Unbreakable. 2000. Directed & Written by M. Night Shyamalan.
Starring Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Wright, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard, Eamonn Walker, Leslie Stefanson, & Michael Kelly. Touchstone Pictures/Blinding Edge Pictures/Barry Mendel Productions/Limited Edition Productions Inc.
Rated Pg. 106 minutes.
Everyone has their starkly contrasted opinions of M. Night Shyamalan. Despite his few rough patches over the years, recently he came back strong with the horror-thriller in found footage style The Visit, which I loved. Everyone knows of The Sixth Sense whether they’ve seen it or only heard of it. But Unbreakable is his definitive masterpiece. It is small and subdued, yet at the same time epic in scale. Shyamalan tells the story of superheroes, but in a contained and human fashion. The tales of good and evil were translated from gods of the Greek pantheon into comic books a hundred years ago. Shymalan’s film is one of the more contemporary takes on the superhero genre, without even directly coming out and saying the word, really. He boils it down to something smaller. Just like the character Elijah Price suggests, the stuff of those mythic comic heroes is tangible, exaggerated for flare and commercial interests. With a beautiful, rhythmic style, a steady pace that reveals the story in an exciting way, Shyamalan crafts one of the modern classics. This one is a work of art.
David Dunn (Bruce Willis) comes back from an interview via train and it goes off the rails. Everyone except him dies. He walks away “miraculously unharmed” which makes things all the more unbelievable. Soon, a man named Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) contacts him. From there they develop a strange connection, mostly insisted upon by Price. He believes David is his opposite. Elijah has a condition which causes his bones to break easily; he sees David as indestructible.
What their relationship comes to mean for David is life changing. Neither he nor Elijah will ever be the same again.
As David Dunn wakes up after the accident, he’s left to sit and watch the only other survivor waste away right in front of him. Terrifying. Then to walk away without a scratch, it’s got to be emotionally devastating to wonder, for him, how he was spared. This brings into question things like the nature of life, fate, for some it brings to mind ideas of God, et cetera. So before we know what’s happening there is a truly humanist root to the story being told.
The parallel between the characters is incredible. Obviously mirroring the relationship between heroes and villains in the comic books which Elijah loves so dearly. But more than that it’s a depiction of two men whose lives haven’t been easy or gone so smooth. Yet each turned out to be completely different despite coming up against adversity. Two ends of the spectrum.
Then the representation and symbolism to which Shyamalan attaches them is impressive writing. The fact we see Elijah primarily through reflections in mirrors and a television screen is telling. Later, we see him through reflections in his gallery. His identity is fragmented. In opposition, David is shown enduring physical crises, or experimenting with his power (see: weights in the basement with Joseph), his strength personified by physicality and supposed invincibility. His life, from his body to his pride, is defined through strength, through heroism.
Elijah: “It‘s all right to be afraid, David, because this part won‘t be like a comic book. Real life doesn‘t fit into little boxes that were drawn for it.”
Shyamalan’s film is perfectly shot. Each frame is downright marvelous. The composition of shots brings to life the panels of comic books, the movement of the camera takes us along with the characters as if through the panels and pages of a graphic novel. There are moments it’s less subtle, then at other points there are clear, though amazing, instances of the comic book treatment. While Shyamalan uses colours specifically in a lot of his pictures, Unbreakable has a faded, washed out sort of palette overall. Then he takes bright colours and uses them to signify points worth watching. Especially the colour red, which helps us track David Dunn’s sense of heroic vision. Certain shots call to mind the visually lyrical style of the comic world. For instance, when young Elijah receives a comic from his mother, the camera starts as we look at the book upside down and whirl around in a 360 before leveling out to see it right side up. My favourite: later in the film when David is in the house moving towards outside he appears through the drapes, closer and closer, just like a row of panel moving from one to the next. He’s even dressed almost constantly in hooded/caped rainwear, particularly during his job and then when he’s in the house with the hostage family later. There’s no cartoon-ish sense of comics here. Shyamalan brings the superhero world to real life, as best as he can. The mythic figures of the comic universe are no longer Greek god-like figures. Here, they become human, living souls with full lives, made up of the good and the bad. Unbreakable allows us to examine what those true-to-life heroes might look like.
Not everyone will see any film the same way. You can’t ever find a universal opinion on one movie, and you also cannot ever find a subjective opinion on a film. But to me, Unbreakable is one of the greats. It is a genuine masterpiece. There are so many things about it I love. Jackson is incredible. As is Willis, no matter what some say of his performance – he played a man dealing with something extraordinary, supernatural almost, and rightfully seems shocked or devastated in some way most of the time. They’re excellent together. Plus, Shyamalan does wonderful things here as director, which proves he has the chops; everybody makes a wrong step in their profession, at one time or another, so give him a break. A few of his movies are already classics. He’s a talented guy who can bring forth a lot of interesting themes through his writing, giving them life on film. This is one of those movies where he gives us a new way of looking at a subject, which just so happens to be darkly exciting, odd, and exciting at once.