The second film by writer/director M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Signs, The Village), focusing on the mystery surrounding a middle-aged man who begins to realize he has unique abilities after he remarkably survives a disaster.
“Do you know what the scariest thing is? To not know your place in this world. To not know why you’re here. That is just an awful feeling.”
After surviving a train derailment outside of Philadelphia, David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is stunned to learn he is infact the only survivor of the disaster, and also that he has no injuries to speak of. After attending the memorial service for the other passengers, David finds a card on his windshield. The only thing written is a cryptic question, asking David how many days in his life he has been sick. He asks around at work, and to his estranged wife, Audrey (Robin Wright-Penn), and noone can remember him ever being ill. David, and his young son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), visit the store shown on the mysterious card left on David’s windshield and meet up with Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who shares a fantastic theroy with David about his condition and the possible connection the two may share. Elijah suffers from a condition where his bones are extremely fragile, and he believes that if someone like him exists in the world, that surely someone must exist on the other end of the spectrum…someone like David, someone who can’t be harmed or injured.
Elijah has spent most of his life bedridden because of his condition, and has turned to the stories within American comic-books for inspiration. He explains to David that he believes comics are the last great form of communication, much like the ancient cave paintings or inscriptions within the great pyramids, that comic books are much more than silly pictures and spandex costumes. Elijah not only believes David is his opposite, but that David was put on the Earth for a purpose, to protect the innocent like the great heroes within comic books, and he attempts to persuade David to harness his possible abilities. Eventually, David does begin to realize he does have some remarkable, if subtle abilities and starts to question his life and the true meaning behind it. Is David infact some modern day super-hero? Or is he just an extremely lucky man who walked away from a train wreck unharmed?
The most unique and bold choice by Shyamalan so far, Unbreakable is unlike any of his other films in that it doesn’t quite have the twist ending we’ve grown accustomed to. I don’t think many people were fooled by the ending, but in a way, it makes the film all the better. Knowing what will happen doesn’t take anything from the building drama and the suspense of wondering what David will ultimately do. The film is basically Act One of a traditional comic book origin story told in modern times. Act One in other comic book movies is typically the opening third of the film, but Shyamalan boldly chooses to focus the entire film on David’s journey to enlightenment and building to the moment where he makes the choice to use his powers for good, and to try and help people.
The movie is shot like a comic book as well, with shots framed like a traditional comic book panel would be and the story unfolds very deliberately and narratively like a comic book. Clear examples of this is in the color pallete of the film, which is brilliantly done, and has several scenes that feature very muddy, neutral color schemes and then use bright colors to draw our focus to something or someone. It’s an old-school trick used to great effect by Shyamalan in all of his movies, and perhaps has the best payoff in this film. The best example of this “comic book framing” style of directing used in the film is the opening scene. David is attempting to flirt with an attractive (and married) sports agent and the camera keeps alernating its placement during crucial times in the conversation. It’s remarkably well done and helps us really focus on David and grow attached to him quickly.
The acting is top notch as well. Both Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson are phenomenal in this film. Willis plays David with such restraint and such tenderness that its hard not to root for him. Jackson, meanwhile, instills such humerous brooding contempt into Elijiah that its hard not to feel sorry for him as well. It’s great how deliberate everything Elijiah does in the film is. Its so methodically thought out, and you become mesmerized, wondering what he has up his sleeve next. Both characters go thru remarkable character journeys in the film. David has opportunities to turn away from his heroes journey, and Elijiah has opportunites to right his own path. It’s the choices they make and the complexity within them that make the drama so compelling.
The script by Shymalan is also remarkably strong, as in all of his films, but this one is one of my favorites. I love the structure in the plot of the first third of the movie, in which we see glimpses of Elijiah’s past as we journey with David to the moment he meets Elijiah in his store. Also, as David progresses along on his journey in the film, we catch glimpses of his own past and the single lasting moment that ties all the characters in the movie together with such subtle brilliance. That, of course, is the much talked about car accident, referenced several times in the first two acts of the film and finally seen by us near the conclusion. (Spoiler Alert! Skip to the last paragraph if you haven’t seen the movie) David and Audrey are in college and have a near fatal car accident, infact David is thrown several yards from the car and should’ve died. It’s the first moment in David’s life where he suspects something is different about him, and he has repressed those thoughts into adulthood. He rescues Audrey from the wrecked car, and seizes the opportunity to give up his future as a football star, a topic we’ve already learned at this point, that Audrey had strong feelings about and may’ve changed the course of there relationship had David not faked an injury and quit the game. It’s this great ability and stength of Shymalan to connect everything in his films, no matter how small and ordane and make it all important.
Shymalan has made better films than Unbreakable, but few of the others had such a deliberate message behind them. The film, heroes journey aside, is ultimately about a man who realizes what’s important in his life. He made choices to give up the things he loves for his wife and child, and as grown unhappy with his life as a result. Remarkably he learns how to balance his family and his own needs, which is never easy. Elijiah explains in the film that he thinks the superpowers, and even the superheroes themselves within comic books, are only metaphors for everyday life or the troubles of the time in which they’re written. David represents our ability to right wrongs in our own life, and to not give up. We all get second chances, its up to us to make the best of them, and in Unbreakable, David Dunn shows us that anything is possible.