A man with no purpose knows only stagnation, and to strive with no purpose is like running in place. Eventually the heart runs out. It’s even worse if you feel that you have potential. Such a man might get existential. He might begin to distance himself from the life that he’s built and all the choices that he’s made. If he has a family, he might begin to resent each member. It’s a bleak reality for many people in society, but not one that’s often visited in film; certainly not in mainstream Hollywood cinema. But in the year 2000, off the heels of his massive, and to this day, greatest success in The Sixth Sense (1999), M. Night Shyamalan made Unbreakable, a film rooted in middle aged angst made digestible by its comic book, superhero trappings. A film about David Dunne, a forty year old security guard unaware that he’s special- that he’s superhuman-and Elijah Price, a man who finds his purpose in showing David his.
When we first meet David, he’s aboard a train failing painfully to flirt with a pretty passenger in an adjacent seat. We see him remove his wedding ring, and I’m thinking, this is our protagonist? Next, he’s sitting in a hospital bed talking to a baffled doctor. Shyamalan films this scene with David in the background and a patient in a more critical condition being operated on in the foreground. David is told that he’s been in a train accident, and only two people have survived. One, is the patient that we see being worked on (minutes from death) and the other is himself, with no scratches or broken bones. Thus setting in motion his encounters with Elijah, a comic book dealer obsessed with the idea that super-humans are not just in comics, but walk the Earth as he does. Elijah suffers from a disease that makes his bones especially brittle and he believes that there must be people on the opposite end of the spectrum in that they are unbreakable. The film follows David as he moves from no purpose to having purpose and examines the effect that has on his family-a wife that he can’t talk to anymore (played by a very moving Robin Wright) and a son who hero-worships him beyond what David feels he can deliver.
When you have the kind of success Shyamalan had with The Sixth Sense, you are in a position to do almost whatever you want. Studios want what you have, which could easily be an invitation to up the scale, and indulge. Shyamalan, instead, works in the same milieu as his previous film. He takes a B-movie genre in the comic book movie and elevates it to a work of art, first by taking it seriously, and second by grounding it in the themes of disillusionment spoken of earlier. As for the comic book element, he explained his vision for the film as basically revolving around the first act of a superhero’s arc in his story. Every superhero story works in three acts essentially: one) the hero discovers their powers two) the hero uses and develops those powers three) the hero faces off against his nemesis. How can you make a movie about the first, and usually most boring, aspect of a hero’s story work with an audience? Many filmmakers have noted how sequels in hero franchises tend to be better because the origin has already been established and they can approach more interesting territory. Shyamalan does something no other filmmaker has done with an origin story by truly capturing how frightening, mysterious, and life-altering this realization can be. He does so by making it a process rather than a epiphany. David survives a wreck. David sees that he has never been sick. David tests his strength. Etc. David is a complete enigma. To himself and to us. The entire film is David and Elijah attempting to solve this enigma. Why when David wakes up does he feel this inexplicable sadness? Why has he never been sick? How did he walk away from that train crash totally unharmed when no one else even survived?
Bruce Willis, reteaming with Shyamalan after The Sixth Sense, gives his strongest career performance as Dunne. Shyamalan repeatedly frames David Dunne in the background, or obscured. This style isn’t seen very often as actors love close-ups. This style adds to the effect that Dunne is a mystery. We cannot read him. Samuel L. Jackson, with his crazy do, is perfect in creating sympathy for this mostly unrelatable character and delivering some very out-there dialogue. His performance is crucial, because if we don’t believe him, then the film becomes unintentionally funny as we’ve seen in some of Shyamalan’s later works.
Unbreakable is made up of what feels like ten scenes. Ten extended, involving scenes that make the hour and forty minute runtime fly by. A recent development has come up that makes this great film-my choice for best superhero picture, tied with The Incredibles (2004)-worth revisiting. It wasn’t a runaway hit the way The Sixth Sense was, and it will never achieve mass appeal. Often when people go in to a movie with certain expectations, they’ll be disappointed if those expectations aren’t met, affecting their opinion of that film. But sometimes on second viewing, they can realize that what the film reaches for is actually better. I think Unbreakable can be this way for most viewers.