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.
“I still don’t understand their problem,” he says. “I guess they just came in with such weird expectations. You know what I think hurt us? Nobody knew it was a comic-book movie. At the premiere, before the people saw the movie, I said, ‘Actually, this movie’s about comic books, and it’s about every child’s belief that his father is a superhero, and what if one kid is right?’ Everybody was like, ‘Whoooooa.’ And then, literally, the place was rockin‘, and all the old ladies said, ‘That was the most beautiful thing. I’ve never been interested in comic books before,’ and they got it. There wasn’t this kind of resentment of, ‘Oh, The Sixth Sense‘s ending was so much better.’ What is that about? If I released them in a different order, people would be like, ‘Wow, The Sixth Sense‘s body was really weak, but the ending was pretty good.’ You’re damned if you do and…whatever. And with some critics, there’s a little bit of, ya know, it’s time to take my punches on my arm—the initiation rites. That’s cool. Whatever.”
It’s clear that Shyamalan has thought long and hard about the ending of Unbreakable and the reaction to it, because he offers up a handful of reasons why people are reacting negatively to it. As far as he’s concerned, The Sixth Sense had an uplifting conclusion: When Malcolm discovers he is in fact the walking dead, he finds peace at last; no more roaming and moping, no more wondering why his wife won’t acknowledge his presence. The film’s tension dissipates, and the sadness is gone, allowing audiences to walk out feeling as though they had just witnessed a happy ending. But this time around, they feel only betrayal: A character they felt sympathetic toward—this man made of glass—has been revealed as evil incarnate.
“And that’s a very negative thing, a real what-the-fuck? ending,” Shyamalan says. “It’s like, ‘I was loving him, and now you make me distrust that, and I don’t like that feeling.’ The irony is, the people who didn’t like the ending are in a weird way sympathizing with the movie more than people who like the movie, because they come out so upset. They’re like Bruce Willis walking out of Elijah’s store. They’re in this world of upset, thinking, ‘What now?’ But in some weird way, the reaction to the ending is sort of liberating. The basic thing is, no one has said, ‘I didn’t like the movie because I guessed the ending.’ I got you again…
“I particularly enjoy twists, ya know? Not twists like plot movement, which is all there; it’s all part of the storytelling already. I am talking about fundamental twists at the end. That’s something I enjoy, and I did it before people liked me doing it. I did it in Wide Awake at the end, and nobody gave a shit about it. I did it way before anyone paid me or came or anything like that. I wish with Sixth Sense, they had said, ‘It was a much better twist than Wide Awake,’ but they didn’t even know I had made another movie.”
It has often been written of Shyamalan that his is an affable, disarming arrogance. He compares himself to Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg and insists he wants to be “the storyteller for the mass audience”—what gall, what nerve. He compares the criticism of Unbreakable to the jibes once given Spielberg for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which some critics thought at the time was a ponderous come-down after the thrill ride of Jaws. Then, Shyamalan turns around and insists he also has a responsibility to fulfill the needs of the audience. He thought crowds would be dazzled and uplifted by Unbreakable, especially the scenes in which David finally dons his superhero cowl to rescue a family held hostage by a madman. He thought those moments would provide such an incredible release that audiences would allow that high to temper the film’s final low (or low blow, depending upon your point of view). He was wrong, much to his surprise…and, perhaps, dismay.
You get the sense the reaction to Unbreakable—which, Shyamalan says, is not the first film in a trilogy, as Bruce Willis suggested last month—has, in a sense, humbled him. It has knocked the wind and Oscar nominations out of his sails a bit. He says, repeatedly, that he is listening to and absorbing the criticism. “I’m hearing them,” he says of his critics. “I am interested.” But if he is bowed, he is unbroken. He insists Wide Awake, The Sixth Sense, and Unbreakable have been about one thing: the need to find one’s place in this world. He likes to write about such things because he has long believed that filmmaking is what he was meant to do. Just as David was meant to be a superhero, M. Night was meant to be a writer and director. Sometimes it’s easy to confuse confidence in one’s abilities with arrogance, but no filmmaker in recent memory has accomplished what he has, especially at so young an age. M. Night Shyamalan is 30 years old, and already he is a name brand.
“That was the main goal with this movie—to put the stamp on my voice,” he says. “If, back in the day, you heard somebody say, ‘It’s a movie about a guy trapped in an elevator directed by Alfred Hitchcock,’ you’d be like, ‘Yeah, I am all over that!’ Now, in a weird way, I’ve got a little of that going for me. You tell someone it’s a movie about a guy trapped in an elevator directed by M. Night Shyamalan, that person will go, ‘Ooooh, but he’s not really in an elevator, is he?’ The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable are where I found my voice, and it feels really good to be talking in it finally, and there’s so much more I want to say. I’m just learning how to talk, and I feel like I found my own way of storytelling, which is awesome in this day and age, when everything’s derivative of everything else. With my movies, audiences don’t have anything to compare it to. This one, some of them said it reminded them of Sixth Sense, obviously, but nothing else.” He laughs—giggles, actually. “That’s a great achievement at the end of the day, so I feel real lucky about that.”