Irresponsible Force meets Unbreakable Object.
Quentin Tarantino provided the best logline for M. Night Shyamalan‘s UNBREAKABLE. In his characteristically compelling storytelling way, he puts it – even better than the actual ad campaign – “What if Superman was here on Earth and didn’t know he was Superman?”
That’s UNBREAKABLE broken down. If there is, in fact, a “super” gene, it will manifest itself gradually, one human at a time, as it does in this tale – as genes have been doing over countless eons in the natural world. (The bodies we have right now are better suited to the environment than those of our hominid ancestors, with indiscernible changes over time that have made us stronger, smarter, quicker, with longer lifespan, etc. A homo sapien would seem like a superhero to an Australopithecine.)
And this is the premise behind Shyamalan’s magnificent tale, of security guard David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a man who realizes, through many events that he pieces together, that he is… unbreakable. Even a train crash where every other person dies, doesn’t leave a scratch on him. By casually lifting weights with his son he inadvertently realizes he is inordinately strong. As with anything out of the ordinary, David resists and denies his reality, until the prompting of a comicbook fanatic gives him a purpose and a direction to channel his powers.
David’s existence presages his “opposite” – a man of inordinate fragility. UNBREAKABLE is the tale of the meeting of these two opposites.
Samuel L. Jackson plays graphic art dealer Elijah Price with the usual Jules Winnfield stick up his ass. He is David’s genetic “opposite” (“They called me Mr. Glass”). Even though he’s fragile, he’s ready and willing to wade into any conflict that he himself creates. We meet him refusing to sell a rare print to a client when he learns the client is buying it for his 4-year old son, and not for the raw appreciation of the art itself, “Do you see Teletubbies in here? Do you see a slender plastic tag clipped to my shirt with my name printed on it? Do you see a sign sayin’ Dead Nigger Storage?”
This trait is another example of the oppositeness of the two leads: David is unbreakable, yet keeps quietly to himself; he even turned his back on being a star footballer, a game of conflict, yet fragile Elijah, well, he’s been watching too much PULP FICTION…
Beneath the compelling tale of how the opposites meet is David’s story of love lost and found, a subplot that proves to be sociological meat as well. In the opening scenes, David’s marriage to Audrey (Robin Wright) is shaky. As they walk slowly, dazedly, from the hospital after his train crash, their son (Spencer Treat Clark) innocently links their hands. Behind his back, David and Audrey unlink. Played like a hollow silent scream, an emptiness that cannot be breached, like the howl of a soul forever in blackness. That’s Night: his writing, his direction, conveying story without words. Later, when David has embraced his powers, (instead of compromising for Audrey’s sake), he claims his woman again: simply walks into her bedroom and carries her soundlessly to his. It’s all very caveman. And very true.
It is only in the second act that we realize exactly where UNBREAKABLE is aiming. So conditioned are we to the Marvels and the DCs that it takes us this long to realize… uh, hey, this is a superhero movie! It’s actually a re-imagining/reinvention of what a modern superhero tale actually is! Like every superhero origin story, it’s about a man trying to find himself.
Casting Willis in the lead role, as the super hero: genius. I’ve always maintained that if Superman’s powers come from within, he doesn’t have to be built like a bodybuilder, he can look like a normal guy. Unlike his pals Schwarz and Sly, Willis looks like an Everyman, conveying so much in his tragic eyes and somber countenance, rather than his flexing man-ceps. Yet it has always been apparent that under his smoldering exterior beats the heart of an engine man, a volcanic inner strength that can defeat insurmountable odds. Perfect superhero material!
Night’s regular composer, James Newton Howard, builds the intensity of each perfect scene, until David stands amongst the throng at Grand Central Station, in what could be construed his “costume” (a gray mackintosh – because he discovered his “weakness” was water!), arms akimbo, awaiting a signal from somewhere, something, anything to point him in a direction other than crazy. Elijah hounding him about his “power” and quoting superhero lore led him here: “Go to a place where people are…” As his arms go out further, the music builds; a drumbeat to the temple; his empath powers feeling the jolts of passersby, their small lives and small problems; and then —
By now we have been sucked down that rabbit hole and are rooting for David like the dorks who shout “Go Superman!” as he flies past. David’s rescue of the family held by a maniac is almost an anti-climax, as we realize he has at last “found himself” in his final gesture of hanging up the raincoat in his bathroom after his adrenalized adventure.
Night does not neglect the little things, as reviews like this often do for space: the son believing so wholeheartedly in his dad that he gets into fights at school and at one point, wants to shoot David to prove that bullets can bounce off him; the metal dude at the comic store, “I gotta get some chicken in me”; the fact that David does so poorly with the ladies when we meet him (because he has yet to discover himself)… Not a scene superfluous, not a frame wasted.
Elijah was on a path of self-discovery as well: “Do you know what the scariest thing is? To not know your place in this world, to not know why you’re here.” And with his confirmation of his place “on the curve” – as David’s polar opposite – he simultaneously frees and damns himself. It’s an incredible conclusion, a twist maybe, but a startling end to a wholly unique tale of suspense.
Following on the heels of Night’s breakout mystery masterpiece, THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), that twisted the world brain on its axis, UNBREAKABLE is actually a better film, but had to stand against the psychological onslaught of that previous stunner that the world brain still hasn’t recovered from.
It is soooo fashionable in 2014 to rag on writer-director-producer M. Night Shyamalan. He is unfortunately being defined by his later work (THE HAPPENING, THE LAST AIRBENDER). But once, Movie Maniac, Night was tilting at greatness, some dubbing him the New Master Of Suspense, supplanting Alfred Hitchcock. UNBREAKABLE is that film that allowed him at least one afternoon wearing the crown and supping ambrosia on a throw pillow at the foot of Hitch’s throne.