Synopsis: Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson star in a mind-shattering, suspense-filled thriller that stays with you long after the end of this riveting supernatural film. After David Dunn (Willis) emerges from a horrific train crash as the sole survivor – and without a single scratch on him – he meets a mysterious stranger (Jackson). An unsettling stranger who believes comic book heroes walk the earth. A haunting stranger whose obsession with David will change David’s life forever.
eyelights: the clever camera work. the genius concept. the crafty script. the jaw-dropping ending. the gorgeous soundtrack. the potent performances.
eyesores: Spencer Treat Clark’s performance.
“…to answer your question, there are two reasons why I’m looking at you like this. One because it seems in a few minutes you will officially be the only survivor of this train wreck, and two, because you didn’t break one bone, you don’t have a scratch on you.”
Maybe it’s because I’m a mild comic book geek, but I’m a huge fan of ‘Unbreakable’. Not only do I think that it’s the best M. Night Shyamalan film (I know that many would argue in favour of ‘The Sixth Sense’ or even ‘Signs’ first, but I’m much more impressed with this one), I also consider it one of, if not the best, superhero movie ever made. Yes, even more so than the Christopher Reeve films, which I cherish.
Basically, I regard it highly for being a well-crafted, unusually clever picture. It appears to me as though Shyamalan put a lot of thought into his story and then as much into putting it on the screen. He decided to make a movie about a superhero and comic books, but he also made his movie as a sort of cinematic comic book, following many of the genre conventions in a subtle fashion.
Alliterated names? Check!
Power-negating vulnerability? Check!
Insane archenemy? Check!
Hero and villain colour schemes? Check!
But good luck noticing these elements upon the first viewing: Shyamalan designed his picture so that every shot would be masterful eye-candy, providing much to focus on at first viewing. The camerawork is so self-consciously clever, one imagines that Shyamalan either wanted to prove himself or thought it would be a rare opportunity to be showy (you never know when you’ll get your next break!) and went all out.
Just that first shot, with Bruce Willis in the train, giving us the perspective of the little girl in the seat in front of him, was total genius: the camera was placed in such a way that we could see both Willis’ character David Dunn, and the seat next to him, when it panned slightly from left to right. Most of the scene was filmed from this “fly-on-the-wall’ angle, giving an intimate vibe and serving up technical mastery at once.
And that was just the first shot.
Shyamalan purposely constructed ‘Unbreakable’ to be reminiscent of comic book panels, composing many shots in such a way that they would look like they actually had a frame around them. But he consciously also added subtextual (and decidedly cool) elements such as using mirrors or glass to reflect Dunn’s friend, Elijah Price, whose bones are so brittle that he was called “Mister Glass” when he was a kid.
There is so much thought put into each moment of the picture, it’s a virtual smorgasbord for film buffs. It’s quite the achievement; no wonder it’s Shyamalan’s favourite film of his.
‘Unbreakable’ is an origin story. It tells the story of David Dunn, who is beginning to suspect that he isn’t exactly like everyone else after walking away from a disastrous train wreak, from which he is the lone survivor. At first in complete denial of his potential, he meets Price, who would try to figure out his powers with him. From there on in, Dunn will begin to discover what he is actually capable of doing.
It may seem bland and/or déjà vu, but, in Shyamalan’s hands, ‘Unbreakable’ is more than just an origin story: it’s also a human story. Shyamalan shaped ‘Unbreakable’ in such a way that it feels real: he didn’t give his hero godlike superhuman power, just a few unusual abilities beyond the scope of the average human being. He also gave him realistic problems and relationships, to better ground him.
Dunn’s home life is slowly eroding. Still cohabiting, he and his spouse no longer sleep in the same room, and he is looking for work in another city. They have a son, with whom he is bonded, but the household is cold, virtually barren. His work is also portrayed as drab and uninspiring: a security guard, he is shown standing in the rain at a football stadium, or just watching fans lining up to get inside.
Where Peter Parker had teenage problems, David Dunn has adult doldrums. He’s middle-aged, and his life has not quite turned out the way that he would have liked it to. But little does he know that he subconsciously sabotaged himself during his college years, when he was a football superstar; despite his abilities, he chose to have the life that is now crumbling before his eyes, powerless to stop it.
One of my favourite moments of the whole picture, bizarrely enough, is the moment when David and his spouse, Audrey, decide to try again and go out on a date. Sitting at a bar in a high end restaurant, they are basically rediscovering each other, asking each other the kinds of questions one would ask on a first date. When Audrey tells him that her favourite song is Prince’s “Soft and Wet’, David is astonished.
What makes the moment so memorable to me is that, not only are they trying to reconnect, it’s that they are learning about each other, after years of growing apart. If they like what they see is another matter, but, in finding just how removed they have become from one another, they are now in a position to cross that chasm. There was hope in that moment, and spark; it felt like they were falling in love again.
Call me a sentimental putz, if you must, but I really dug that.
Another of my favourite moments is when David’s son, Joseph (who has heard Elijah discuss his potential with his dad and believes it), pushes him to test the extent of his strength. This is when David finally comes to realize that he’s no mere mortal: while he’s lifting weights in the basement, Joseph adds more weights than he should have. When David realizes that he had underestimated himself, they add even more.
And more. And more. Until they run out of things to add.
The complicity between the two was phenomenal. While I’m no fan of Spencer Treat Clark’s performance (he’s no Haley Joel Osment!), this moment was potent with nervousness, love and wonderment. I can’t help but laugh gleefully each time I see this scene, with Joseph standing further and further from David, each time that they add weights – it illustrated not just David’s desire that Joseph remain safe, but also just how dangerous what he was doing had become.
There were also some great moments between Elijah and his mom. Although it tested credulity, there’s this very sweet moment when she pushes him to get out of the house by leaving comics outside for him. This not only informed the character in many ways, but it gave us a real sense of the adoration that she had for her brittle child, and her concern not just for his physical health, but also his emotional health. Charlayne Woodard is brilliant here.
The thing with ‘Unbreakable’ is that it moves me, something that most superhero films can’t do. There are tender moments between people here (father-son, husband-wife, mother-son and between friends), that feel extremely real to me. Beyond all the cleverness and visual pizzazz, ‘Unbreakable’ connects to real emotions and makes its characters relatable in so many ways, essentially transcending the core material itself.
Of course, it helps that most of our leads are able to deliver:
I’m no fan of Bruce Willis, who seems trapped in the same roles, sleep-walking his way from one performance to the next, but he pulled off David’s weariness marvelously; one truly gets the sense that he’s worn-down, unable to get a handle on his life, feeling slightly deflated at all times. There’s a subtlety to his performance, gradual shifts that are quite impressive to see – especially if one only knows him for ‘Die Hard’.
Samuel L. Jackson can obviously command the screen, but he also doesn’t pick his films judiciously. With Elijah Price, he steals each moment he’s in. Shyamalan did the right thing in making him the counterpoint to Willis because Elijah’s intense where David is meek. Jackson makes his character more than merely a flashy comic book character, providing him with a fire and intelligence that was crucial to his credibility.
Robin Wright Moore is really quite good as Audrey. Julianne Moore was apparently due to play Audrey, but dropped out to play Clarice in ‘Hannibal’. Honestly, as much as I adore Moore, and have ambivalent feelings for Robin Penn Wright, I think that Penn Wright is absolutely perfect for the part – I’ve never seen her better, and wouldn’t want Moore in her stead. She imbues Audrey with just the right amount of fragility and guardedness to flesh her out.
A major highlight of ‘Unbreakable’, aside from its visual splendour, is its music, which underlies and enhances the whole picture. James Newton Howard has created a standout motion picture score, making it delicate, sumptuous, and dramatic at once. It doesn’t even fit the superhero genre in the traditional sense, not indulging in the usual grandeur, but that’s partly what makes it stand out from the rest.
James Newton Howard Has been collaborating with M. Night Shyamalan since ‘The Sixth Sense’ but, of all their combined efforts, ‘Unbreakable’ is by far my favourite (admittedly, the music to ‘The Village’ is also quite good): I’ve played the CD a gazillion times and can’t seem to get sick of it. I don’t know what makes it so remarkable, exactly, but its main theme is forever stuck to the roof of my mind.
‘Unbreakable’ is a journey of discovery for audiences and its characters alike: for audiences, it’s all about discovering the characters, the complexities of their relationships, their respective histories, and the mysteries that are hidden below their surfaces. For the characters, it’s about self-discovery, rediscovering each other, and discovering their full potential, individually and with each other.
Sure, it takes place in a world where superpowers inexplicably exist, but it’s rooted in real-life situations and dynamics, making it effortless for audiences to imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes. What would you do if you found out that you were more powerful than the average human being? And what would you do if you knew someone who was? How does that tie into everyday complications?
Critics will argue that M. Night Shyamalan tends to portray situations or motivations simplistically, perhaps even naïvely. This may be true, but it’s part of his genius at times, too. Where other filmmakers will contrive to the Nth degree and overstimulate us, Shyamalan tries to stimulate the imagination and our emotions with a purity that was eroded by cynicism and the bleakness of modern life decades ago.
This particular story is viewed through the prism of “good versus evil”, where the good guys are good, and the bad guys are bad – not grey and/or muddled as they would be in any other film. What complicates matters in their stories is the complexity of life, not our characters’ ambivalent intentions or confused morality. It has a classic palette that has been transferred to our modern reality without changing the characters’ hearts.
While the simplicity of its messages may not succeed in such films as ‘The Happening’ (and I’m a moderate fan of the picture), it works beautifully in a comic book setting such as ‘Unbreakable’ or a fairy-tale setting such as ‘The Lady in the Water‘ – after all, these are mediums that, originally, were intended as morality plays for young people. Shyamalan is adept at this type of storytelling, as evidenced here.
For some people, M. Night’s masterpiece is ‘The Sixth Sense’. For me, it will likely always remain ‘Unbreakable’: it captures my imagination, stimulates my senses, captivates me, and leaves me entirely satisfied in the end. truly, the only thing that has prevented it from being regarded as the modern masterpiece it well deserved to be, are the massive expectations sown by its predecessor.
…and the dismissal of comic books as a legitimate form of storytelling (something which has changed dramatically since).
Had ‘Unbreakable’ been released ten year later, and forgetting the fact that the once-hailed filmmaker has tumbled from grace (possibly beyond redemption) since, Shyamalan’s brilliantly-crafted picture would have been a far greater critical and commercial success – and would have garnered him much more respect. Even to this day, its quality and skill are remarkable and absolutely unmistakable.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
Post scriptum: I am still in total awe of how the ending slowly pounced on us. I know that some folks saw it coming, but most of the people I know didn’t, even though it should be self-evident. The ending is brilliant for its simplicity and ingenuity: somehow, M. Night Shyamalan managed to subtly divert our attention throughout the picture to the degree that we couldn’t see the forest for the trees – something he excels at.
Even now, knowing well ahead of time what the ending is, I watch ‘Unbreakable’ and don’t find that he lets on anything that he shouldn’t. The whole time he plays it cool, casually having our characters mingle and then giving us the impression that David’s found his villain, even though that was actually just a side-story. The actual reveal is something that takes place in conversation, when all should be winding down, and remains almost as devastating to me as it was the first time.
And if that doesn’t attest to the power of ‘Unbreakable’, nothing ever could.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
Date of viewing: August 25, 2013