Thursday, November 30, 2000
Nine-year-old Elijah Price is a boy with a burden, specifically a degenerative bone disease that has rendered his thin frame as excessively fragile as a crystal champagne flute in the hands of a tipsy New Year''s reveler. In an effort to draw him out of his self-imposed shell and onto the metaphorical playground of life, his mother offers him a deal: Every time he gathers the courage to exit the family''s front door and make his way to the playground across the street, she''ll give him a brand-new comic book. Tapping the stack in front of her, she sagely intones, "They say this one has a surprise ending." Lady, you don''t know the half of it.
Like his previous effort, the well-regarded The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan''s fourth feature finishes with a twist worthy of an old E.C. comic--or, more to the point, an old Stan Lee/Steve Ditko collaboration, circa 1968. The narrative crux is this: What if Superman made it to middle age without realizing he was a superhero? And, on another, more Nietzchean plane, what, exactly, makes a man a hero in the first place, super or otherwise? And while we''re at it, how might the comic-book medium--which plays as formative a role in the development of the youthful psyche as any Teletubby or Grimm''s fairy tale--influence those of us whose lives are already strained at the reality seam? Ah, questions, questions, Shyamalan loves those deep penetrating, culturally and spiritually relevant questions.
Flash forward two decades: Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson, his head ensnared by a sprawling afro) has now largely mastered his fear of the real world and become a Philadelphia-based dealer in comic-book art. From his spartan, by-appointment-only gallery, and moving about with the aid of a glass walking stick, he deals his pulp-and-ink originals to a largely unimpressed public. This changes when he tracks down David Dunne (Bruce Willis), father of young Jeremy (Spencer Treat Clark) and separated husband of Audrey (Robin Wright Penn), a man who has recently gained notoriety as the lone survivor of a disastrous train derailment. Not only did he survive, but he came out of the ordeal with not a single scratch on him. David works as a security guard at a sports facility by day, and cautiously treads the emotionally slippery boards of a fractured home in his off hours.
When the seemingly unhinged Elijah baits his interest with the notion that there may be more to David''s good fortune than is first apparent, David writes off the now-wheelchair-bound eccentric as a crank out for some bizarre scam. But when Elijah pops the $24,000 question--"How many times have you been sick in your life?"--and David realizes the answer is "never," the two begin a parallel journey toward mutual understanding and the resolution of some very odd questions.
Your enjoyment of Unbreakable will likely rest on your ability to accept the story''s one massive caveat, that a fellow who may or may not be some sort of superman could actually make it past Smallville High and never quite notice there''s something unique about him. But story issues aside, Shyamalan''s directorial eye is, if anything, even more lovely to watch than in the muted, low-key The Sixth Sense. Both films make excellent use of the director''s old Philly stomping grounds, with a quietly subtle palette and intensely coordinated compositions. Willis and Jackson are fine in roles that inexorably wing them toward some unspoken mutual horizon, though few of the secondary characters get much to work with.
Shyamalan''s premise is a lulu, to be sure, but if you can manage that precious, tentative suspension of disbelief, you''ll find Unbreakable a rewarding meditation on the nature of heroes, both comic book and otherwise.