Beneath the hard, chitinous shell of every cynical film reviewer beats the heart of a miserable romantic. You might scoff at such a notion, seeing as how 90 percent of all movie reviews are pansbut just keep in mind that 90 percent of all movies really stink. Yet, despite this poor hand Hollywood has dealt us, we critics secretly pine for a champion, the director or writer or producer who shall deliver us from the pits of mediocrity into a haven of great cinema. Then, at long last, we will tearfully declare to the masses: "A new auteur has arrived! Filmdom is saved!"
This is what we truly want, even more than a new Pauly Shore movie to savage. We want desperately to discover a new way of seeing things, because we've seen it all. And last year, we had our knight: M. Night Shyamalan, writer and director of the out-of-nowhere blockbuster The Sixth Sense. He took that hoariest of genres, the ghost story, and made it fresh again. Here was a mainstream filmmaker who didn't pander to the audience, but rather challenged it with a richly entertaining story entirely lacking in high-speed chases or wisecracking sidekicks. In fact, it was subtle and clever. Critics pinched themselves: Could this be the start of a new Hitchcockian dynasty of well-crafted suspense thrillers with a spiritual bent? Have we finally found the antidote to Michael Bay?
Based on Shyamalan's second major-studio release, Unbreakable, we must defer judgment. It's too soon to say. Neither a triumph nor a disaster, Unbreakable hits the middle-ground of a filmmaker still working out his kinks before (hopefully) climbing higher.
Stylistically similar to The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable cleaves very closely to the languid pacing of its predecessorwith a major, unfortunate difference. In The Sixth Sense, things were happening: Bruce Willis' child psychologist was struggling to save Haley Joel Osment's tormented grade-schooler, even as his marriage was falling apart and Osment was (gulp) seeing dead people. In Unbreakable, however, not much happens at all until nearly the movie's end. While Shyamalan's now-trademark artful brooding remains in place, his ability to deliver an arresting air of suspense is all but depleted by extended shots of Willis looking depressed and confused. Sadly, 90 minutes of a mopey Bruce does not a movie make, despite a worthy story that could've taken off with but that simple ingredient: conflict.
Willis stars as security guard David Dunn, a hapless fellow who can't quite find joy in a dark, almost monochrome Philadelphia. Estranged from his wife Audrey (Robin Wright Penn), distanced from his son (Spencer Treat Clark), and unsatisfied with his work, he's hating life. Taking the train back from a job interview in New York, he blacks outand wakes up in a hospital, the sole survivor of a horrible wreck. He doesn't have a scratch on him. How? He doesn't think about it much until contacted by an African American comic books fanatic named Elijah who suffers from a congenital bone disease. And he looks just like Samuel L. Jackson with a bad 'fro. Furthermore, he believes comic books are part of a primordial instinct to express a mythology heralding a protector of humanity. Yup.
If you can swallow the idea of such a character as Elijah Price actually existinghe makes his comfortable living by selling crappy superhero drawings in his own gallery as fine art, for chrissakesthen you can accept his supposition that David is in fact one of those protectors, a hero waiting to be unleashed. His evidence? Well, David just doesn't get hurt like regular people. As for as storylines go, this is an intriguing "what if?" hook: What if you were a superhero and didn't even know it?
What follows, however, is a lot of time spent watching Willis looking misty-eyed as he considers Elijah's pronouncement. And while the search for one's place in life is an admirable theme, it would've served the picture well if Shyamalan had tried to show us that struggle in action rather than merely reflect it in Willis' furrowed brow. Dawning self-realization was also a theme in The Sixth Sense, but it shadowed the plot's driving force: Can Bruce help this kid out before the ghosts make him crazy? In Unbreakable, we never get that topline, that surface struggle that opens up deeper things.
Worse, we don't have a sense of what the characters think they want, or what they really want; they lack tangible conflicts. David is just there, watching things not happen; Audrey weeps a lot, and considers taking him back; Elijah leaves phone messages on David's answering machine. I ask you: Are these creepy good chills? Is this heart-speeding momentum? No. But it's all shot very nicely with moody lighting, and things do pick up toward the end. Shyamalan even offers something of a twist ending, though not up to the punch of The Sixth Sense's. (Will he ever be able to top that? Should he even bother to keep trying?)
In the end, Shyamalan delivers a pretty good movie that is only a let-down after the rush of The Sixth Sense. But I have an instinct that Shyamalan is our champion who may deliver us yet