Broken and Battered

Fair warning: Enough time has passed that it's OK to discuss the ending of writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable. Those who have not yet seen the film and intend to might want to keep on moving. Or perhaps not: To reveal the ending, all 180 or so seconds of it, is not to spoil the 105 minutes that precede it. Indeed, to discuss the movie seriously, one needs to talk about the finale; that is the difference between movie reviewing and film criticism--the difference between telling you if you should spend your seven bucks and telling you why you should spend your seven bucks. Those who would insist otherwise are likely uninterested in the art of storytelling. They go to movies, especially those by the man who made The Sixth Sense, not to be engaged by them, but to be shocked by them--as though visiting a movie theater were no different from visiting a theme park's haunted house. But that's not necessarily their fault: Hollywood long ago dispensed with the need for stories and characters, depth and discourse. It's far easier to make everything go boom.

Besides, M. Night Shyamalan doesn't much like the word "twist" when referring to the endings of his movies; he chides himself when it's pointed out to him during our interview that he's the one who keeps bringing it up. "It's funny I've been saying twist, because I am always saying, "I don't even like twists,'" he says, sounding over the phone much younger than 30 years old. "That's not how I look at it at all." He instead prefers to talk about the revelations that occur at the end of his films--the moment when obscured truths peer out from the shadows and make themselves known at last.

"When I sit down and write an ending, it's like levels of realization on the characters' parts, and the depth of it keeps increasing and increasing and increasing till the last scene," he says, offering a rare eloquent glimpse into the machinations of a filmmaker. "Isn't that what the arc of a movie should be, as opposed to climax and 10-minute coda? What does that get you? That's just the way that you ease out of the movie so you can go home and feel good. Why do I want to ease you out of the filmgoing experience? I want to kick you out the door after I've given you 10 things to think about. That's the fun thing. It's not, "How am I going to trick the audience?' That's not what it's about at all."

In Shyamalan's little-seen 1998 film Wide Awake, about a fifth-grader pondering the existence of God after the death of his grandfather, the revelations hide in plain sight; at film's end, the little boy finds himself face to face with an honest-to-God angel. In last year's The Sixth Sense, audiences found out that Haley Joel Osment did indeed see dead people, and that one of them was named Dr. Malcolm Crowe, the psychiatrist played by Bruce Willis. It was of little matter that we saw Malcolm shot to death during the movie's opening moments; audiences bought into the Twilight Zone tale, so much so that they went back again and again to find out how much or little the filmmaker had betrayed his tale to support his finale. As a result, The Sixth Sense became the 10th-highest-grossing film of all time. If nothing else, Shyamalan has a genius for creating repeat business.

Now, with Unbreakable, Willis is very much alive: As David Dunn, a former football star-turned-stadium security guard, he is the sole survivor of a horrific train wreck. In the eyes of Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a man with bones so fragile that they snap in a stiff breeze, this makes him the flesh-and-blood embodiment of the pen-and-ink superheroes Elijah has worshipped since he was a little boy. Elijah, who runs a gallery specializing in original comic-book art, convinces David he is not doing enough with his life; that's why David wakes up sad every morning, because he's wasting his powers by living a mundane existence. As it turns out, David and Elijah are exact opposites, but in more than just their invulnerability and fragility: David is indeed superhero, and Elijah is super villain, a man who has killed thousands just to find a single survivor whom he might deem Superman. "They call me Mr. Glass!" Elijah screams at the end--a shock so great that it has angered and appalled those who were so enamored of The Sixth Sense's feel-good finale.

Perhaps as a result, Unbreakable is beginning to tank at the box office. It pulled in $47 million during its first weekend (it opened the Wednesday before Thanksgiving), only to watch its receipts plummet by more than 60 percent the following weekend; it made only $19 million the following seven days. Shyamalan insists he is shocked by the reaction to Unbreakable's climax; he swears he doesn't understand the disdain for the revelation that Elijah embodies only malevolence. After all, there were myriad hints along the way: the glass cane he carries, the bad-ass car he drives, the cockeyed hair he sports, the outlandish wardrobe he wears. Unbreakable's conclusion is lifted straight from the comics Elijah collects and worships--which, Shyamalan figures, is actually why people hate it so much.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky