the lead; the composer and production designer are the same; and the visuals, carefully composed slate-colored compositions, are similar. There is one difference, though, and it is crucial. While The Sixth Sense was really a character drama pretending to be a supernatural thriller, Unbreakable is something quite different pretending to be a character drama. What this something different is, I cannot tell you, since this is the biggest mystery of Unbreakable -- not the plot twists, not the hidden character connections, but the genre of the movie.

This fact, naturally, does not allow for a very in-depth review, since reviewing a movie without disclosing its genre is somewhat problematic. Therefore, I have to limit myself to making a few unconnected observations about Unbreakable.

The most remarkable thing about this movie is its narrative drive: it is never less than completely absorbing; the reliance on tried and tired clichÉs in Hollywood is so rampant that it feels almost as a revelation to come across a movie where you never quite know what will happen next; and Shyamalan is gauche enough to tease the audience, having one character, speaking about some comic book, say that “this one has a surprise ending.” Truth be told, the very ending is not that surprising (there are plenty of relatively clear clues, and some of them are not very well integrated into the screenplay) -- but there are plenty narrative curveballs thrown throughout.

Unbreakable also happens to be very funny for most of its running time (a couple of rather dark sequences notably excepted: the violence is kept at a minimum, but the intensity is rather high), since it does not quite take its own genre seriously; at times, it is a homage, and at times it is clearly a parody, albeit a wry, droll one.

It also happens to be exceedingly well directed, proving that Shyamalan’s Oscar nomination was not a fluke. Unbreakable is understated -- and, at the same time, almost a show-off in its visual inventiveness. Witness, for example, the opening shot: an impossible repeated pan between a scene and its reflection in the mirror, camera invisible in both; the next shot (an extended scene on the train) is almost equally impressive. Shyamalan’s insistence of filming most action scenes in one single unbroken take pays off handsomely, adding tension and you-are-there immediacy. Not that he shuns editing: the scene where the protagonist descends into a huge hall full of people for a rendezvous with destiny is very well edited, with subtle changes of lighting, sound effects, a propulsive musical score, and a brief slow-versus-fast motion.

On the downside, of course, we have the fact that this is a Bruce Willis film, and here Willis, for the most time, is in his monotonous leading man mode (as opposed to his vastly superior quirky character actor mode, as in, say, Pulp Fiction). Despite the fact that he is on the screen in almost every shot, Willis is used more as a physical presence (throbbing veins on the forehead, square chin protruding from the hood of a rain slicker, etc.) than as a real actor. Fortunately, Samuel L. Jackson is on hand to pick up the slack; he is, as almost always, electrifying. Robin Wright, as Willis’s character’s wife, is good (and I wish her subplot, about recapturing love that is perceptibly fading away, was bigger); and all I can say about Spencer Treat Clark, playing the son, is that he’s no Haley Joel Osment.

The rest of the movie is a curious contradiction: the high drama, complete with fine character details and psychological incisiveness, used in service of a low, populist genre. If Unbreakable took itself seriously, it would have been in danger of feeling tiresome. Fortunately, it is -- mostly -- light and inventive, and a whole lot of fun to follow it wherever it leads.