David Dunn, an ex-jock security guard with a failing marriage, is the sole survivor of a train derailment. Approached by Elijah Price, a dealer in comic book art who suffers from a rare brittle bone syndrome, Dunn comes to wonder whether Price’s theory that he has superhuman abilities might not hold water.
As the makers of Blair Witch 2 discovered, the hardest gig in the movies is to follow up something that seemed to come from nowhere and took audiences by surprise. The second time around, everyone is ready for you.
Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan hasn’t made an actual sequel to his breakthrough hit, The Sixth Sense, but he has reteamed with star Bruce Willis, come up with another story of everyday folk baffled by the supernatural (or at least, unknown-to-science), and returned to a Philadelphia presented as a wintery haunt of the bizarre yet transcendent.
This time round, Willis (in earnest, agonised, hair-free Twelve Monkeys mode) has the paranormal abilities, and a superbly un-typecast Samuel L. Jackson is the investigator who digs into someone else’s strange life to prompt startling revelations about his own.
David Dunn is first seen on a train which is set to crash. Following the wreck, everyone else is dead, but not Dunn, who wanders ghost-like out of the hospital leaving behind doctors confused by the fact that he hasn’t broken a single bone. He is accepted back into his family home by wife Audrey, who feels his survival is a sign they should give their faltering marriage another go, and adoring young son Joseph.
Before we meet Dunn, we’re presented with some statistics about sales of comic books in America, and a 1961 prologue in which a black woman (Woodard) gives birth to a baby with such brittle bones that his arms and legs are broken during the delivery.
Elijah Price, nick-named ‘Mr. Glass’ at school, has grown up to be a strange combination of comic book geek, New Age zealot and crippled mastermind. Convinced that his own fragility represents one end of the spectrum of human possibilities, Elijah believes Dunn is his opposite, a real-life superhero archetype.
Many viewers won’t be able to get past the premise, which means some audiences will treat the film as they would a real-life raving crank, but Shyamalan tackles his idea with almost no irony. Willis plays the realisation that he might be set apart from humanity with a quivering uncertainty, strikingly at odds with the bright-coloured glee of a Marvel or DC character.
The primal scene of Superman bouncing a bullet off his chest is rewritten as an amazing kitchen confrontation, as Joseph pulls the family gun on Dad (in front of Mum) in a desperate attempt to convince him that he really is unbreakable (surely Invulnerable would have been a more apt title).
Throughout, the film refers to comic book imagery — with Dunn’s security guard slicker coming to look like a cape, and Price’s gallery taking on elements of a Batcave-like lair — and the lectures on artwork and symbolism actually feed back into the plot.
The last act offers a terrific suspense-thriller scene (similar to the family-saving of The Sixth Sense), which is a self-contained sub-plot that slingshots a twist which may have been obvious all along. However, even those who can get past the ‘Last Son of Krypton’ plot may find the end unsatisfying, closing off developments rather than letting the premise expand into the mythic battle that is suggested.
Great performances, moments and ideas. If it doesn’t provide the tidy ending that made The Sixth Sense a talking-point, that might not be a bad thing. Expect an argument afterwards over the difference between silly and profound.