It is one of the primal pleasures of movies to give yourself over to a filmmaker who knows how to seduce the mind’s eye by teasing his way around what the audience doesn’t know. Unbreakable, the somberly fantastic new mystery-thriller written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, is even more of an anxiety-drenched trance-out than The Sixth Sense, his breakthrough hit of 1999. This picture, too, is set in Philadelphia, but it really takes place in a hushed and disquieting meta-movie world where every new shot is a meditation, a sensual piece of the puzzle, and where wonder merges with dread. What the pieces add up to is never more alluring than when they have yet to fall into place.
Shyamalan is a new-style anomaly — a lustrous technician enthralled with the poetry of supernatural doom. His films have an atmosphere of richly foreboding ambiguity that seems to fuse the various styles of Hitchcock, Nicolas Roeg, David Lynch, and the Michael Mann of Manhunter. At the same time, he’s got more gimmicks, more movie-derived concepts, wired into his nervous system than all of those directors put together. The Sixth Sense had a marvelous creepy intimacy, but forgive me for pointing out that its plot, a cross between The Shining and Ghost, was mostly smoke and mirrors (wouldn’t Bruce Willis have tried, at least once, to have a conversation with somebody other than his wife and Haley Joel Osment?). Unbreakable is a denser, subtler, even more sophisticated piece of portentous high trickery, but by the time the film is over you may feel as if the 12-year-old inside of you has been utterly wowed and that the adult is still going, ”Hmmmm…”
Shyamalan intrigues, and unsettles, us from the outset by introducing scenes and elements that have, on the surface, nothing to do with each other. An opening title provides statistics about the staggering popularity of comic books, and we then cut to the back room of a Philly department store in 1961, where a tearful black woman has just given birth to a baby whose bones are mysteriously broken. The scene, as staged, carries hints of something larger, a disturbance in the universe, and that mood carries over to the present day, as David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a stadium security guard, boards a train, slips off his wedding ring, and attempts to rouse himself out of what looks like a major depression to flirt with the yuppie hottie who takes the seat next to him. Their encounter, realistic as it is, seems to come at the audience in its own ominous dream time, and it’s that tone — a mood of free-floating invisible apocalypse — that Shyamalan sustains for the remainder of Unbreakable.
The train crashes (off screen), and David, alone among the passengers, emerges from the accident without so much as a scratch. You might describe him as miraculously unharmed, except that there’s a lingering aura of gloom to his survival. David and his wife, Audrey (Robin Wright Penn), are in the midst of a quasi-separation (they’re sleeping in different bedrooms of the same house, which they share with their young son), and his mysterious resilience, in the face of ineffable psychic damage, forms the core of the movie.
For much of Unbreakable, we’re hanging on every pinpoint clue, such as the anonymous note left on David’s windshield that asks him how often he has been sick. (Answer: almost never.) It’s revealed that he was a college football star, and that there’s another eerie vehicular crash in his past. And how, exactly, is all of this connected to Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), the saturnine owner of a vintage comic-book art gallery? Elijah, we learn, is that broken-boned baby all grown up. He was born with a congenital disease that results in constant skeletal fractures, and he now lives in a lonely, protective womb-universe of comic books that’s more real to him than the real world. It’s Elijah, alone, who understands why David survived the crash, and he begins to divine even greater abilities in him. Jackson, looming yet fragile, with a stare of the damned and a purple leather coat and walking cane that only enhance his height (he looks like a giant action figure), gives a delicate and haunted performance, his finest in years.
Willis looks haunted too, though his forceful underacting, emerging from a sadness that remains unstated, occasionally borders on catatonia. Unbreakable works almost too hard to sustain its spell. Its characters are so burdened that every encounter seems time-warped, caught in a quicksand of significance, and the film began to lose me when David actually starts to harness his newly discovered self. (You’ll either go with it or you won’t.) That said, Shyamalan achieves a premonitory grandeur in his best scenes: Elijah, in a comic-book store, slipping into a silent, reckless breakdown; an extended subplot, revolving around a hidden weapon, that Hitchcock would have been proud to stage; and the amazing moment in which David’s son holds a gun on him in the kitchen, a desperate mingling of patricide and love. If Shyamalan ever attains a bit more sway over his inner 12-year-old, there’s no telling what he could do. B+