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Audiences get a second sense of Shyamalan in suspenseful 'Unbreakable'

Wednesday, November 22, 2000

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

M. Night Shyamalan has created his own cinematic cottage industry. He crafted "The Sixth Sense" in such a way that moviegoers wanted to see it twice, at least, to look for the clues he provided along the way. They saw it until its box-office take reached $293 million in this country.


Rating: PG-13 for mature themes, some disturbing violent content and a sexual reference.

Starring: Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Web site:

Critic's call:


He's done it again, to a lesser extent, in "Unbreakable," his newest collaboration with "Sixth Sense" star Bruce Willis. He provides hints to his surprise -- again! -- and abrupt ending. And then, as you're still trying to digest what you've just seen, he wraps it all up and rolls the credits. Once again, you should have seen it coming and maybe some of you will.

This time, a closely shorn Willis plays a dispirited Philadelphia security guard named David Dunn whose marriage to a physical therapist (Robin Wright Penn) is on the rocks. They have a young son (Spencer Treat Clark) who attends the same neighborhood school that his father did.

"Unbreakable" opens in 1961 with a bizarre birth in the back of a Philadelphia department store. A baby, who shall be named Elijah, is born with broken arms and legs, the result of fractures sustained in the womb.

Jump-cut to the present day, as David Dunn boards a train that soon will hurtle out of control and crash. When the body count is finished, 131 people will be declared dead. Only David has survived, without a scratch.

When he leaves a memorial service for the victims of the train wreck, a note is on his windshield. It asks, "How many days of your life have you been sick?" Precious few, if any, it turns out.

When David tracks down the source of the note -- Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson), sufferer of a brittle bone disorder -- they form a bizarre bond. Elijah, operator of a gallery specializing in rare comic-book art, suggests that David might possess supernatural powers, an idea the guard finds absurd and then strangely appealing. How else to explain his sole survivor status?

To avoid spoiling "Unbreakable," I'll only say that the story plays out to a bizarre and unexpected conclusion. In addition to writing, directing and giving himself a cameo, all of which he did in "Sixth Sense," Shyamalan has a producing credit this time. If you're curious about the 30-year-old Shyamalan, look for the stadium drug dealer. That's him.

Shyamalan has an understated, somber directing style that relies on silence or almost unnoticeable music, a contained performance by Willis and a habit of shooting his actors from a distance or while framed by something in the foreground, such as train seats or bars.

This exercise in suspense tosses out lots of interesting concepts, such as fate, destiny, heroism and knowing your place in the world, but religion seems to be missing. There is a brief scene in a church, for the memorial service, but if you were the only survivor of a crash that took 131 lives, wouldn't you feel compelled to ask a minister or priest or rabbi or counselor, "Why me?" And wouldn't the ravenous Philadelphia media descend in a more relentless manner on such an individual?

Shyamalan has said the concept for "Unbreakable" sprang, in part, from questions about his own future. He comes from a family of 12 doctors, and he seemed destined for a life in medicine. But he used his father's video camera to make a short film at age 10 and discovered his calling.

He has assembled an A-list cast in Willis, Jackson, Wright Penn and young Clark (familiar from "Gladiator" and other features), and he doesn't repeat himself, despite working with Willis and another young boy. But "Unbreakable" brings the proceedings to a halt before you can spit out the series of natural questions and seems to require a greater leap of faith than buying a boy who sees dead people.

Even though I was no fan of "Sixth Sense," I think that was a more compelling film, with all the pieces snugly interlocked. I somehow doubt this will match its success, but it will give you something to think about. Many things, in fact.

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