In preparation for Glass, I decided to revisit Unbreakable, the M. Night Shyamalan-directed follow-up to the sleeper hit, The Sixth Sense. A slow-burn meditation on the ideas of heroism and superpowers in a real-world setting, at the time, it seemed to arrive in a way that few knew what to do with it (myself included, as I was in middle school), but it’s a film that I have loved for years since I myself revisited it and latched onto it again in college. Ahead of its time, as it arrived in 2000, the same year as the original X-Men movie and prior to superheroes essentially owning the cinema landscape, it doesn’t feature flashy special-effects or really any major action sequences at all; instead, it is much more of a character drama than we were or even still are accustomed to after comic-book culture has taken over. I could even say that it informed my college studies, as its reflections on the characteristics of heroes and villains began a deeper look I made for a required project for my communication degree. Few movies since and none before are really like it, and because of this, it’s a love-it-or-hate-it type of film.
In it, we follow David Dunn (Bruce Willis, in one of his most effective performances ever), a Philadelphia security guard aboard Eastrail #177. When the train violently crashes, he alone is the sole survivor, and he walks away without even a scratch. While attending the memorial service of the victims, he is alerted by a note left on his car with a simple message asking if he’s ever been sick. This leads him to meet Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson, whose performance quietly commands the screen in every scene), a comic-book art curator with a debilitating condition of osteogenesis imperfecta that leaves his bones prone to easy breakage. His meeting with David begins an uneasy friendship that enlightens David to see that he is capable of much more than he ever knew possible. With a film that is nearly 19 years old, you might wonder why I wouldn’t divulge full spoilers, but readers can go elsewhere for that. Uncovering much more robs the film of its surprises.
Most superhero films before and after Unbreakable play by certain conventions of action and humor, but this film isn’t interested in doing that. While hero sequences might often play out on city streets or other worlds, here, the thrills that stick with us occur in kitchens and basements and in ways that might feel mundane to some. Still, these moments stuck with me even more than most any CGI-rendered slugfest could. David’s wife, Audrey, is played by Robin Wright Penn, and well before her regaining acclaim with House of Cards, she displays here that she was always capable of giving honest performances. Their marriage and the work they do to stay together is stuff you wouldn’t expect in a film about heroes, and it’s a tenuous relationship that works on-screen as believable. It underscores the humanity of David, and it gives us a much more effective look at relationships than we usually get within a super-hero film. Their son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), isn’t a typical child role, as he too makes the character feel real. One scene, in particular, was shot as a single take, and few child actors have produced work that good, especially given the tension of that scene. His character is said to return in Glass, so it will be interesting to see how aging has changed his relationship with his dad.
Samuel L. Jackson, aside from swinging his purple lightsaber, usually is known for his fast-talking, heavy shouting in roles, and with this non-typical role, he creates one of my favorite characters he’s ever played with his distinctive look and mannerisms. Funny enough, the roles of David and Elijah were written specifically for Willis and Jackson, respectively, and even as they give the actors unique challenges playing against type, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing either role. Their physical characteristics and clothing even accentuate themes of the story, which makes everything even more interesting.
However one feels about the film with pacing and excitement, it is undeniably a gorgeously shot one. Comics inform the story, but even more so, they inform the film’s use of color and framing. If any aspiring comics artist would care to draw this film as it was shot, I’ll be the first to buy it. Kinetic may not be an overall descriptor of the film, but deliberate is most definitely. Characters shot in reflection, numerous one-take shots, twists in perspective, sequential plot elements revealed in single-frame shots, the feeling of loneliness that comes just from cinematography…I can keep going. While the “Gotcha!” surprise of The Sixth Sense made a name for Shyamalan, this film proved he was more than a fluke. Sure, he’s suffered some misfires (largely in trying to live up to delivering surprises), but this film showed he has the goods to make great original stories.
Unbreakable evokes comics, but it is very much its own thing, saying things about comic books and the cultural morality we have taken from them and placing it very much in a relatable and relevant world. While violence and mayhem have almost become mundane occurrences (and sadly, they prove increasingly to be), this film alludes to possible reasons why. Cameras rolled almost a year to date following the Columbine massacre, and I have read a review from not long after the film’s release that has an interesting perspective on how that event could have shaped a message the film shares (SPOILER ALERT).
Content-wise, there is some language and disturbing scenes, but much of that disturbance comes from what is known occurred, but not explicitly shown. It’s an incredibly effective storytelling method that isn’t employed that much anymore. There is no sexual content or the like here. While children wouldn’t necessarily gravitate to a film that deconstructs heroes and villains, there is far less objectionable content than I’ve even found in some Marvel movies. The film’s examination of relationships, heroism, villainy, and loneliness still hold up today, even after countless films have come and gone in the superhero genre. I remember it more than most films of its time, and it is almost prescient in its handling of themes, making it great fodder for discussion, spiritual or otherwise, and keeping me ready for a full-fledged follow-up after 19 years.
All-in-all, Unbreakable‘s somber tone and slower pace will definitely not appeal to all moviegoers, and that’s perfectly fine. I think the genre, whether it looks at established heroes or freshly-created ones, has room for a multitude of interpretations. Still, for those interested in understanding the psychology of what makes heroes and villains tick, there are few films I could recommend any higher. I plan to revisit this film every few years, as I did again for this review, as what it says is even more relevant to today’s world than when it was made.
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