I recently read a crude article in which some journalist attacked M. Night Shyamalan’s entire career. It was so plain mean, I won’t link to it- you’re left to web search (if you like soggy yellow rags). Anyway, just after skimming this brutal assessment and finding that it went just a step beyond multiple other recent reviews of Shyamalan, a friend lent me ‘Unbreakable’. And so I write…
I have some issues with this film. I flat-out tingled after seeing ‘The Village’ and still have enlightening nightmares from watching ‘Signs’ multiple times as a kid. Those were some truly inspired works. ‘Unbreakable’ isn’t poorly written, isn’t poorly directed, the editing works, the cinematography gives a thematic feeling of being between comic book pages, turning. It’s got the look and feel of the medium that inspired the story, thin, dark and riveting pages. But the acting is too subtle. Aside from Samuel L. Jackson, who unquestionably nails his villain, the fire is consistently down to blue with the rest of the cast. Quiet, hesitant, sad, and shut-off…it’s hard to feel good for any of them. Maybe that isn’t the point, but for me it would’ve helped to get invested in the superhero Bruce Willis manifesting his powers.
My admiration for Shyamalan is all in the feeling of isolation, the single world he creates then cracks open like an egg in his films. All the caution, temptation, fragility he draws out of these worlds is both exciting and endearing. Shyamalan has defended himself before, saying “[A common misperception of me is] that all my movies have twist endings, or that they’re all scary. All my movies are spiritual and all have an emotional perspective.” I concur, and this is the kind of thing that gets lost on critics, especially because their job is to note a pattern in the filmmaker’s work. If the pattern seems too predictable, they say it’s failed. They aren’t paid to pop their own bubble and say they might not be looking for the right details to show that the artist is evolving through each project. That’s what analysts are for! We seek the signs and move along the more winding pattern.
So, I say ‘Unbreakable’, which happened to have come out on this day 14 years ago, is a story about personal tragedy, survival, and the chaos of not knowing one’s place in the world. It isn’t about the plot twist, that was just for the sake of story- which IS the story, but on the level the director/writer approaches his work from, the cause and effect are more subtle. When it all comes together and doesn’t go boom, but lightly cracks on the side of the bowl, it’s a signal that the commotion was there from before we even started watching. It isn’t a boom kind of artist we’re meeting, here. It’s life, just weirder.