When the credits rolled at the end of "Unbreakable," I wasn't sure what to make of it. The concept was so off-the-wall I wasn't sure if I was supposed to take it seriously or if writer-director M. Night Shyamalan was pulling my leg.
Then I thought about writing this review and realized I wanted to avoid giving away the movie's big secret, therefore I must have liked the movie quite a lot because I want people to see it without my spoiling anything. But this poses a problem: The picture's most important surprise comes only 15 minutes into the story.
So bear with me while I try to review "Unbreakable" without giving away anything after the first reel of film. Oh, boy.
I can tell you this: Samuel L. Jackson stars as a very obsessed comic book collector who tracks down the sole survivor of a commuter train wreck, played by Bruce Willis, because he's convinced he knows why the man walked away from a demolished railcar without a scratch on him.
Elijah Price (Jackson) is victim of a degenerative bone disease that leaves him vulnerable to everyday hazards in the same way David Dunn (Willis) seems vulnerable to nothing. Dunn, trying to understand his miraculous durability, retraces his whole life and realizes he's never even had as much as a cold. Price, on the other hand, recalls being so fragile as a child that he grew up on broken bones and taunts from other children, who called him Mr. Glass.
While the film focuses, in part, on the antagonistic camaraderie that forms between these two men as Willis begins to realize Jackson's insane theories may have some merit, it also delves deeply into their defective lives.
Willis' character is a former college football star who used a car crash as an excuse to turn his back on a lucrative sports career in favor of marrying his sweetheart (Robin Wright Penn). But 20 years later, he's a miserable campus security guard on the brink of divorce with no idea where it all went wrong.
This doesn't stop his darkly optimistic son (Spencer Treat Clark, "Gladiator") from worshiping him, however. Wanting so badly to believe in his dad, the kid buys into Jackson's ideas so completely he becomes a danger to his family.
But as Willis feels more and more compelled to explore his seeming invincibility (he also discovers undeveloped psychic powers that come into play), flashbacks cast doubt on Jackson's veracity by showing how his condition turned him into an eccentric recluse prone to abstract, unrealistic flights of fancy.
The time and emotional elbow grease put into developing these shattered lives is exactly the kind of detailed characterization that turned Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense" into last year's most cerebral supernatural blockbuster.
Like that film, "Unbreakable" is more about the humanity than the genre gimmick. (Geez, I can't even tell you what the genre is without giving away too much!) Shyamalan again sustains a disquieting ambiance, hinting at something surprising and ominously supernatural at the heart of the proceedings -- although in this film it's only disquieting and ominous because the director is a master manipulator when it comes to mood.
"Unbreakable" is a masterfully crafted film with a precision plot, full of extraordinary, allusionary storytelling and fine-tuned scenes that absolutely pop with the kind of symbolic minutiae that inspires mind-bending reexamination after all its secrets are revealed. Shyamalan composes his photography in a way that pays homage to his inspiration (again, I cannot say more without spoiling the surprise). He's also so in control of the film's timbre that a simple flight of stairs with brittle Sam Jackson at the top is enough to make a viewer dig fingernails into the armrests.
The piercingly psychological performances and self-imposed sobriety are in many ways at odds with the movie's true theme. But I'm reasonably sure that's what Shyamalan intended. Although it is harder than it should be to get a bead on exactly what he's thinking, I got the feeling he's daring the audience to take the movie too seriously, knowing that the people who don't will enjoy it the most.