It is a testament to M. Night Shyamalan’s clout after The Sixth Sense that he could get such a deliberate and meditative film made. Bruce Willis is a Philadelphia security guard, an ex-jock in a crumbling marriage with Robin Wright. His son is overly attached to him, sensing in his father something special and perhaps dangerous. After Willis emerges from a horrific train wreck as the sole survivor, with nary a scratch, the son’s suspicions are confirmed by the appearance of a comic book aficionado (Samuel L. Jackson) who leads Willis to a great revelation. It’s an old movie, but to discuss it further substantively would be an injustice. Before Shyamalan became a slave to big twists and reveals that became increasingly ridiculous, from aliens who invade earth but for whom water is acid (Signs) to an eco-counterattack where trees make people commit suicide (The Happening), he could deliver some truly effective codas, and Unbreakable contains my favorite.
Great ending aside, the story is original and sophisticated, Shyamalan’s Philly locales are lovingly chosen and spooky, Willis is the perfect choice for a regular Joe who soon learns he is anything but, and Jackson projects brilliant obsession. The penultimate scene, where Willis tests his new incarnation, is one of the more frightening I’ve ever seen.
The studio and Shyamalan had to have been disappointed by the latter’s sophomore effort. While it did very well overseas, its domestic gross exceeded budget by only $15 million compared to The Sixth Sense‘s $250 million. But Shyamalan had to know that such a painstaking, personal film would not garner an expanding mass audience, even if the studio didn’t.