“This is an art gallery, my friend, and this is a piece of art.”
Spoilers for a 14-year-old movie to follow.
Superhero movies, and movies inspired by comic books, are legion. Marvel just announced they’ve got a plan laid out to make movies long after your grandkids have locked you away in a nursing home on the moon, and this weekend, Captain America: The Winter Soldier will make a bazillion dollars. It’s commonplace now to expect several superhero movies a year. But in 2000, that wasn’t the case. Superhero films were a riskier property then. Batman & Robin had come out in 1997, and the Batman franchise wouldn’t recover for another 8 years.
It was with some risk that M. Night Shyamalan made Unbreakable, which was a superhero movie that took superheroes and comic books seriously, back when such an idea was considered ludicrous. Shyamalan had two things working in his favor:
1. He was coming fresh off of The Sixth Sense, which was a massive hit and launched him into superstardom (remember those days?!).
2. The film was not marketed as a “superhero” movie.
The trailers for Unbreakable were purposefully vague. All we knew was that the film looked moody, it featured both the director and star of The Sixth Sense, and it involved a man who miraculously survived a train wreck without a scratch on him.
I remember seeing the film with friends, excited for whatever was about to happen. Then an opening text started talking about comic books and comic book collectors. The person sitting next to me leaned over and said, incredulously, “Is this about comic books?” I shrugged.
Unbreakable isn’t really about comic books or superheroes; what it’s about is the idea that there are real people out there who inspire such creations. David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is a man in a bit of a stupor. His marriage to his wife Audrey (Robin Wright) is falling apart, and he long ago gave up a football career after an auto accident. He works as a security guard, is somewhat distant with his son (Spencer Treat Clark), and pretty much looks miserable all of the time.
While traveling home from a job interview, the train David is on derails. All 131 people on board the train are killed—except David. And not only does he survive, but he survives without any injuries at all. This seemingly impossible (even miraculous) event jars David from his walking stupor, and he’s even more intrigued when he finds a note left on his car windshield asking him if he’s ever been sick. Thinking back, David realizes that in fact he hasn’t. Not once, in his entire life, has he ever gotten a cold or the flu or even a runny nose.
David seeks out the man who left him the note, Elijah, played by Samuel L. Jackson back before he started phoning in all his performances and yelling a lot. We’ve seen through flashbacks that Elijah suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta, a disease that causes his bones to break very easily. He is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from David; David is seemingly UNBREAKABLE (that’s a titular line!) whereas Elijah has spent a good portion of his life recovering from illnesses. And he’s used his recovery time to become a comic book expert, studying comics from his hospital bed. He even runs a rare comic book art museum, where he angrily kicks out people coming in to buy things for their kids.
When David meets with Elijah, Elijah explains his philosophy that comic books have some basis in real life. “I’ve come to believe that comics are our last link to the ancient way of passing history,” he tells David. “The Egyptians drew pictures on walls…countries all around the world still pass on knowledge through pictorial forms. I believe that comics…have a truth. They are depicting what someone, somewhere felt or experienced.” And Elijah says he’s also wondered that if there’s someone like himself in the world—someone BREAKABLE (whoa!) — perhaps there’s someone the complete opposite, someone who was put on this planet to protect us.
David thinks this is a bunch of malarky, and understandably so. But it isn’t long before David is testing his “powers,” and discovering that Elijah may be on to something. Not only is David impervious to harm — he also has super strength and powers of extra-sensory perception; he can touch someone and see the “bad deeds” the person has done.
As David hones his skills and powers, he begins to find his place in the world. He becomes a real hero, his marriage is on the mend, and everything seems pretty great for David Dunn, or Rain Slicker Man, as the papers call him (not really). But, this being a M. Night Shyamalan movie, there has to be a twist ending. Shyamalan even has a huge wink to himself early in a flashback scene with Elijah and his mother, where she, describing a comic book, says, “I HEAR THIS ONE HAS A TWIST ENDING!” It’s easy these days to laugh at Shyamalan and his overdone twist ending routine, but keep in mind this was only the second time he’d done it. And I actually think the twist works, because it’s not a cheat; it’s actually hinted at all through the film.
David goes to thank Elijah for helping him discover his true purpose, and Elijah reveals the truth: that he was the one who caused David’s train to crash. And not just that—he also was responsible for several other “accidents,” which have led to hundreds of deaths. Elijah committed all these horrible acts to draw David out, because if David is a superhero, Elijah realizes his own place in the world is to be a super villain. Had the film just ended with this twist, and with David looking stunned and horrified, the film would work 100%. Unfortunately, Shyamalan throws in a weird caption at the end explaining that David turned Elijah over to the police; it’s jarring and, frankly, stupid. This isn’t an episode of Law & Order, nor is it based on a true story; we didn’t need a text wrap-up telling us what happened.
Unbreakable is not often brought up these days. It’s easy to see why; it is, after all, a M. Night Shyamalan film, and we all know he’s a total joke now. But in his early career, before fame went to his head, the man had real talent. Unbreakable is, in my humble opinion, Shyamalan’s best film. It’s more assured than The Sixth Sense, and it’s directed with a more skillful eye (and that’s no knock against The Sixth Sense, which is also very well directed; this film just surpasses it). Willis’ performance is colder in this film than in The Sixth Sense, but it’s also one of his best. Willis can actually be a pretty great actor when he’s not sleepwalking through endless Die Hard sequels. Early in the film, when he delivers this line, it’s heartbreaking: “Did you know that this morning was the first morning I can remember that I didn’t open my eyes and feel…sadness?” You can feel that misery in Willis’ line-delivery, that overwhelming sense of not knowing his place in the world.
Jackson’s performance is equally great. The man has turned into a bit of a parody of himself, but when he’s on, he’s really on (see Django Unchained for a recent example). Jackson’s Elijah is just as unsure of his place in the world as Willis’ character, but there’s a harder edge to the character that perfectly sets up his villainous nature at the end. And even when Jackson reveals that he is David’s arch nemesis (he even has a villainous nickname; the kids growing up called him Mr. Glass!), there’s a sorrow present. Elijah feels bad being David’s villain, but he submits to the idea that that is his purpose in the world. After all, Elijah could’ve easily gotten away with being the bad guy; he chooses to get caught by taking off his glove and letting David shake his hand, thus enabling David’s extra-sensory powers to sense all of the horrible stuff Elijah has done.
Shyamalan’s script takes time for great little character moments. Robin Wright’s Audrey could’ve easily just shrunk into the background as “the wife,” but there’s actual depth to her character. There’s a sweet and sad little scene in which David takes Audrey out on a date, as they try to rekindle their marriage, and the characters try to pinpoint a specific moment at which they realized their marriage was fading. You can tell Audrey still loves David; she just doesn’t love the sad sack he’s become, drifting through life with a permanent mopey look on his face.
Christopher Nolan often gets credit for finally taking comic books (Batman, specifically) “seriously.” This is understandable, especially after the neon-lit monstrosity the Bat-franchise had become. But five years before, in 2000, M. Night Shyamalan used his newfound clout to take a risk and make a movie that didn’t treat superheroes and comic books as kid stuff but rather as a link to passing history. We can laugh all we want at his new, terrible movies, but we should be kinder to this film. It’s underrated.