Sunday, February 3, 2019

This part won't be like a comic book


One of the best superhero movies is one of the smallest; less surprisingly, one of the best M. Night Shyamalan movies is one of the earliest.

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Spoiler alert: severe

M. Night Shyamalan movies are about believing in something that can't be seen.  That's why so many of his movies have twists; why almost all of them invoke the power of faith.  This pattern—this apparently-unstoppable auteurist drive—was established early, no later than his fourth film, the follow-up to his first film that anyone actually remembers, 1999's dominating sleeper hit and cinema's ultimate script-flip, The Sixth Sense.  That follow-up was Unbreakable, and I'm not sure he's ever done that one thing he's evidently so compelled to do—investigating the emotional power of being suddenly able to believe in the unbelievable—any better than he did it there.  It helps, of course, that Unbreakable's also the last Shyamalan film people generally agree is better than (at most) merely acceptable, even if Signs retains an active constituency of folks who, I suppose, prefer their bad religious allegories to also be lungingly sloppy horror films.  Still, between the two, you can almost understand how he could endure for two more decades; they're the kind of movies that make you want to believe in something you can't see, like M. Night Shyamalan's talent.

There are those that put Unbreakable above Sixth Sense, and while I'm not sure I agree, I can see why.  Having not seen it in many years—I was, I think excusably, a little concerned it might not hold up—my interest was piqued hard by its distant direct sequel, Glass.  (For some mysterious reason, its indirect sequel, Split, did not have this effect.)  Coming back to Unbreakable afterwards will, I think, make you like Glass both more and less: more, because you're happy that there's more Unbreakable in the world; less, because you know in your heart this is actually a very bad thing, which does little to burnish a nearly-perfect film, and much to tarnish it, while also subtly but unmistakably modifying Unbreakable's moral universe for the worse.  This is because Unbreakable is unique in Shyamalan's filmography, the only movie he ever made that seems a little ambivalent about the power of having faith in whatever-it-is-this-time: it hopes for faith, more than it rewards it; it ends in a betrayal that would tend to shake anyone's faith in God or men.  Or supermen.

Unbreakable, of course, also stands astride a very inchoate cinematic moment: it's a superhero movie brought about in the wake of the temporary catastrophe of Batman and Robin, but before the impact of the same year's X-Men could be felt (let alone 2002's game-changing Spider-Man).  The latter films, especially Spider-Man, stayed the course, only with more technologically-advanced spectacle and either less or at least a different kind of camp.  Unbreakable, made when it wasn't clear that these old ways weren't so decadent they'd need to be discarded entirely, self-consciously rejects the trappings of all the superhero movies to have come before (the absurdism; the zany frivolity; in a sense, the "fun").  The weird thing, though, is that it still wallows as much as any movie ever had in the substance of actual superhero comics—and of superhero comics' fandom.  Mallrats isn't as much about superhero comics or its fans, and Stan Lee gives an inspirational speech to a horny nerd in that.  Then again, Mallrats was actually made by a fan.  You can kind of tell the difference; but let's talk about that later.  For now, let's say that Unbreakable's goal is deconstructive: to ground superheroics in an utterly quotidian world, specifically the quotidian world of virtually all Shyamlan joints, Philadelphia.

It's on the train back to Philadelphia that we find our quotidian hero David Dunn, having spent his day failing to arrange a new life for himself in New York as his marriage here falls apart.  Unbreakable doesn't say any of this out loud yet, but the broad shape of it is clear, and the first ten minutes remind you how damn good Shyamalan used to be.  (It's the done thing to complain about Shyamalan the Writer getting indulgent and esoteric, but his direction got lazier too, if not nearly to the same degree.)  It's a pity a retrospective review like this has to take this tone, but Unbreakable's so thoughtfully-made that even something as relatively well-put-together as Glass still looks wan in comparison.  So: our introduction to David is by way of the attractive younger woman who takes the seat next to him, and Shyamalan provides a whole domestic drama's worth of information in just a few shots, as David stares sullenly out a window, turns to catch a too-long glimpse of her sexy little belly tattoo as she stretches to stow her baggage, surreptitiously removes his wedding ring, and clumsily and unsuccessfully tries to chat her up, all of it shot through the gaps in the seat in front of them, emphasizing his awkwardness and their utter lack of connection; it concludes, almost too cutely, with a reverse shot back to the kid David had shared a goofy grin with right at the beginning, whom we now find scowling at him, just as we might, at bad behavior compounded by cringy incompetence.

We know a lot about David already, then, and the film hasn't even started yet; it does, when the train derails, and the next thing we see is David waking up in a hospital, a doctor telling him, in another detail-laden shot, and as professionally as possible given the circumstances, that everybody on the train is dead except him, and he doesn't have a scratch on him.  David goes home with his wife Audrey (Robin Wright) and son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark)—another simple visual sign completing our education in how David's family life is going, that is, poorly.

And that would be that, except that David receives a message asking him, cryptically, if he's ever been sick a day in his life.  If he has, he can't remember.  He follows the stranger's note to an art shop specializing in the superheroic, and meets its proprietor, one Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a sufferer of osteogenesis imperfecta, his bones so fragile they might as well be made of glass, whose childhood isolation left him the perfect prey for a lifelong obsession.  Elijah poses to him a startling hypothesis.  Starting from the premise that the comics of the 1940s were folk history, exaggerated over the decades, Elijah has spent years seeking out evidence that the superman is real, and now he thinks that sole survivor David could be the extraordinary being he's been looking for.  And again, that might have been that—David naturally assumes Elijah is a lunatic—except Joseph was with him, and Joseph really likes the idea that his dad might be special, and keeps pushing David toward the possibility that he is.  But when David allows his son his fancy, he begins to realize that his limits are nowhere near what he thought they were.  He recognizes that maybe Elijah was right, and that maybe fate had something more in store for him than security detail at college football games.

Nineteen years on, it finally clicked with me what the hell people were talking about when they anointed Shyamalan "the next Spielberg"; Sixth Sense has its surrogate father thing, but nothing else about it is really Spielbergian.  But Unbreakable is absolutely doing a Spielberg, not least with its own troubled father-son dynamic that crests with that brutally intense sequence where young Joseph brings a loaded revolver to breakfast to prove that dad's a superhero for reals, and it's very much an open question whether he'll shoot; the way it ends even feels like it's dealing specifically with Spielberg's own storied daddy issues.  But this feeling abides throughout: Unbreakable is Close Encounters of the Third Kind With Superheroes, and it taps into an immensely powerful sense of reverence and awe as David discovers himself for the first time.  If anything, it handily betters it, perhaps because Unbreakable is not such an unintentional work; the experience of the sacred here is a shared one, and it ultimately brings David's family back together, rather than smashing it apart without anyone noticing or caring that's what happened.

It's worth pointing out what fine actors Unbreakable has—okay, Clark is no Haley Joel Osment, but Joseph doesn't need him to be—but the one it's easiest not to notice is Wright.  It's with Audrey, long-suffering wife, that you recall that Shyamalan's ability to write dialogue for humans has, in fact, never been entirely satisfactory.  (You wonder if his scripting got much worse or if only his actors and his direction of his actors did; I get the feeling that his active coaching of line reads toward a uniform "flutey monotone" hadn't started yet.)  But Wright's as heroic as anybody in this movie in giving Audrey an inner life and an awkward, pained bearing that justifies the awkward, pained lines she has to read.  I mention this now because the worst thing the movie does is to Audrey and to Wright, when David and Joseph share a shitty wink, while she obliviously does the dishes.  Maybe it's a nod to the "boys' club" of comics, which was truer in 2000 than today, and that's almost clever, but what it means is that, alone amongst the leads, Audrey does not get to witness the miracle.  In fact, Shyamalan's script evinces a certain contempt for Audrey in more than just this, maybe even blaming her a little for stifling David's potential; the movie has a bit of a sexist streak, which is obscured by Wright's performance and by the fact the movie might actually be taking her side, philosophically, but which isn't exactly invisible.

Then again, it's entirely possible that's a side-effect of how Unbreakable works, in the same way that it's pretty much objectively how Close Encounters works, and it's not hard to see how Unbreakable earned its cult, with its earnest and well-told tale of a middle-aged family man dissatisfied by mediocrity, suddenly gifted with a secret world of excitement and new possibility.  The difference is that instead of a cosmic ride, this man's vigor is returned to him by way of metaphors of recharged masculinity and, in the aftermath of righteous violence, renewed boners for his wife.  (I'm not even really interpreting: this is pretty much just a factual synopsis of the third act climax, before the epilogue upends the film.)  It's difficult to imagine a more perfect embodiment of that tale than a turn-of-the-century Willis, finding him not long after physically peaking himself, albeit remaining inordinately handsome for a bald, blue-collar-boy-next-door type—a credible diamond in the rough.  It was, in hindsight, right at the moment his acting skills and interest in acting at all were at their height, too.  Shyamalan had just given Willis a chance to explore (and a chance to be praised for) his capacity for quieter character drama in The Sixth Sense, and arguably Unbreakable even uses him better, partly because the character derives from his established persona—David Dunn being John McClane, only with a lousier job and more naturalistically depressed.  Still, despite the emphasis on physicality, it uses him in very much the same ways: the performance remains taken up largely by unconcealed sadness broken, occasionally, by wounded hope.

As with Willis' performance, Unbreakable's aesthetic builds off The Sixth Sense.  I imagine this is why I never saw much Spielberg in Shyamalan's style: the sense of oppression that hangs over every scene, effected through Shyamalan's precision, Eduardo Serra's grim cinematography, and Dylan Tichenor's slow, suspenseful editing rhythms (whole scenes take place in single master shots; the gun breakfast finds itself almost entirely contained within a dynamic but draining single take).  Above all there's James Newton Howard's score, awed and momentous, except perhaps when it wants to get action-y and winds up tracking into what I'm oddly comfortable calling an Enya riff (though I'll be honest, I like it); but, for the most part, it's mournful, even in moments of victory, driving some very complex emotions that are never explicitly within the script itself.

What that screenplay provides is a very unusual take on the superhero: besides the structural gambit of the entire film being a origin story (more unusual than you'd think, despite fully three Spider-Man movies that are at least half origin story), David's so grounded in the banal that the encroachment of the supernatural feels otherwordly in a way that no other superhero film's quite managed.  David's superior strength is so barely-distinct from a well-attended physique that his power-set is best-characterized, even without sarcasm, as "the psychic who lifts."  And while it's very useful for moving along the plot, I genuinely wonder if David's ability to intuit people's sins through physical contact wasn't a mistake that banishes the ambiguity of a film that in every other respect is tantalizingly equivocal.  Yet somehow a sense of ambiguity survives it, that more than anything else, it's David's belief in his own destiny that's making him a superhero.

In a sense, there's nothing that Shyamalan's doing with his superhero noir that wasn't strongly presaged by the superheroes-versus-realism movement that had started in the 70s and had never stopped (The Sentry, which reworks Miracleman—both middle-aged superman stories—was only two months old).  Yet I still can't name many comics this resistant to triumphalism.  (Maybe Born Again, but even then, probably not.)  There's a steep learning curve for David's calling: barely able to take on the criminal he's after, and requiring rescue from the victims before he can even attempt it, what's most striking of all about David's first mission is just the angle it concludes on, yet another long take, in which he slowly strangles his enemy, filmed from above with a queasy objectivity, nothing mythic about in the slightest... except for Howard's central theme rising up, simultaneously uplifting us and reminding us there's something desperate and immensely sad about what we're seeing.  It's the same theme that closes the film, after David's found out how his destiny came to be.

Now, here's the bad part: you have cause during Unbreakable to wonder if Shyamalan really knows comic books well enough to embark on such an ambitious subversion of them.  It's especially apparent in the fake comics that serve as signposts on our journey, which all look like abominable garbage, pretty much everything about them belying them as the anachronistic knock-offs they are.  (It's astonishing that a movie that cost $75 million was unable to pull from real comics or real comics art, or even recognizable comics artists.  I can't imagine Neal Adams would've said no to ten grand to draw a cover for "Active Comics," and he might have even thrown in a remotely acceptable name for free.)  It has odd ideas about comics artists' workflows and comics artists' techniques that I don't think really hold up to scrutiny outside of how they inform theme and character here; it begins with severe white text on black, rattling off (frankly misleading) comic book statistics, almost apropos of nothing.  (It works well with the closing text, however: it gives Unbreakable the feel of a bizarre documdrama, though by far the best thing about it is that it lets the movie end immediately upon its big reveal.)  Anyway, Shyamalan does zero in on one particular superhero trope very well: the thing that ties together origin stories as diverse as Superboy's, Reed Richards', and Charles Xavier's; that is, the friend who became an enemy.

Unbreakable was not terrifically successful in its time (it had a healthy box office, but $75 million engenders certain expectations; honestly, that budget's another thing that Shyamalan asks you to believe in even though it can't be seen).  Critics, while giving it positive notices, were far less warm to it than Sixth Sense, in part because they saw Unbreakable's finale as attempting to one-up the previous film's twist, and failing.  I don't know what Unbreakable even is without it; and while Shyamalan would soon exahust all possible goodwill towards his twist endings, Unbreakable's is the one that feels like it's getting at something without demanding you feel one way or the other about it.  Jackson is as great an Elijah Price as Willis is a David Dunn (and it's no surprise they work well together, considering their rapport on Die Hard With a Vengeance).  Of course Elijah's inflected with unmistakable Jacksonisms; but the limiting factor of the character's disability means he can never rely on his own physicality, at least not in the same ways; meanwhile, he invests the role of a madman with immense pathos and empathy.  (They say he also suggested purple as a color coding, which pairs well with David's green—together, they form the standard hues of the comic book supervillain.)  And for a film that theoretically loves comics, Unbreakable has nothing nice to say about comics fans, using Elijah as their avatar—peremptory and snide in temperament, and long past the point of being able to remotely distinguish fantasy from reality.

Because Elijah may have been right but Unbreakable understands he never had any basis to be; and because whatever he's found in David, it's absurd to think it outweighs the hundreds he's killed to find his opposite number, the one unbreakable man.  (Unbreakable is bad on disability, but it's another trope, and arguably even underlines its analysis of how insidious tropes can be: it's part of how "Mr. Glass" made the self-aware decision that, if he couldn't be the hero he saw in his comic book, then he'd be the villain instead.)  The final images are just the look of guilt and anguish on Jackson's face and the expression of shock on Willis' as he walks away, impotent again before the moral abyss he's fallen into, every bit the perfect close to a film that recognizes the necessity of myth for mortal man, yet has been, all along, an exploration of how easily it can lead us astray, too.

Score: 10/10

No comments:

Post a Comment