I haven’t seen Manoj Night Shyamalan’s widely reviled Lady in the Water yet and I’m not all that keen to (though I think he’s an interesting director even when he’s making turkeys). But I’m annoyed by one aspect of the Indian media’s recent coverage of him: the complete overlooking of the Bruce Willis-Samuel L Jackson starrer Unbreakable, which I think is his most provocative work so far. Perhaps because this is a relatively understated film, it seems to have slipped beneath everyone’s radar – nearly every news or feature report I read informed us that Lady in the Water was his “fourth film”, after The Sixth Sense, Signs and The Village. Even a couple of TV journos whom I know to be well-informed film enthusiasts made this error of omission.
Here’s the basic story of Unbreakable (and yes, spoilers do follow): David Dunne (Willis) is the sole survivor of a train accident that kills hundreds. Elijah Price (Jackson), the proprietor of a comic-book store/museum, contacts him and tries to convince him that he, David, has supernatural powers – that he needs to come to terms with his gifts and use them for the greater good. Elijah himself was born with a rare condition – unusually brittle bones – and he has been struggling with the repercussions all his life. He sees David as his antithesis, a man who is, quite literally, unbreakable. “I reasoned that if someone like me exists, there has to be someone else at the opposite end of the spectrum.” Initially sceptical, David starts to come around to this view, with some help from his super-enthusiastic (and super-annoying) 9-year-old son; what kid wouldn’t want to believe that his dad is a superhero?
At the film’s end, just as David has started doing some halfway decent crime-fighting and we’ve been seduced into the superhero fantasy, comes the sting: it turns out that Elijah had engineered a number of accidents, killing hundreds of people in his obsessive quest for his opposite. “They called me Mr Glass!” he cries; it’s a line we’ve heard before in the film, in a quieter, more melancholy context (the neighborhood kids taunted young Elijah because of his multiple fractures) and hearing it now, we realise with a shock how appropriate the name “Mr Glass” is for a comic book supervillain – which is precisely what Elijah has become.
Unbreakable isn’t an unqualified masterwork by any means. It suffers from the same flaws that have plagued every Shyamalan movie to varying degrees: the self-consciousness in his presentation of themes and Ideas (always a capital “I”); the sacrificing of his cinematic adeptness (and he has plenty of natural talent – his visual sense is close to that of Brian DePalma’s or Spielberg’s) to make way for ponderous exposition; the downright silliness of some of his set-ups. He’s also one of the very worst directors of actors I have ever seen (though Samuel L Jackson does quite well in this film, presumably by ignoring his instructions).
But on the whole Unbreakable achieves a better balance than Shyamalan’s other movies. Visually, it’s much more satisfying. There’s a lovely little scene in the rain where David falls onto a swimming-pool tarpaulin and slowly begins to sink into the water. And I especially enjoyed the scene where Elijah stumbles down a flight of stairs and we get a shot of his walking stick smashing into pieces. It’s made of glass, but at this point we don’t stop to ask why. (The answer, of course, is that it’s part of the character’s get-up, another component in his myth-making, his perception of himself. It fits in with Jackson’s general appearance – he’s made up to resemble the comic-book supervillains he describes to people at his store: “disproportionately big heads, bulging eyes…”)
What I liked most about the film was the audience manipulation, the way it swept the carpet out from under the viewer’s feet at the end. (Hitchcock would have been proud.) The climactic revelation isn’t a twist-in-the-tale put in merely to create frisson (as the ending of The Sixth Sense was): it’s crucial to the film’s thematic concerns. It draws the focus back to Elijah and reveals that the story was really about him all along. Though David has the most screen time, Unbreakable begins and ends with Elijah – the first shot is of his birth, with the doctor realising that many of the infant’s bones are broken; the last shot is a freeze frame of his embittered, vehement face, after he’s said those closing lines. David may or may not be a superhero, and if he is, he’s one with very limited powers; but Elijah, by immersing himself into a fantasy world to deal with loneliness and frustrations, has become a bona fide supervillain. And he’s been two steps ahead of the hero all the way. It’s always so much more easy to do effective evil than to do effective good.
In fact, the general pessimism of the ending makes me wonder if Shyamalan was joking when he announced his intention to shoot a sequel to this film (presumably taking the adventures of superhero David further). At a stretch, I can even imagine a Sixth Sense sequel where the Bruce Willis character takes on the Ghostbusters led by an aging Bill Murray. (They could have a contest for the Most Solemn Expression and the winner gets a date with Paul Giamatti.) But Unbreakable is a stand-alone; its ending so thoroughly dispels any fantasies of heroism that it’s hard to see where a sequel could possibly go.
[Previous posts: The Village, and Annoying Things in Shyamalan Movies]