Droid defines the Decades best movies – #11 Unbreakable (2000)
During the past decade we have been bombarded with superhero movies, each with the intent of explaining the hero’s origin and starting a multi film franchise in the proceedings. ‘Unbreakable’ is the second best of the whole lot. It would place higher on my list if not for one, incredibly infuriating decision by M. Night Shyamalan. But more on that later.
Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) suffers from a debilitating condition known as osteogenesis imperfecta, which makes his bones weaker than usual. A large portion of his childhood was spent in hospital, where he soaked up comic books and their lore. Analysing the characters of good and evil, looking to gain an understanding of the world, and himself. He hypothesises that if he is on one end of the spectrum, their must be someone on the other. Someone who doesn’t get sick, or injured. His search leads him to David Dunn (Bruce Willis) a former college American Football quarterback who is now a middle aged security guard with a troubled marriage and a constant state of depression and regret for decisions he has made in the past. He is also the only survivor of a train crash that killed 131 people. And he is unharmed.
‘Unbreakable’ was Shyamalan’s third film, and the follow up to the hit ‘The Sixth Sense’. It’s his best (by a long way) and is his most confident and consistent in tone. The reasons why ‘The Village’ and ‘Lady in the Water’ didn’t work is because they were about nothing else but the machinations of the plot. Plus ‘The Village’ was just boring and ridiculous, with an especially annoying performance by Adrian Brody as the village idiot. And by ‘LitW’ Shyamalan was so far up his own ass that he cast himself as ‘the guy who’s writing will change the world’. Not to mention the film critic. More commonly known as Basil Exposition. And then there was ‘The Happening’. Those who have seen it know that it needs no explanation. Wind. Dirk Diggler is trying to outrun the wind. *sigh* And before you ask, yes, I liked Mad Mel vs the Aquaphobes from Outer Space.
Anyway, I digress. ‘Unbreakable’ is a moody, methodical film that expertly allows the plot to unfold. It has the confidence to put clues and necessary information right in front of us. But it’s leisurely pace and the drama of Davids personal life, and search for explanation and discovery puts us off guard and we don’t seize on those clues immediately. The ending has a twist, to be sure, but unlike ‘The Sixth Sense’ or ‘The Village’, where it’s all about hiding the twist, ‘Unbreakable’ shows us it’s cards from the start. There’s a sense of inevitability about the story. It was always going to end this way, and these revelations were always going to be, but for some reason, the first time I watched it, I didn’t knowingly guess it. To be honest I don’t think I even tried. I was enjoying the film too much. The same thing happened when I watched ‘The Usual Suspects’.
‘Unbreakable’ also plays on our sympathy to help it mask the truth. Elijah, known as ‘Mr Glass’ to taunting kids, has such a sad story that we immediately sympathise with him. And this is where I bring up the performances. First of all, this is one of Samuel L. Jacksons best. Right behind ‘Amos & Andrew’. I’m kidding. The performance is filled with anger and pain, and you can see that life has taken it’s toll on him psychologically. Jackson plays Elijah always on the verge of one of his famous bug eyed ear splitting rants. And Bruce Willis plays David with such regret, melancholy and, when he begins his discovery, hope. His relationship with his estranged wife Audrey (Robin Wright Penn) and son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) is actually quite involving, and the scene towards the end where he slides the paper over so Joseph can see the front page is a great moment.
Shyamalan plays a lot with the camera in this film. During scenes with Elijah, there are many shots composed from reflection on glass, like the tv or in mirrors. And the scene where David is in the hospital and learns that the dying man in the foreground of the shot was the only other person found alive in the wreckage of the derailed train is a single shot and very effective. The score by James Newton Howard is at times a little intrusive, but there’s not doubting the power of it in particular scenes, especially the end scenes where David confronts a nasty piece of work, and then learns the truth about Elijah.
Which brings me finally to my pet peeve with ‘Unbreakable’. The end. Right at the bloody end Shyamalan has the stupidity to freeze the shot and insert text to explain subsequent events. It is a complete and utter miscalculation and almost ruins a terrific moment of revelation and the power of Elijah talking as David walks out the door. I don’t want to know what David did next, or what happened to Elijah. Unless you’re going to do a sequel then leave it at that. I personally think that the studio (or Shyamalan) got nervous about the ambiguity of the ending and slotted the text in. It’s such a shame because it’s almost a perfect origin story, and is all the more unique and powerful because it feels realistic.
So, because of that ending ‘Unbreakable’ drops down the list a few places. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a terrific film, with great performances and serves as proof that M. Night Shyamalan does indeed have talent when he’s not writing screenplays about a killer breeze.
The list so far…