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Unbreakable (2000)


Born in a Philadelphia department store, Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) suffers from a rare condition called osteogenesis imperfecta, which makes his bones incredibly brittle and prone to break frequently.  Kids taunt him, calling him "Mr. Glass", and his Mom is only able to lure him out of the house with the promise that she'll buy him comic books.  Haunted by such profound imperfection in himself, Elijah, who has become a successful comic art dealer, now searches for the man he is certain must exist somewhere, a man who will balance the cosmic scales because he is unbreakable.  His quest has grown into an obsession with disasters, one of which he is confident will yield up a sole survivor.

Meanwhile, David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is a former high school football phenom who gave up the game when he was hurt and his football-hating girlfriend nearly killed in a car accident.  He still went on to college but now works as a security guard at a local college.  He's plagued by inchoate dissatisfaction with the form of his life, and though he's still living in a house with them, sleeps separately from his wife and maintains an emotional distance from his son, Jeremy.

Then, on his way home from a job interview in New York, where he plans to move without his family, David is involved in a massive train accident, from which he is the only survivor, emerging totally unscratched.  Leaving the memorial service for his fellow passengers, David finds a note under his windshield wiper.  Printed on stationary from Elijah's gallery, it merely asks a question : "How many days of your life have you been sick?"

Thus begins a journey of self-examination in the course of which David, with prompting from Elijah and Jeremy, will come to realize that he's never been ill, never truly been injured, never really been in danger of being killed except for once in childhood when he nearly drowned.  He'll also discover that he is hypersensitive to the existence of evil in other people and that he has a compulsion to protect the innocent, a compulsion that has only partially and inadequately been satisfied by his job.  He is, in effect, Clark Kent without realizing that he's capable of being Superman.

M. Night Shyamalan, who directed the megablockbuster The Sixth Sense, may well already be our best, most interesting, most distinctive, filmmaker.  Like Sixth Sense, Unbreakable is shot in very dark tones and has such a brooding atmosphere that it can become kind of depressing.  And Bruce Willis brings to both roles a stillness and a gravity that are in such utter contrast to his typical smart alecky roles that a tension builds in the viewer just because we feel that he is being tamped down.  But like Sixth Sense, Shyamalan's message here is sufficiently serious and fascinating that we're willing to forgive him the dour and humorless nature of his storytelling.  Because both movies rely on supernatural, mythic, or even religious themes, the visual darkness is perhaps an appropriate contrast to the normal color and cartoonishness of most such films.

Finally though, Unbreakable works because the set of ideas that Shyamalan wants to convey are so timeless and so much out of style.  Or at least they were until September 11, 2001.  For at the center of the movie is the idea that Good and Evil are real, that people can be evil and that their actions can be evil, that people can be good and that it is necessary for the Good to struggle against the Evil.   In some ways, these themes seem obvious to us in the wake of recent events, and they should be obvious us to a Judeo-Christian culture which is essentially structured around them.  But it is important to note that many people have sought to excuse the actions of even the World Trade Center terrorists and have warned that we are merely being chauvinistic in suggesting that Western Culture is superior to the culture with which it is now at war.  They reflect the moral relativism which has come to dominate our discourse in the West over the last hundred years.

This relativism depends heavily on the notion that there are no natural laws that govern human behavior, that we are free to define our own existence, to determine right and wrong for ourselves.  By stark contrast, Shyamalan posits a universe with an absolute moral structure.  In The Sixth Sense this meant that the dead could not rest until the injustices perpetrated against them here on Earth were punished.  In Unbreakable, it means that Good must recognize itself and actively engage in the battle with Evil.  Appropriately for the times, Evil knows that it exists, as David's nemesis says :

    Do you know what the scariest thing is ?  To not know your place in this world.  To not know why
    you're here.  That's....that's just an awful feeling.

but David does not realize that he is Good until the events of the film unfold.  The emptiness in David's life is the emptiness at the center of our own culture, an emptiness that comes from a seeming inability, or perhaps merely a reluctance, to acknowledge the decency and goodness of that culture.  As David comes to realize this in the film, so must we in real life, else Evil wins.

(Reviewed:27-Oct-01)

Grade: (A-)

Websites:

See also:

(2 movies reviewed)
    -INFO : Unbreakable (2000) (Imdb.com)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : M. Night Shyamalan (Imdb.com)
    -BUY IT : Unbreakable (DVD) (Amazon.com)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Bruce Willis (Imdb)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Samuel L. Jackson (Imdb)
    -ESSAY : When the Moral Stakes Are Too Low (Terry Teachout, The Crisis)
    -ESSAY : Creating Fulfillment :  A review of the Sixth Sense and Stir of Echoes (Bill Johnson, A Story is a Promise)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (Elvis Mitchell, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (Edward Guthmann, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (Deal W. Hudson, The Crisis)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (James Bernardelli Reel Views)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (Boyd Petrie, Respect)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (Michael Elliott, Movie Parables)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (Christian Spotlight on the Movies)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (Hollywood Jesus)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (Ray Pride, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (Ed Gonzalez, Slant)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (Kenneth Turan, LA Times)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (Sam Adams , Philadelphia City Paper)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (Sean Weitner, Flak)
    -REVIEW : of Unbreakable (Dennis Lim, Village Voice)
   -REVIEW: of Unbreakable (R Michael Harman, Strange Horizons)
    -REVIEW : of Sixth Sense (Peter T. Chattaway, ChristianWeek)
    -INFO : Wide Awake (1998) (Imdb.com)
    -BUY IT : Wide Awake (DVD) (Amazon.com)
    -REVIEW : of Wide Awake (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : of Wide Awake (Stephen Holden, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Wide Awake (James Berardinelli)
    -REVIEW : of Praying with Anger (James Berardinelli)

SIGNS :

-Signs (Touchstone Pictures)
-FILMOGRAPHY : M. Night Shyamalan (Internet Movie DataBase)
-PROFILE : Out of This World : Hollywood is fat and happy with its summer of sequels. Meanwhile, in a galaxy far, far away-Philadelphia-director M. Night Shyamalan is proving himself to be our next great storyteller. A close encounter with the man behind `Signs'  (Jeff Giles,  NEWSWEEK)
-ESSAY : The 150-Second Sell, Take 34 (MARSHALL SELLA, July 28, 2002, NY Times Magazine)

REVIEWS :

-REVIEW : of  Signs directed by M. Night Shyamalan : Aliens and Wonders : A Hindu director who attended Christian schools tells a parable about a Christ-haunted ex-priest. (Douglas LeBlanc, Christianity Today)
-REVIEW : of Signs  (James Berardinelli Reel Views)
-REVIEW : of Signs  (A.O. Scott, NY Times)
-REVIEW : of Signs (Desson Howe, Washington Post)
-REVIEW : of Signs  (DAVID GERMAIN, AP)
-REVIEW : of Signs (David Sterritt, The Christian Science Monitor )
-REVIEW : of SignsThe Corn Is Flat : Signs is a hucksterish religious parable (David Edelstein, Slate)
-REVIEW : of Signs (Andrew O'Hehir, Salon)
-REVIEW : of Signs  (Michael Wilmington, MetroMix)
-REVIEW : of Signs  (Kirk Honeycutt, Hollywood Reporter)
-REVIEW : of Signs  (J. Robert Parks, Phantom Tollbooth)
-REVIEW : of Signs (ROBERT WILONSKY, New Times LA)
-REVIEW : of Signs  (Arthur Lazere, Culture Vulture)
-REVIEW : of Signs  (Rachel Gordon, Culture Dose)
-REVIEW : of Signs  (Ed Gonzalez, Slant Magazine)
-ESSAY: Signs and Wonders: The spiritual imagination of M. Night Shyamalan (Roy Anker, November/December 2002, Books & Culture)
-ESSAY: Finding God in "Signs" (Daniel L. Weiss, Boundless)
'Signs' for the times (Debra Saunders, February 3, 2003, Townhall)

    -REVIEW: of Signs (Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare, Journal of Film & Religion)

CROP CIRCLES :
Circlemakers
Crop Circle Quest
Crop Circle Central
Unified Field Objection
Art Bell--Crop Circles

-ESSAY : Crop Circles: Artworks or Alien Signs?
(Hillary Mayell, August 2, 2002, National Geographic News)

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