a critiQal film review Unbreakable (2000)

Plot: David Dunn (Willis) is the sole survivor of a devastating train wreck. Elijah Price (Jackson) is a mysterious stranger who offers a bizarre explanation as to why David escaped without a single scratch - an explanation which threatens to change David's family and his life forever.

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After the success of The Sixth Sense (1999), it was sort of an inevitability that any follow-up would be a disappointment. So, when Unbreakable arrived on the scene in 2000, it was met with mixed reviews. But, was that just because it was M. Night Shyamalan’s follow-up to The Sixth Sense (1999), or is it really that bad of a film? We decided to find out for ourselves.

Bruce Willis returns under M. Night Shyamalan’s directing in Unbreakable. Like his performance in The Sixth Sense (1999), it’s an understated role, but this time it’s almost too much so. While his character is supposed to be icy and withdrawn in the beginning of the film, Bruce never really lets him out of his shell. At one point, his character complains about always feeling a sense of sadness, and this is evident on Willis’ face throughout the film. Even when that sadness is supposed to lessen, it doesn’t change the character;s attitude at all. Despite all he discovers, the viewer gets the sense he still has a “woe is me” attitude – which just doesn’t make sense.

Samuel L. Jackson is a decent partner for Bruce Willis in Unbreakable. Despite their rough start together in Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), these two are a smart fit here. While Jackson’s Elijah is noticeably a quieter character than viewers are used to him playing (no outbursts of rage – not even one), he’s the guide for Willis’ David Dunn. It’s a smart performance, hampered only by a ridiculous hairstyle – kind of like his role in Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) was only hampered by a silly speech impediment.

The rest of the cast does a decent job with what they are given to work with in Unbreakable. Robin Wright is underrated as David’s estranged wife, and smart casting brings Chaylene Woodard as Elijah’s mom. Even Spencer Treat Clark isn’t half-bad as David’s son, despite not having anywhere near the responsibility of young Haley Joel Osment from Shyamalan’s previous film.

The plot is a unique take on the origin story – up to a point. When David is the sole survivor of a fatal train crash, it causes him to wonder why – and when he is offered an explanation he wonders….even though that explanation seems fantastical. It’s a reasonable thing for the viewers to assume he’s going to question why he survived when no one else did. And it’s a perfect lead-in to the supernatural.

As the film progresses, and David’s various tests seem to bear out the once-fantastical theory, the film slowly leads viewers through a journey that’s much more personal than one would expect. As David continues to explore his own humanity, he slowly reconnects with a family he’s seem to have let fall by the wayside amidst his own unhappiness. So far, then, Unbreakable is a slow, but smart, story.

And then, the film starts to fall apart. After all this buildup, viewers are expecting some great reveal. Instead, they are treated to a lackluster first effort, and a laughably bad ending. Laughable, that is, if it wasn’t so darn disappointing. There have been some truly bad endings to films over the years, but the “where are they now?” written write-up that wraps up Unbreakable has to be one of the worst. Not only because it seems an afterthought to the film, but also because after this much buildup, viewers are expecting a pay-off – and they don’t get one. Not at all.

The director’s love of comic books is evident in almost every sequence of Unbreakable. While SIN CITY brought comics to life through it’s mimicry of comic style, Shyamalan’s approach is much more nuanced. Referencing superhero costumes through the use of an ordinary rain poncho is just the start, and the style of comic books is more used as a reference than trying to recreate the style on-screen. And yet, thanks to long shots and other things – like the way Jackson’s Elijah is reflected in different panes of glass (not to mention his use of a glass cane) – the scenes can easily be visualized as panels of a comic book. It’s much more subtle than SIN CITY, but still a remarkable depiction of comic book art come to life – despite not being based on any actual comic book.

Because Unbreakable had the sad task of following up on Shymalan’s debut blockbuster The Sixth Sense (1999), critics seemed to judge it a bit harshly. Now, years later, and with several Shyamalan disasters in the bag (Signs (2002) and The Village (2004) immediately come to mind), viewers should take another look at the film. Unbreakable is (mostly) a solid film, and viewers should appreciate it’s slow approach – and the uniqueness of how it tells it’s origin story – more these days. Unfortunately, when you can appreciate the film more, it just makes the ending that much more of a disappointment.

Thankfully, with the director already stating this was only the first act, and a sequel, Glass already planned for January 2019, viewers can think of this ending more as a pause between acts. That way, there’s still hope this story will come with a satisfying conclusion – which would raise the appeal of Unbreakable by a whole star.

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