Power of paranoia

Unbreakable re-teams Sixth Sense star and director

I know what you did last summer. If you like movies, you were attending two scary sleepers, The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project, and if you'd already seen them, you were either discussing their endings or lining up for another viewing. Each film was fortunate to have an audience hungry for an alternative to the slasher picture that dominates the supernatural genre, and Blair triumphed in part to its narrative gimmick and marketing campaign.
The Sixth Sense's climactic twist no doubt prompted second viewings, but writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's Hitchcockian craft earned the film its true success, not to mention multiple Oscar nominations. Given both films' popularity, it's no surprise that each set of moviemakers hopes for lightning to strike twice, and it's hardly a shock that Blair Witch 2 proved an ill-received sequel with teens in peril.
Shyamalan's new film, Unbreakable, is not a literal follow-up, although with the same Philadelphia setting, the same atmosphere of dread and the same leading man (Bruce Willis), it's definitely cut from the same cloth as its predecessor. It's a more idiosyncratic work, neither as solid nor as spooky as Sense, but intriguing on its own terms.
Where Sense offered a variation on the ghost story genre, Unbreakable takes inspiration from the conventions of comic books, although you don't realize that right away. When we first encounter Willis' David Dunn on a train from New York to Philadelphia, he discreetly hides his wedding ring to half-heartedly flirt with a fellow passenger. Moments later, we share with Dunn the chilling realization that the train is reaching a dangerous velocity.
Dunn awakens in a hospital to learn that everyone else on board was killed, although he's miraculously unscathed. We begin wondering if Unbreakable will be one of those anatomies of a disaster like Fearless, as Shyamalan attends the hopeful, disappointed faces of the bereaved families, the memorial service for the dead and twisted state of the wrecked train. Willis gives an effectively broody performance, proving that less is definitely more for his acting.
But Dunn's survival draws the notice of Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a dealer in comic book art who weirdly maintains, "I believe comic books are a form of history." He even keeps a slab of hieroglyphics in his office as a sign of pictorial ancestry. Price suffers from brittle-bone disease, making him susceptible to fractures and nicknames like "Mr. Glass." An abnormally fragile person, he wonders if there are individuals at the other end of the physical spectrum, extraordinarily impervious and prone to other abnormal abilities. He believes Dunn is just such an individual.
Not surprisingly, Dunn believes Price is a wacko con man, but he begins wondering if he's ever been injured, or if his on-the-job instincts as a stadium security guard hint at a hidden nature. Dunn's son Jeremy (Spencer Treat Clark) disturbingly embraces the idea, especially when they discover that Dunn can bench-press far more than he ever imagined. Will Jeremy endanger them to put Dunn's "secret identity" to the test?
Anyone else dabbling in this material could make it ridiculous, more like the pilot of a cheesy TV action series. Shyamalan, though, is less interested in the mechanics of a comic book origin story than in Dunn's family relationships and self-knowledge. The details of Dunn's failing domestic life prove reminiscent to Willis' scenes with his estranged spouse in Sense. Here Dunn and his wife Megan (Robin Wright Penn) actually converse, but their marriage is no less strained.
As a filmmaker, Shyamalan sustains a point of view consistent to Haley Joel Osment's character in Sense: quiet, watchful and anxious. Many scenes maintain a stillness so eerie that you brace for something terrible to happen, even in mundane situations. Shyamalan still likes putting obstructions in his frames, viewing things from upside down and emphasizing muted earth tones, although suspected "bad people" invariably wear bright colors. He's also shrewd with misdirection, with Unbreakable returning to a football motif, although you virtually never see a game being played.
Shyamalan constructs several suspenseful scenes with Dunn in large crowds, either at the stadium or on the train station, trying to identify potentially dangerous people. At one point, when Price is faced with a long flight of stairs, the shot telescopes to suggest a vertiginous height and terrible risk if he loses his footing. The film's final act ventures too eagerly into the territory of a serial killer thriller, but still pays off. Actual comic book imagery is kept to a minimum, although Dunn dons a rain-spattered slicker that suggests both a cape (Anorak-Man?) and the angel of death.
The self-actualization themes run out before the film does, although Penn and Clark give sensitive portrayals within their narrow characterizations. The clever twist at the end may not equal The Sixth Sense's, but Unbreakable is certainly worthy of the predecessor. It's the kind of movie that instills a lingering paranoia, causing you to regard passers-by with suspicion afterwards, and Shyamalan can take that as a compliment.