In this soggy follow-up to "The Sixth Sense," Bruce Willis sees damp people.

Published November 22, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

Beauty lies in asymmetry, not symmetry. What matters is the thing that sets a composition or an impulse or a human face apart from commonplace perfection, or desultory craft. "Unbreakable," M. Night Shyamalan's follow-up to "The Sixth Sense," the 10th highest-grossing movie of all time, seems to strive for a kind of tongue-and-groove Hollywood screenwriting ideal, with parallels relentlessly drawn out between its characters and their actions. The result, however, is a beauty of misshapenness and one of the year's most peculiar movies.

Like Steven Spielberg, Shyamalan is a writer-director, reportedly just under 30 years old, who surely dreams in storyboards. There are sequences of immaculate care and visual finesse throughout, scenes that would be "money scenes" in a film by a lesser filmmaker. But the confident pacing and impression of inevitability of "The Sixth Sense" are invested in a story that uneasily mingles supernatural foofaraw -- telepathy, predestination, religiosity -- with unconvincing notions about comic book superheroes.

There's a disturbing prologue, set in a department store in 1961, involving a black child born with broken arms and legs, that demonstrates once more that Shyamalan comes from a family of doctors, making him unafraid of the kind of squeamy-weamy stuff that makes audiences flinch (and later, endlessly talk about the movie to their friends). The story begins with impressive finesse. David Dunne (Bruce Willis) is a security guard, worn down by his choices in life, returning by commuter train to Philadelphia after a job interview in New York. Shyamalan offers us efficient and supple exposition: On sighting a beautiful young woman, David stows his wedding ring. Shyamalan also conveys through unnerving sound design the acceleration of the train toward a derailment that will kill the other 131 passengers.

Afterward, David meets Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) -- the child born in the film's first scene -- a self-important and cartoonish comic-book dealer who is convinced that David is the incarnation of a superhero ideal because he didn't die in the train wreck; he's the precise opposite of Elijah's life of broken bones and bed stays. Their cat-and-mouse games about the true nature of David's potential for superhuman feats and second sight constitute most of the story.

The performances are muted, and drab is always one of Willis' best suits. When he sheds his glib and smirky impulses, he is easily one of our most plausible Everymen. His work in "Nobody's Fool" and "The Sixth Sense" is exemplary of restrained screen acting.

Peter Weir's elegiac, underrated "Fearless" (from a script by Rafael Yglesias) dealt more explicitly with survivor's guilt. But Shyamalan has other ideas, not all of them sound. The greatest number of movies coming out of today's studio system are as shiny as a kitchen appliance and their innards are easily diagrammed, so it's tempting to forgive the young director's hubris and pretensions. There's a great line by Leonard Cohen: "There is a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in." Shyamalan wants the light to get into his story, his characters, and he's willing to tempt foolishness to make it happen. Yet cinematographer Eduardo Serra's images -- like "Se7en" without the savagery -- are dour and drained, all pale damp blues and chill grays that steep the film with the listlessness and indifference that have settled into the bones of Willis' security man: He sees damp people.

Yet the dampness isn't just visual. Despite Shyamalan's crackerjack instincts in individual sequences, his storytelling is like a damp rag dropped in the lap and left there. Still, the movie wakes up every three or four scenes and delivers something strange. There is a compelling passage involving a child with a loaded gun that goes for the throat and shakes you for several minutes; not a gesture is misplaced, ranging from David's uncharacteristic vocal hesitations to the camera's sinking to the floor at scene's end, releasing the tension for both characters and audience.

In interviews and the film's press kit, Shyamalan has talked more than once about eschewing shots that are beautiful for their own sake, but he has said little about literalness. (Does a movie become a parable when the audience starts trying to divine symbols that are as subtle as a scream?) "Unbreakable" opens with a shot seen through the looking glass, and many important pieces of information are offered up through reversed points of view: This movie has more upside down than a pineapple cake bakery.

Shyamalan seems intent on being perceived as a singularity, but even a gorgeous, briefly terrifying image involving David's fear of water (he falls onto a tarp covering a filled swimming pool in a night of coursing rain that begins to submerge under his weight, tousling and gathering and sinking into a dream of drowning) seems a stretch more than a convincing terror. Expository dialogue about the meaning of comic books and how they reflect heroism is banal and uninspired and, in the end, wantonly ludicrous.

It would be criminal to describe the ending here, except to say that an entire preview audience groaned in frustration. What was valuable about the ending of "The Sixth Sense" -- a lugubrious movie with peculiar details that often annoyed until the head-snapping switchback of an ending -- was that in its final moments, and in the parking lot, and over the dinner or row that followed, every little bit of information raced back into the mind, the ending forcing a reexamination of each calculated scrap of information.

Yet the ending of "Unbreakable" is, to put it simply, barking mad -- straight out of what can only be described as the Land Beyond Final Cut. It's a scene that seems calculated to force audiences to dispense with all the goodwill they've shown toward the implausibility and exaggerations of the two hours that came before. Reckless follies are a gift from the movie gods, ranging from D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance" to John Boorman's "Exorcist II: The Heretic" to any given five minutes of a film by Leos Carax, such as "The Lovers on the Bridge" or the recent "Pola X." The system of production, distribution and exploitation of movies fights hard against the unpredictable. For its perilous ambitions, "Unbreakable" has to be admired, but any ending that succeeds only in pulling the rug out from under a credulous, trusting audience has to be laughed at and called out for the extravagant nonsense that it is. "Unbreakable" may not be beautiful, but it sure has character.

By Ray Pride

Ray Pride is a Chicago-based writer.


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