The UNpopular Opinion: Unbreakable
Written by: Aaron the H
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
***WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD***
"Why is it, do you think, that of all the professions in the world you chose protection?" - Elijah Price
M. Night Shyamalan was, at one point, my all-time favorite director. A man I believed could do no wrong. But while The Sixth Sense completely rocked my world in the way it likely rocked, well, the world, it was Unbreakable that absolutely shook me to my core. Brought me to near tears. Taught me the definition of inspired, brave filmmaking. And it is because of M. Night’s last three debacles, the very definitions of uninspired and cowardly filmmaking, that I am now motivated, nay, compelled to remind you readers, and hopefully M. Night himself…what once was.
Unbreakable wasn’t blasted by critics when it was released, though it wasn’t lauded and showered with award noms in the way The Sixth Sense was. Domestically, it grossed $200 million less than it's predecessor, $132 million less than it's follow-up (Signs), and unbelievably, $20 million less than The Village. Much of this can be attributed to Unbreakble's lack of action and thrills (at least in the traditional sense); a bold maneuver in light of the Everest-sized audience expectations of M. Night's Oscar-nominated debut. As a result, Unbreakable was booed by many, considered a letdown for others, and appreciated only by a wise few, and that’s why I’ve chosen to write about it today.
"Hmm, does he mean 'sick' as in like, the flu? Or sick as in, like...AWESOME?"
Never before it and perhaps never again, will a superhero’s story be told with such a down-beat tone, scaled-down stunts, and gritty, realistic emotional range- all risky endeavors for sure. M. Night’s choice to cast Bruce Willis, perhaps the greatest action star of all-time in the lead, upped the risk-factor to 11. And at the end of the day, while action junkies and thrill-seekers everywhere eagerly awaited a no holds barred suspense-filled adventure, Willis turned in unarguably the quietest, most reluctant (and in my opinion, greatest) performance of his storied career. Together he and M. Night created the most broken, depressed superhero the cinema has ever seen, and thrust him into a world where superheroes existed much like in our world; solely in the pages of comic books.
The sad, exhausting but ultimately redemptive journey David Dunne (Willis) goes through was, to me, captivating and heartbreaking to watch, and matched equally by Samuel L. Jackson’s tortured performance as David’s perfect opposite and eventual (SPOILER ALERT) nemesis. The always reliable Robin Wright Penn turned in a solid showing as well, but it was young Spencer Treat Clark as their shy, adoring son who really shined brightly and further demonstrated M. Night’s remarkable ability with child actors (which makes the wooden performances he’s drawn out of kids in recent years all the more baffling).
Elijah probably should have just found a new hobby.
And yet, despite the strong performances and original plot, to this day if you ask someone passing by on the Metro what they thought of Unbreakable, they’ll probably just shrug or say one word: “Meh.” That can only be a product of an audience with unfair expectations, albeit one that was hooked by an absolutely gripping trailer that revealed next to nothing, and promised a fantastic enigma. The greatest mystery in Unbreakable is one that presented us with only two choices, “Is he or is he not a superhero?”, and I think we can all agree we knew where that one was heading. And yet, I was completely fine with it. Why must we expect a filmmaker to have one film mirror his previous? Did we expect Close Encounters of the Third Kind to mimic the tension and ferociousness of Jaws? Nope, we appreciated it for the genius that it was. And that’s how M. Night’s second film should have been judged-- independently.
That said, the film did come with it’s own brilliant, hard-to-predict (although not quite as earth-shattering) twist that packed a pretty heavy punch, and, like The Sixth Sense, was brilliantly hinted at throughout the film. Unlike The Sixth Sense's twist however, which while clever, seemed to function mostly as a gimmick, Unbreakable's plot twist served the story perfectly and gave David and Elijah's story a fantastic sense of finality. If M. Night wanted to break free from the chains of having to pull off insanely clever twists, he didn’t help matters with Unbreakable. But the film had other strengths as well. Costume choice was top notch, with each villain, though dressed in everyday garb, wearing colors that alerted us immediately of their presence (a tribute to the bright, outlandish costumes of comic book villains). The long, draping arms of David’s security poncho, which throughout most of the film appeared to us as just that, slowly by film’s end started to miraculously remind us of the beginnings of a superhero’s cape or an angel's wings.
Only the man that was McClane can make a dorky rain poncho look badass.
The cold, patient, expertly-choreographed cinematography is something Night seems to have forgotten about in his last few flicks, but hot damn was every frame of this film gorgeous to look at, perfectly reflective of the characters’ mindsets, and often cleverly framed like the images of a comic book- and not in the in-your-face way that other films have done [cough *The Hulk* cough]. James Newton Howard’s score managed to pull off something seemingly impossible, giving off a heartbreaking vibe while simultaneously uplifting us. Never was this more apparent than in the climactic scene where David finally overcomes his fears and realizes his destiny.
It was only after watching this that I felt like M. Night had realized his own destiny; to become the next great filmmaker in a long, storied line of them: Hitchcock, Coppola, Spielberg, Shyamalan and so forth. You got the feeling that what set his films apart from the rest of the intelligent, up and coming filmmakers of today were that his films came straight from the heart. That’s what makes his recent decline so shocking. It’s as if his heart has closed up shop. Well, it is of this author’s opinion, however unpopular it may be, that Unbreakable is a shining example of not just what M. Night can achieve, but also of what he will one day achieve again. Like David Dunne, perhaps Night must sleepwalk his way through life a bit, before someone or something wakes his talented ass up and reminds him of his destiny.
Hey, a boy can dream!
|Extra Tidbit:||The domestic opening weekend of The Happening ($30.5 million) out-grossed the opening weekend of Unbreakable ($30.3 million). You can find mention of this in Webster's Dictionary under the word "Travesty".|