R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Unbreakable

OK, I’ll admit it. The first time I saw The Sixth Sense in theaters, it really got me. Somehow, I had stayed away from the spoilers, and even though it was weeks after its release into theaters when I finally got around to catching it, that ending completely snuck up on me. Of course, the film caught like wildfire, and why not? With a great Dramatic performance from Bruce Willis, and Haley Joel Osment giving one of the most memorable child performances ever, the film gradually grew into this huge smash, making over $670 million Worldwide.

When I first heard of M. Night Shyamalan’s follow-up, details were really sketchy. I knew it was called Unbreakable, and that it starred Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson. Reports had come out saying that the film was about a man who could not be injured. I don’t ever remember reading the words INVULNERABLE or SUPERHUMAN, but words like that probably would have given away more than the director would have wanted you to know going in.

Trailers were just as vague, as we see that Willis’ character survives a catastrophe and little else. We knew that Jackson’s dialogue and demeanor would be downbeat and we also got images of glass breaking. This was ominous marketing indeed, but again I was still not able to ascertain what this movie was really about. Of course, curiosity about what kind of talent Shyamalan actually possessed was enough to get me into the theater.

Though I halfway expected a retread of the director’s breakthrough smash, what I got instead of was a film with a tapestry of characters. Unbreakable shocked with a genuine emotional punch that wasn’t at all based on a trick ending. Even though this second effort didn’t make half of the total of its predecessor, upon repeated viewings, it’s this film that held up for me over the years.

Unbreakable Starring Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Wright Penn, Spencer Treat Clark. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

The film’s opening title cards really help you get into the mood of piece. It covers a series of numbers about the popularity of Comic Books, but still all the pieces as to what this film is really about don’t hit you yet. This actually adds to the film’s experience though.

The director hits you hard early on, with the birth of a baby boy named Elijah. The sequence is quietly devastating. Giving the audience an even more voyeuristic experience, we watch the entire scene through a mirror. A doctor looks on in horror as the child cries. He asks if anyone has dropped the baby, which is met with righteous indignation. As he reveals that the boy’s arms and legs are broken, the director fades out with the cries of the mother.

With the introduction of Bruce Willis’ David Dunn, we see much of the same things that surprised us from his performance in The Sixth Sense. This isn’t the loudmouthed smartass from the Die Hard Trilogy or The Last Boy Scout. David Dunn is a quiet man, traveling on a train from New York to Philadelphia, looking for a job. He hits on a girl, who’s not interested, and is obviously having problems with his wife as he quietly slips off his ring. Again, handheld camera is used, making the scene a voyeuristic experience, as if we were the child in the seat in front of David. When tragedy strikes, this camera technique stops in favor of a momentary slow motion sequence while David surveys the passengers around him.

A huge train crash occurs off-screen, but is handled with great effect. David’s son sees footage on the news, David awakes in a hospital bed, and the only other survivor of the crash dies in a scene where he is nearly off-screen. This is an excellent introduction to the character’s powers, handled with subtlety and grace. It is also very clear what kind of a world this is. This is not a Comic Book universe where David saves the entire train with his might. This is a world that is real as can be. It’s rainy and dingy and people despair. Shyamalan wants you to believe this world is yours. He also wants you to believe in David Dunn.

For all of the cowboy giddiness that Willis has brought to us through his John McClane adventures, this may be the character I end up remembering the actor for. He’s so natural here as he’s simply a man trying to survive day to day. Something from his life is missing, though he doesn’t know exactly what. Everything from his marriage to his job is suffering because of it. When he survives this train wreck, he tries to treat it as a new beginning, but it re-emphasizes that something about his destiny is seriously wrong.

A glimmer of hope for David shows up in the form of Samuel L. Jackson’s Elijah Price. This is an amazing character for Jackson to explore. Again this is a million miles from Jackson’s best known roles, as instead of brimming with bad ass cool, this character is grim and internalized. He is apparently the opposite of David as he suffers from the disease Osteogenesis Imperfecta. It is a crippling disease where his bones break very easily, but this helps to flesh out this character and make his motivations make perfect sense. The first few times you see Elijah in flashbacks, as he suffers as a child with this awful disease. Other children call him “Mr. Glass” and often times he is shown in reflections in TV’s and mirrors to add to the motif.

A mother’s gift of a comic book opens up a new world for the child, but what if some of those stories were true. Much like the prophet that trumpeted the coming of a new savior, Elijah waits for a man to protect mankind. He believes there must be a polar opposite to his brittle body that will stand up for the weak. When he learns of a man surviving a horrific event completely unharmed, he believes David is that man.

Then again, if someone had just told you he believed YOU were a superhero, then you’d probably react the same way Willis’ character does. He believes Elijah is trying to swindle him. He pokes holes in Elijah’s story with harrowing memories of nearly drowning and another about a horrific car accident that ended his football career. All of these incidents are addressed in time to accentuate the highest possible emotional impact. David is slowly shown how he has made the choices he has to turn away from his gifts in order to try and serve mankind to some degree. He is even made to realize he has the power to see when a person has committed a crime.

Viewers seeing this film for the first time should be aware of the film’s pacing. This is a film with a deliberately methodical pace, but that seems to give the film more power. We get to know these people as fully fleshed out characters, not just two dimensional caricatures. We can see the pain in the face of David’s wife, Audrey as she tries to hold on to her marriage. We feel for his son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) as he wants his father to be the hero he knows he can be.

Moments with each of these characters make them whole and drives you further down emotionally with the story. A sequence where Joseph pulls a gun on his father to prove he is invulnerable is handled with much more gravity than a very similar sequence in Superman II. A date in which Audrey tries to “start over” with her husband is filled with sweetness, but again reinforces his sadness over not doing more with his powers.

When David finally tests his powers for good, Mr. Shyamalan constructs a sequence that is not filled with gunfights or huge action scenes. Instead, we get an intimate sequence of showing us the cowardice and horror of evil, and the courage and might of good. A scene where David falls in a pool (water is his “kryptonite”) is taut and more suspenseful than anything in The Sixth Sense. Another shot of Willis’ David, clad in a green poncho, standing in the rain, gives the appearance of Dunn wearing the cape of a hero and the moment is absolutely breathtaking.

Now again, as with the director’s previous effort, I will admit that Unbreakable’s ending got me. It caught me completely off-guard, and not only that, it pissed me off. But then I thought of how many great works of graphic literature had similar endings. These books had great hooks that had you salivating over the next issue, wanting more. That was how M. Night Shyamalan ended Unbreakable, and now I watch in awe as the closing credits roll up. I do wish the director would take that next step though. I’d love to see these characters again, with David having to deal with more real problems and not just the “superheroic” kind.

Picture Credits: Impawards.com, Cinema.com