Hollywood only remembers the last thing you did. M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, The Lady In The Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender have become perennial cudgels with which to beat him, derisive failures from a director fallen too far from grace to ever recover. In the mêlée The Sixth Sense has been dismissed as a fleeting one-off, its subsequent copycats having robbed the original of its ingenuity, Mel Gibson's real-life histrionics have blighted Signs' genuine sense of Hitchcockian wonder and, perhaps most egregiously, 2000's Unbreakable, a tremendously detailed dissection of superhero origin has been relegated to near anonymity in the face of Marvel's continued iron-booted command over the multiplex.
What the film asks, and the thing that most contemporary superhero films gloss over with indifference, is what happens when the superhero becomes self-aware? Peter Parker is bitten by a spider and within minutes he's yee-ha-ing through Manhattan, identity crisis over, let's go fight crime. Unbreakable gives us just one fight, and it's right at the end of the film's third act. It's purposely clumsy and cleverly ill-choreographed. It's a superhero finding his feet, discovering - painfully, in that scene - his identity. Willis gives a hushed and intimate performance as the alliteratively-named David Dunn - easily his greatest role to date, and there's solid support from Jackson and Penn yes, but also from Treat Clark and Johnny Hiram Jamison as Joseph, Dunn's son and Young Elijah respectively. As a fellow critic recently observed, children are an integral feature to the fabric of Shyamalan's narratives. He shows us extraordinary events often viewed through the most innocent eyes. Hence the ingenious secondary plot-line of Unbreakable is also the simplest; alone in the eye of a family on the verge of collapse, Joseph Dunn wants to have a father once more, a hero. Not the kind that dons a cape and saves families from intruders, but a protector, a mentor, a friend.
Unbreakable also features what might be composer James Newton Howard's most accomplished work. Like Shyamalan, Newton Howard gently unpicks the clarion-call triumphalist motifs of superhero themeology and has written a score that explores instead all the fragility and uncertainty of what it means to be human, not superhuman. In the film, in the moments when the hero does overcome, we are treated to hearing the embryonic stages of what might be a rich and grandiose full-blown superhero theme, and it's dignified and noble instead of audacious and glib. Commensurate with the mood of the film, there is a lot of stillness in the music. Key scenes sometimes go completely unscored altogether. It's a classic example of creating art being as much of a reductive process as an additative one, and Shyamalan does this better than anyone.
That many haven't seen Unbreakable or that it has been consigned to the recesses of public and academic consciousness is a great shame; instead of attempting to crank pacing, plot and pyrotechnics up to eleven, it dials everything back, and as a result, is perhaps one of the most restrained and meditative superhero films ever made.