Welcome to The Essentials, a series of articles originally published in 2016 that dared to try and create a list of essential movies for film lovers. This entry explores the essential superhero-film-in-disguise, ‘Unbreakable.’
Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan made a pair of little-seen indies in the ’90s before bursting onto the scene proper with The Sixth Sense in 1999, and he followed up the Bruce Willis-led hit with three more genre pictures achieving varying levels of success. Two of them are often viewed as failures despite each having earned $250 million worldwide, while the film they bookended, Signs, was a far bigger blockbuster proving he was more than just another one-hit wonder.
Shyamalan’s box-office touch disappeared starting with 2006’s Lady in the Water as audiences grew tired of his heavy hand and reliance on twist endings – and his insistence on casting himself in increasingly visible roles certainly didn’t help either. The Happening is acknowledged as a hilariously bad movie, The Last Airbender offended more fans than it satisfied, and After Earth was Will Smith’s first blockbuster bomb since Wild Wild West fourteen years earlier.
His brand became toxic, but then last year he shifted gears again by mashing together his genre interests with his early career financial restrictions. The Visit earned $100m on a $5m budget – a formula likely to return in January with his latest film, Split. It’s unclear when he’ll take another stab at a big budget feature, but I’d argue he’s overdue for a return to the larger-scale wonder he once delivered.
Specifically, it’s time for a return to 2000’s Unbreakable.
There are precisely two missteps in the film – and yes, I know it’s odd opening a piece in praise of a film by listing its weaknesses, but both are incredibly minor and instead serve to highlight everything else the movie gets so right. It opens with statistics on comic books and the people who collect them with the point being that they’re an important part of pop-culture, and it closes with text detailing what happens to one of the characters after the credits roll. Both instances are unnecessary and distracting – the first is an intrusion of irrelevant facts into a story about far less tangible things, and the second puts a bland lid on all that came before. See? Minor.
Because everything else about Unbreakable marks it as not only Shyamalan’s best film but also one of the finest superhero origin stories to ever grace the screen. It’s a beautifully-shot, smartly-written exploration of the value we place on ourselves and others, and it only grows in appreciation with each re-watch.
The film introduces us to two men, both broken in different ways, who find purpose and meaning through each other. Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) suffers from a rare condition that leaves his bones easily susceptible to breakage. The very act of his birth left him bruised and broken, and growing up he was forced to avoid connection and confrontation for fear of the painful result. His only solace came from comic books, and it was in their pages where he went looking to find himself.
David Dunn’s (Bruce Willis) life has been far different as his youthful physicality brought him success on and off the football field before falling in love, marrying his wife (Robin Wright), and fathering a son (Spencer Treat Clark). Recent years have been less fulfilling though as his marriage crumbles, he works a dead-end job, and his relationship with his son Joseph withers. David’s not a good man – we first meet him hiding his wedding ring to hit on a woman – but he becomes a great man throughout the course of the film.
A train crash leaves David the sole survivor, and that notoriety leads Elijah to his door. The brittle-boned man has been watching the news in search of his opposite – someone whose bones cannot break – as comics taught him that opposites exist to highlight opposing strengths and weaknesses. He leads David to the realization that his body’s ability to resist damage is a power meant for good, that subconsciously he’s known this all along even to the point of finding a job working as a security guard.
The back and forth between them is as we’d expect – David thinks the wild-haired Elijah is a nutter – but Shyamalan layers this exploration phase with unexpected moments of emotion involving Joseph. Scared by the visible degradation of his parents, the boy wants desperately for his dad to be the hero Elijah claims. It would make his dad special, but more than that it would make him the kind of man who’d work to keep his family together. Joseph’s struggle leads to moments both sweet (the scene where he tricks his father into lifting extraordinary amounts of weight) and tragic (his misguided and tense effort to prove his dad’s a hero by threatening to shoot him).
David’s adamant, but Elijah encourages him to explore his physical gift as well as his heightened sense of others’ misdeeds. That ability sets off the film’s greatest series of scenes as David “sees” the evil acts of strangers passing by him at a train station.
Just as he used the color red as a sign in The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan has evil pop against the collective grey with bright colors. The POV of David’s visions puts us above the crimes as James Newton Howard’s score raises our attention and pulse. A racist and a rapist tempt David’s vengeance, but it’s a man who may have committed murder who he follows to a house on a rainy night, and Shyamalan captures his most nightmarish sequence with atmosphere and visuals far more unsettling than anything he managed with The Visit or Split. There’s real terror and pain here as David rescues bound children and faces off against a human monster culminating in a violent, endurance-testing choke-hold captured in a single unbroken shot. (And don’t get me started on that terrifying pool-cover scene.)
It’s a masterful revelation of both purpose and power, and it’s done entirely on a human scale. There’s no CG spectacle or mass destruction, but we’re still on the edge of cheering aloud. Shyamalan tempers it with the rain and death, but rather than leave viewers hanging he channels our desire to fist-pump David’s accomplishment into something far more meaningful.
He returns home to a wife who’s been sleeping downstairs during their troubles, and we watch as he carries her up to bed. It’s a tender scene without dialogue and with the focus solely on Wright’s face as she glides up the stairs. She sells a recognition and remembrance of love for him solely through her expression, and it’s a magic all its own.
Joseph awakens the next morning to his parents talking, laughing, and growing comfortable with each other again. Clark’s face reveals a joyful satisfaction, but it’s nothing compared to what happens next. David silently pushes the paper across the table, Joseph sees the headline about the heroic rescue, and the boy’s faith in his father is rewarded through teary eyes and barely restrained smiles. This is Shyamalan’s crowning moment across his filmography as it finds such immense emotional highs without a word of dialogue.
Unbreakable is a softly spoken but immensely powerful origin story that embraces a slow pace to immerse us in the tale rather than hit us with its bombast. Shyamalan’s patented whopper of an ending – Elijah is the super villain to David’s hero and has killed hundreds in search of his counterpart – is as surprising as it is obvious (in retrospect at least). The two men have found each other, and with that they’ve found themselves. Sixteen years later, I’m still hoping we’ll get to see them meet again.
“These are mediocre times. People are starting to lose hope. It’s hard for many to believe there are extraordinary things inside themselves as well as others.”
Related Topics: The Essentials