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Sweet Suffering Superheroes! 

Unbreakable sags; George Washington shines

Wednesday, Nov 22 2000
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I won‘t say lightning never strikes twice, but when a director blessed, or cursed, with the stupendous success M. Night Shyamalan pulled off in his first big movie, reaches in his second for the same emotional payoff -- and cash receipts -- he risks self-parody. If you thought Bruce Willis was sad in The Sixth Sense, behold him in Unbreakable, moping around like an undertaker who hasn’t seen a corpse in months. And who wouldn‘t mope, with a lovely, sensitive wife (Robin Wright Penn) and an adoring son (Spencer Treat Clark) who looks like a slightly more chipper Haley Joel Osment? As if that weren’t enough to drag a man down, Willis‘ David Dunn has just walked away without a scratch from a train crash that killed every other passenger onboard. He’s quite literally unbreakable, a condition for which many of us would trade our lifetime supply of calcium supplements, but which he sees as his cross to bear.

Something is not right, and, as in The Sixth Sense, it is no less than the meaning of life. A former football star whose career was cut short by a car accident, David now drifts along as a security guard at a Philadelphia football stadium, a dead-end occupation that suddenly grows pregnant with significance when he meets his opposite number, Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a man who‘s broken in many places but whose intimate knowledge of the hero-villain dialectic in popular comic books compels him to introduce David to his higher purpose in life. The subtext of comic books as art form seems at once too much and too little. ”Comics are a form of history,“ huffs an incensed Elijah early on in Unbreakable. If so, then, at least in Shyamalan’s queasily unreconstructed reading, they‘re a disturbingly unreflective one, in which the good goes unquestioned as whiter than white, while the sinister (in a woolly wig and a suit apparently made of fiberglass, Samuel L. looks like a cross between a superannuated Michael Jackson and one of those awful golliwogs that disgraced Max Fleischer cartoons before we all knew better) is all inky black.

It’s rare for a horrormeister as gifted, in his quiet way, as Shyamalan to also be so astute a psychologist of ordinary human trouble. The Sixth Sense is a relationship movie with a gothic edge, a ghost story that‘s integral to the potent connection between a childless man who’s terrified he‘s losing his wife, and a fatherless boy whose life, despite the support of an impressive single mother, is blighted by memory and loss. If it’s also a message movie -- man and boy must help each other to heal and move on -- its soulful wit has a subtlety that makes the late, unlamented Pay It Forward look like a mental-hygiene movie about the benefits of being nice. Shyamalan has sauced Unbreakable with the same sorrowful tone and the same affection for the nutty particulars of domestic life -- there‘s a wonderfully funny scene with a defensive baby sitter, and another, at once frightening and amusing, about guns in the home.

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In Unbreakable, Shyamalan has reframed the supernatural elements of The Sixth Sense as a thriller, and it seems to have unnerved him. Cluttered with event, spurious coincidence, grandiloquently thematic speechifying and a surfeit of self-conscious visual style (time and again, people are looking at things upside down), the movie nevertheless feels oddly undercooked and aimless. Wearing but one face -- lethargic suffering -- Willis appears forever poised on the verge of tears or, worse, of cracking up into one of his Moonlighting smirks, to the point where he seems to be doing the Saturday Night Live version of his persona in The Sixth Sense. Absent a convincing source for his misery, we’re subjected to endless close-ups of his pained face, until the movie takes a last-minute, discordant lurch into gratuitous and unearned trauma. For dessert, there‘s an unpleasantly disclaiming twist at the end that seems stuck on with Scotch tape -- or the panic of a director who fears he has lost his audience.

Halfway through George Washington, which may turn out to be the finest American indie of the year, three black teenage boys and a pint-size white girl with long blond hair wander into an empty bathroom in a deserted amusement park. Trained in the coarse racial politics of Hollywood, one braces reflexively for a rape scene or an angry black-on-white confrontation mined for every last epithet, then capped by some hastily tacked-on strictures about how we can all get along. As it turns out something terrible does happen, but by this point the rural North Carolina world in which these kids live has been so lovingly, so vividly and completely fleshed out that we accept the event without question for what it is: an unintended consequence of some horsing around by a group of friends who have become color-blind after long proximity.

Like everything else in this unfashionably short film (it clocks in at a slim 89 minutes, but feels longer in the best sense), the casual interraciality of the kids is part of a broader, deeper physical and emotional landscape that director David Gordon Green, a 25-year-old white Texan, wants you to inhabit even more than he wants you to understand. For a man who pays the bills writing unreleased action movies, Green is quite the unhurried poet of small things. George Washington ambles languorously from one vignette to another, dwelling on boys talking about girls, girls doing their nails as they dissect boys, boys and girls meandering around the postindustrial wasteland that is what’s left of their town. Things happen, in a small way, and are narrated by one of the girls, Nasia (Candace Evanofski), who has ditched her boyfriend, Buddy (Curtis Cotton III), for the more soulful George (Donald Holden), a dreamer who was born with a soft fontanel in his head that would never harden. The tenderly comical love triangle that unfolds is drawn from a situation that arose among the nonprofessional cast (mostly plucked from local churches and youth centers), who holed up in a big house with the crew for the duration of the shoot. Which may be why the kids talk in language that‘s as intelligent, imaginative and spontaneous as it is blessedly free of Hollywood black-speak.

It’s clear that Green and his cinematographer, Tim Orr, have spent long and happy hours in the company of Terrence Malick‘s Days of Heaven. Shooting in Cinemascope, the camera sits still for long moments or pans slowly past old armchairs squatting in backyards, yellowed weeds thrusting up through railway tracks. A boy picks up an old suitcase and it flies open, releasing a gorgeous stream of water. A clutch of mechanics sits around discussing the finer points of health food. We also see a lovely church, and long afternoons splashing in a public pool, the landscape mirroring the richly anachronistic internal culture of a forgotten town that’s mired in poverty yet lives on, carried by long-established, unspoken habits of community and friendship. There‘s beauty in the squalor, and a kind of peace even in the profound unease that settles over the children -- especially the eponymous George -- after the accident in the bathroom. George Washington is wise beyond its director’s years, a particular film in the way that a great novel or documentary is particular: It‘s the details, the images, that establish the life. Unsettled by the accident and by another freak event that sets him up as a local hero, George wanders around town in a homemade Superman outfit, a sheet billowing out behind him, as he tries to get a grip on what’s happened. ”I hope you live forever,“ says Nasia. Me too.

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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