The 29-year-old M. Night Shayamalan was brought up in Philadelphia, the son of sub-continental Indian parents, both of them doctors. He started to make short movies at the age of 10 and decided at 17 that he wanted to become a professional filmmaker, attending film school in New York rather than studying medicine.
Shayamalan's third film The Sixth Sense (its two low-budget predecessors made little impact and weren't released here) garnered six Oscar nominations and became the tenth most profitable film of all time.
Like The Sixth Sense, Shayamalan's new film, Unbreakable, is an occult thriller, and it too is set in Philadelphia, and stars Bruce Willis as a traumatised victim of violence. In this case Willis plays David Dunn, a former college football star with a tottering marriage and an unrewarding job as security officer at a university sports stadium. He emerges unscathed as the sole survivor of a railway accident in which 131 people die.
As David comes to terms with his miraculous delivery he's contacted by Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), the well-off African-American owner of a gallery dealing in original art works by comic book illustrators. Since birth, Elijah has suffered from a severe form of osteoporosis that results in constant fracturing of his bones, and he's in search of someone at the other end of the spectrum - someone like David who appears indestructible. Such a person, he believes, must have superhuman powers that could make him a hero comparable to those of ancient times, a type kept alive in purest form, so he argues, by comic books.
The Old Testament names (Elijah the prophet who sought to purify society and predated the coming of the Messiah; David the heroic leader and man of destiny) hint at the underlying allegory. With some subtlety the director traces the increasing if uneasy involvement of the two men and how one makes the other aware of his predetermined role.
As in The Sixth Sense the dark, lowering city provides a portentous setting for the story. Sometimes we're made to see events from the characters' point of view, as when we watch TV upside down through the eyes of David's hero-worshipping son looking at a newsreel of the train crash, or we observe a would-be assassin on a railway platform from the twisted perspective of Elijah after he's fallen down a flight of stairs and fractured several bones. More often, however, there are long takes in deep focus in which we overhear conversations at some distance, with bars, staircases, rows of restaurant tables, the seats of a railway carriage or open doors between the camera and the people we're listening to.
A visual tour-de-force occurs when David becomes aware of his unusual powers at night on the railway station concourse. His mind takes in confusing information about the depredations of those he bumps into, and he has to decide whose victims are most worthy of his heroic attentions. Shyamalan, however, doesn't know how to resolve his picture. It ends abruptly, surprisingly and shockingly, and one leaves vaguely dissatisfied. But it's a film to see, to enjoy, and perhaps to ponder.