In a year (hell, a week) that has seen M. Night Shyamalan get more positive headlines than he got for the preceding decade and a half, it’s important to remind ourselves that, despite his missteps, he really does and did deserve the positive attention. And what better way to do that than with the film that’s the cause of many of those headlines, Unbreakable?
Perceived as a sophomore slump following the massive critical and commercial success of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable has built a steady cult of admirers since its release, and it’s easy to see why. The direction is maybe Shyamalan’s best, and definitely his most noticeable. Entire scenes are shot through curtains and glass and cracks between train seats, the color palette is meticulously-crafted down to coding the two leads with primary and secondary colors, and cuts occur only when Shyamalan absolutely can’t do something in a oner, and it’s all tied to an imitation of comic book style that makes the direction more than show-off wankery (look at any scene with dialogue and notice how in almost every one you can perfectly approximate where the speech balloon would go). And while the film is much less of an overt thriller than Sixth Sense, the suspense sequences here are still superlative, with nail-biting tension drawn just from characters’ proximity to stairs and public pools. But maybe even more impressive than all that is Shyamalan’s ability to work human stories into this fussy framework, with this film maybe being his most moving, foregrounding the pathos of its characters discovering their reasons for being (most obviously in regards to Samuel L. Jackson but just as much with Bruce Willis, who gets me misty-eyed just by the way he pushes a newspaper and holds a finger to his mouth near the end). And it’s all tied together with a James Newton Howard score that’s incredible even by the high standards of Howard and his other Shyamalan collaborations. I’m exceedingly curious to see him returning to his territory with his next film, and mostly hopeful about it too.
Unbreakable is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. It’s also on HBO GO (also home to The Village, The Sixth Sense, The Visit, Lady in the Water, and The Happening, in descending order of quality), but cropped from 2.35:1 to 1.78:1, not a good way to watch a film that puts as much emphasis on its visuals as this one.