Unbreakable (review)

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Hero’s Journey

(Best of 2000)

It’s a feeling I wish I experienced at the movies more often. The credits roll, and my head feels like it’s going to explode. I leave the theater pumped, walking on air, wanting — no, needing — to yack over the film then and there. I feel like I could write not just a 1000-word review but an entire book about the film.

And there it was at the end of Unbreakable. I don’t think it’s venturing too far into hyperbole to call this, the followup to The Sixth Sense from writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, a work of transcendent filmic genius, one that acknowledges the audience’s expectations, confounds them, rebuilds them, and ends up using them to brilliant, astonishing advantage.

I’m sure that many moviegoers will not agree with me, for one simple reason: Unbreakable is, unexpectedly enough, a deconstruction of comic books and superhero movies. Anyone who thinks that comic books are throwaway pop culture will probably dismiss Unbreakable as well. But if you’re one of those readers and movie fans who understands that serious superhero tales are not only retellings of classic, mythic good-versus-evil stories but attempts to understand, in a modern context, the nature of evil itself… well, your head will reel.

David Dunn (Bruce Willis: Disney’s The Kid, The Whole Nine Yards) is returning home to Philadelphia from New York by train when catastrophe strikes: the train derails and crashes horrifically. Mysteriously, David is the only survivor… and he doesn’t have a scratch on him. The news coverage of such a “miracle” captures the attention of Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson: Shaft, Deep Blue Sea), who suffers from a medical condition that leaves his bones brittle and quick to fracture. He believes David may be, in a sense, the mirror reflection of himself: an unbreakable man.

And Elijah has an unusual reason for believing that. Owner of a comic art gallery, he is a veritable scholar on comic books, an intelligent, intense, and devoted one. He recognizes the cultural roots of superheroes and pulp fiction, and he likens the visual storytelling of comics to hieroglyphics and cave paintings. And he suspects that the superpowers possessed by characters in comics is “an exaggeration of the truth” of genuine, if rare, human abilities, like David’s apparent imperviousness to injury and the instinct for danger that serves him well in his job as a football stadium security guard.

What distinguishes Unbreakable from, say, X-Men — which may be the best depiction of superhuman abilities that’s both fantastical and down to earth — is how Shyamalan lifts the supernatural into the realm of “reality” here. This isn’t a film about a superhero — it’s a film about how one “real” man may just have the kind of superpowers that have previously been only the stuff of Marvel-ous dreams. Simple and tense, spooky and old-fashioned — the appearance of a gun is actually shocking — Unbreakable is about David’s search to find out exactly what’s different about him and whether that has anything with what’s wrong with him: why he’s unhappy with his job, why he can’t seem to bridge the distance between himself and his wife, Audrey (Robin Wright: Message in a Bottle, Forrest Gump), and son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark: Gladiator, Double Jeopardy). Shyamalan’s may be the most realistic approach to the supernatural ever seen on film.

If, indeed, there is anything supernatural about David. He can’t remember ever being sick, but there was that car accident when he was in college that ended his budding football career. Is Elijah just a sick man who has compensated for his physical shortcomings with an overpowering fantasy life? Skepticism keeps Unbreakable grounded, as does the documentary feel to the film: images are deep, with important motion happening simultaneously in both foreground and background; long, uncut sequences lend an immediacy, like the conversation on the train shot through the gap in the next forward-facing seats, as if you were spying on the talkers. The entire film has a visual grittiness to it — Unbreakable isn’t slick, and it isn’t sleek, at least not to the eye.

But that realism means that we can’t trust anything we know about comic books or superheroes when trying to figure out where Unbreakable will go, and it’s a delight to be unable to anticipate the direction it will take. Shyamalan teases us, using the visual means of storytelling comics use — he likes to show us Elijah in reflection, as he is a reflection of David — and all of the emotion of the film is conveyed visually by a cast that can be said not so much to inhabit the film as to haunt it. (Most wonderful: Early in the film, Joseph places his mother’s hand into that of his father, attempting to reforge the lost bond between them, and they let go as soon as the boy has turned away. Those simple gestures say more about the Dunn family dynamic than ten pages of dialogue could have.) The director knows precisely what’s he’s doing when he turns David into a Batman-like specter in his rain poncho with “Security” emblazoned across the back — it’s a joke… or is it?

And when he has Elijah’s mom tell her teenage son, in a flashback, as she gives him his first comic book, that “they say this one has a surprise ending,” we can’t know what to make of this. Is it a nod to The Sixth Sense? Does he want us to know that Unbreakable will have a surprise ending? Or is he preparing us not to get one?

Go see Unbreakable with someone else who will get it. I promise you, you will need a friend to hash it over with.

see also:
Split movie review: time for another round of “What the Hell Was M. Night Shyamalan Thinking?”
Glass movie review: superhero ’splaining

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