By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – January 10, 2018)
In a comic, you know how you can tell who the arch-villain’s going to be? He’s the exact opposite of the hero, and most times, they’re friends, like you and me. – Elijah Price
First off, a warning. Usually, you can rest assured that film reviews I do in advance of release dates are always going to be spoiler-free. I have no interest in ruining anything for you. But, this movie is over 18 years old, so I’m writing this for the audience that has already seen it or knows of its twists and turns. This piece is much more like one of my television recaps, where I go in depth on the story and various details to piece together my own thoughts on what transpired. Thus, if you haven’t seen Unbreakable, and you’re at all interested in doing so, you may want to bookmark this article and return to it after viewing the movie.
With that out of the way…
I never saw Unbreakable on the big screen. Just like most human beings, I saw The Sixth Sense in 1999 and enjoyed it tremendously. This hot new writer and director named M. Night Shyamalan had just pulled quite a twist for his debut movie, leaving audiences breathless and making Haley Joel Osment a child superstar. The bar was set high for Shyamalan’s follow-up, which would come in November of 2000. Like The Sixth Sense, the lead star was Bruce Willis, as A-List as it got at that point, even if his biggest days were nearing their end. Die Hard was 12 years old, Blind Date, Moonlighting, all of the biggest stuff had come and gone, but there was still Sin City and some other gems waiting in the wings.
Unbreakable was almost assuredly going to be a letdown for those that wanted something as mind bending as The Sixth Sense became after its big reveal of who Bruce’s character was in that film. Critical reviews for Shyamalan’s second film were mixed, eventually falling into the 60% aggregate range on Rotten Tomatoes, with filmgoers a bit more pleased with it. I don’t remember exactly why I never went to see it, but I can remember friends telling me I needed to do so once it had been on DVD for a few months, and so I did sit down, finally, and discover the story of David Dunn and Elijah Price.
What I didn’t know, perhaps because I didn’t pay close enough attention to the trailers, was what this film actually was…namely, a comic book wrapped in a movie wrapped in a second comic book. It was almost an allegory, though that’s an imperfect description. I didn’t realize for nearly an hour where it was headed, but once we got to the ending sequence, it still managed to surprise me that first time through. The big “twist” wasn’t to the level of The Sixth Sense, which left people disappointed. But, I dug it.
The journey to reach the unveiling of Hero vs. Villain at Limited Edition was a bumpy one, not because the story was all that dull, but because boy oh boy was it dark! That’s what I remembered most before I sat down to watch it again this week. Unbreakable was incredibly bleak in its storytelling, as Shyamalan wanted this story to replicate a comic book, but with none of the glitz or glamour or vivid colors that accompanied the genre. It seemed more than mildly intentional on the part of its creator.
David Dunn was clad in gray, sometimes with red (but wasn’t a hero in his own mind, and thus it made no sense for him to associate with one color), and Elijah Price’s primary shade was purple, which began as he opened that first gift from his mother on the park bench outside his family apartment in West Philadelphia. The wrapping paper was the same purple we’d then see on the inside lining of his jacket, on the walls of Limited Edition, and elsewhere throughout the movie. It stood out, but it wasn’t a bright purple. It was a very muted variation, to make sure nothing was flashy, which would have been all wrong for the feel Shyamalan was going for with the movie.
None of this should have necessarily foreshadowed anything, but in retrospect, a particular “color” could have been a giveaway. The best reveals are the ones in front of our faces that we don’t see, then can go back through and notice all sorts of things that should have clued us in. The benefit of hindsight allows for it, and when it’s done well, you see a grand master at work. How well did Unbreakable do it? Not to an iconic degree, but enough that the actual “twist” in the last five minutes was effective and not underwhelming.
Briefly on the colors, if I name many major superheroes, you could assign a color, possibly two, to each of them. It’s easy with something like Green Lantern, but that entire universe is defined by the color palette, with Sinestro’s yellow as just one of numerous examples, all of which led to Geoff Johns’ successful and excellent Blackest Night arc several years ago. Superman had his red and blue, Spider-Man did as well, Batman relied on darkness as part of his “everyday” heroism – without the superpowers, but the rogue’s gallery were all built on the colors. The Joker followed Elijah Price with the purple, the Riddler went with green, and so on and so forth.
Following Unbreakable, M. Night Shyamalan delivered dud after dud after dud as all of his movies continually relied on the big swerve, and if it didn’t click, the opinion of the film was largely negative. The Happening, The Village, Lady in the Water, all of them various shades of awful, featured long setups to underwhelming “A’Ha” moments and were pilloried by critics and mass audiences. Signs was the best received of those four, where it wasn’t as much about the twist, creating a sense of fear and discomfort surrounding an alien invasion in a rural area. It wasn’t a great movie, but by no means was it his worst.
Today, in 2019, M. Night Shyamalan went from the visionary behind The Sixth Sense to a constant punchline for a hack director with one trick to play…and then came 2016’s Split, which still found itself in the middle 60% and lower 70% among moviegoers, but felt like a bit of a resurgence for a guy who was nearly not the lady in the water, but DEAD in the water. Other than Michael Bay, whose movies usually made truckloads of money despite cliches of big explosions, scantily clad women, and razor thin action plots, Shyamalan was the easiest joke anyone could make. If a movie were compared to Shyamalan efforts, that meant stay far far away from it.
That said, Unbreakable is a film I still enjoy to this day. It’s beauty is in its simplicity. It wasn’t the biggest Shyamalan twist, but it was satisfying in that it explained literally everything that preceded it. While we were watching the story of David Dunn’s acceptance of an unthinkable reality, that he was indeed a superhero, we were also watching the origin story of his arch-nemesis, Mr. Glass.
The intelligent design behind the movie is that while Samuel L. Jackson’s Price was uber-compelling, that character was sort of led in through the Trojan horse that was the Dunn role. Willis and Jackson played their parts beautifully, delivering at times heavy-handed, but memorable dialogue that felt appropriate for speech bubbles inside a comic book. In its 106 minutes, Unbreakable explains how David Dunn came to hide his powers, refused to believe in them, but finally couldn’t deny the obvious. While Glass lost his mind and became pure evil, murdering hundreds of innocents in search of a superhero, he also was the Rosetta Stone to unlock Dunn’s purpose.
The idea that David’s marriage to Audrey had fallen apart, which Shyamalan illustrated immediately with the attempt to sleep with the attractive brunette sports agent on the train, was straightforward. But, David Dunn woke up every day in some stage of sadness, something he could never explain, and a condition that made his life miserable. His work as a stadium security guard enabled him simply to stay quiet and attempt to protect people, but he didn’t know why that brought him any peace.
Glass made it clear. This is what David Dunn was supposed to be doing, but he wasn’t doing it on a big enough scale, so his life was underwhelming and, as David himself described it to his wife, “I just don’t feel right. Something’s not right.” Once Dunn realized Price wasn’t insane (little did he know) and placed the phone call, his life changed, and he found the fulfillment that led to a complete rebuild of his marriage – or the infancy of it.
Elijah Price, obsessed with comics due to the medical condition that made him afraid to go outside and kept him in a hospital bed for a third of his life, lost his mental equilibrium as he just had to prove his theory that comics weren’t just stories, but pieces of history lived by someone (perhaps the creators). To get his answers, he engaged in large-scale terrorism, responsible for a horrific plane crash, a hotel fire that killed 133 people, and the Eastrail 177 accident that gave him what he desired.
A sole survivor.
David Dunn had never been injured, lying about being banged up in the car accident that would have killed Audrey had he not saved her by bending and pushing the car apart and carrying her to safety. His “injury” ended his football career, which very likely would have led to a pro career, but opened up the door to the woman that would become his wife, which he chose over the pigskin fame.
Shyamalan provided Elijah Price with the answer key to keep the viewer along for the ride, step-by-step, taking us from some odd occurrences surrounding David Dunn, for example the silver gun with the black handle, to the discovery of his super strength in the garage on the bench press, to the almost “Spidey” sense that gave him visions of what nefarious deeds criminals in plain sight had done in their recent past. Maybe the best scene of the entire film, with the exception of the final few minutes, was in that train station after David told Elijah the truth and asked what he should do.
“Go to where people are. You won’t have to look very long. It’s all right to be afraid, David, because this part won’t be like a comic book. Real life doesn’t fit into little boxes that were drawn for it.”
We then get the image of the woman in the red coat robbing the jewelry store counter, the racist attack on the street corner, the college aged girl being raped after having too much to drink, and of course the custodian who murdered two adults and tied up their two children after “liking” the family’s house. I recall when I first watched the movie, that part of the story was tremendously unsettling, because it was too real and felt like it could actually somehow have happened. To this day, the single scariest scene I’ve ever seen in a movie comes from David Fincher’s Zodiac, where the killer just simply walks up on a young couple enjoying a romantic picnic in a park and violently stabs them both to death in broad daylight.
Why is it something that still sticks with me? It’s the sunlight. It’s the boldness and complete lack of “give a crap” by this psycho who has no real reason to kill these people, doesn’t care about the cover of night, and murders this guy and gal at a time where it feels the most safe for the victims. The time and setting of the occurrence takes away the security and serenity of a place where I would feel relaxed, and as such, being so off the beaten path, it’s terrifying.
Of all the over-the-top villainy Shyamalan could have gone with, he went with a guy who simply showed up at a family’s doorstep, forced his way in against their will, killed the parents, restrained the children, and just kept on living there. That’s right up there with The Strangers and Zodiac. It still bothers me, I’m not going to front. It makes you never want to answer the front door again.
It fits with the film’s motif, which is overwhelming in its sense of a broken, desolate, selfish world filled with evil. It creates a far darker version of Gotham City, where a hero isn’t just needed, but almost desperately required just to keep the citizens safe. In similar fashion to many comics, the superhero begrudgingly comes to understand his own powers, usually with help, this time coming from Elijah Price as well as his own son, Joseph, who was instrumental to the plot.
Both Robin Wright and Spencer Treat Clark were good, but everybody outside of Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson were very much secondary in that their entire existence in the film was to push David Dunn and Mr. Glass down the line to get them to their desired destination. That doesn’t mean they weren’t important, but they were enhancement talent, to borrow a phrase from sports entertainment. Without Audrey, there’s no David Dunn, and without Joseph, he may never have actually acted on his powers. When Joseph sees the newspaper his father slides to him on the kitchen table, the reactions from both father and son are exceptionally well done. Also notice the hero is drawn like a comic book, which is certainly not a coincidence.
Whether every bit of the story worked for you or not, M. Night Shyamalan knew exactly what he was doing with this one. Did he know in 2000 that something called the “Eastrail 177 Trilogy” was actually real? Well, Bruce Willis said as Unbreakable released that the plan was for the 2000 opener to indeed be the start of a three-movie trilogy, but Shyamalan wasn’t sure how it would come to fruition. The movie did basically a third of what The Sixth Sense did at the box office and wasn’t received as well. It took 16 years to get to Split, and now Glass releases in one week, so this is a trilogy that has spanned nearly two decades to complete. Shyamalan has said recently if he has more to write about this universe, Glass won’t be the end either.
Unbreakable was the origin story, but in no way was Shyamalan attempting to recreate any existing comic material, In fact, he has claimed it to be a deconstruction of the comic genre as a whole, grounded in grit and reality. He’s right. It’s much more thriller than it is visual show. Rather than a cape that enables flight or various aesthetics that connote authority or even royalty, we remember David Dunn most for a basic rain slicker that protected him from water. It’s as un-hero as it gets, which is the point.
Split, which I’ll write on in detail early next week, was almost a horror film at times. As such, the overall concept of these stories is unique and I still believe it holds up. It’s not a world beater, but it was a bold play following The Sixth Sense and the story itself works, from the water as kryptonite all the way to Elijah Price as the arch-villain. The water connection between the two characters might be the most interesting and well-crafted portion of Shyamalan’s writing, as it explains the childhood incident that could have been a “hole” in the theory of Dunn as a superhero.
It also makes the climactic fight between David and the murderer more effective and powerful, because when he lands on the pool cover and then submerges in the water, there’s an immediate threat that the killer might drown him right then and there. Instead, the children save him, which is the opposite of what we’d usually see in a comic, again with Shyamalan doing things in an intentionally obtuse fashion. The hero saves the kids…which he did, but the kids then basically saved the hero’s life. That’s not how it ordinarily plays out, but here it was perfect.
What doesn’t exist in Unbreakable are threads that don’t make sense. It might be a little simplistic, yet somehow arcane in spots, and one obvious flaw is it is often slow and tedious, with such a bleak depiction that it can lead to mental fatigue waiting for it to pick up, but it’s still highly watchable, is inventive, and rewards patience and trust. It’s not a “great” movie, but I liked it quite a bit then and still like it now.
The simplicity of Dunn and Price’s relationship is to the movie’s credit, because every portion snaps together like a basic jigsaw puzzle. Split takes things to a different level, and loses a bit of the synergy as it tries to keep the wool over the audience’s eyes until the very last second, but it also pulls off its trick behind an incredibly, almost too good, believably uneasy performance from James McAvoy.
But we’ll talk more about that in a few days.
I’m @JMartZone. I, too, am miraculously unharmed. In fact, I’m just miraculous.