Unbreakable is a thriller and drama that was written, produced, and directed my M. Night Shyamalan. Now, before you click away, I want you to look at the year this movie was released. This was hot on the heels of The Sixth Sense and naturally, Shyamalan wanted a more ambitious project to work on. He already killed it in the supernatural thriller genre once, and I guess he wanted to solidify himself as a thriller powerhouse while everybody’s eyes were still on him.
Unbreakable is the story of David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a family man and security guard who’s marriage is tumultuous at best. He’s just chugging along his dreary life until on his way back from a job interview in New York, he gets in a massive train accident. Hundreds are killed, and not only is he the only survivor, but he emerges completely unharmed. This garners the attention of Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a comic book obsessed art gallery owner, who believes that Dunn is completely impervious to harm. Dunn obviously doesn’t believe him at first, but after slowly learning more and more about himself and revealing and honing his natural abilities, he then has to try and reconcile the idea of having the potential to be a superhero while navigating his broken family life.
Watching this in 2017, nearly two decades after its release and in the current superhero saturated movie-going world was quite an experience in itself. Superhero flicks of recent years are action blockbusters, focusing on the flashy effects and wild costumes over the actual characters themselves. They’re loud and dazzling, like a toy for children. Unbreakable is an anti-superhero film. It’s quiet. Slow. It focuses almost exclusively on Dunn and his relationship with his wife and his son while he discovers his amazing powers. While the film follows a very traditional three act structure, the first act is lengthened to nearly half the running time of the film (or at least, it feels that way). This isn’t to establish some crazy, deep lore mythos for the world or the characters, but to establish the characters themselves. We’re given so much time with Price, and with Dunn and his family that we learn the ins and outs and subtleties of their lives. I’d say Unbreakable is equal parts drama to thriller, and plays the two genres off each other rather nicely to make sure you’re always engaged and never bored.
While watching it, my friends and I were mostly silent the whole way through. As much flack as Shyamalan gets nowadays, I’d say he was still at the top of his directing game when making Unbreakable. The look of this movie is relatively stylized, with lots of washed out blues and greys punctuated by bright, neon colours (think Sin City, which Willis was also a part of), and lots of long tracking shots. It’s a little exhausting seeing every shot dolly, pan, and tilt, but at the same time, it never feels totally overblown. Only a couple times are you taken out of the film from some extreme camera movement or another (I’m looking at you, the atrocious spinning shot of Elijah getting his first comic book), but for the most part, I wouldn’t say Unbreakable is any more stylized or visually pumped up than any other film by a visually driven director. When M. Night brings it in Unbreakable, he brings it hard, though. In the big tentpole scenes of this film, we had complete pindrop silence in the room. From something as simple as a man falling down stairs, to a parent being held a gunpoint by their child, to the one and only “fight” scene in the entire film, the tense scenes in Unbreakable are visceral and heart-pounding. Shyamalan knows how to ramp up the tension in a scene or sequence on a dime, and while you can reasonably predict what event is going to happen next in the film, it doesn’t make them any less all-consuming. We had an instance in the screening I had where a plastic bottle popped when someone drank from it, and nearly everyone in the room jumped. Unbreakable sucks you in completely, despite what flaws it might have.
Bruce Willis continues to prove his acting chops to me, portraying the everyman that he’s so accustomed to. He does it well, so I can’t blame him. I’m tired of seeing Willis play the muscly badass that has risen out of his action superstardom (despite him never starting as a Commando, Rambo, or Marine type character), so when he gets to flex his acting skills, I’m always happy to see it. Samuel L. Jackson knocks it out of the park as well, toning down his usual feverish and intimidating presence to play a much quieter but equally intense character. Bound to a wheelchair for most of his screen time, Elijah is no less engrossing because of Jackson’s awesome performance. He might not be yelling and screaming Bible passages like in Pulp Fiction, but his portrayal of Elijah is driven and motivated, a great foil to the character of David Dunn.
The only big issue I find myself having with Unbreakable is with it’s ending. Now, I’m sure all of you reading this are going to assume that there’s a big twist ending, as is M. Night’s signature move and you’d be right in assuming that. I’ve got nothing against twist endings inherently, but I think that the execution of this one was rather hurried and jolting, but for the wrong reasons. The movie ends kind of abruptly after the twist is revealed, and we’re given some “where are they now” text over a couple freeze-frames to conclude the film. This reeks of either running out of budget or not meeting timelines, or even worse, just bad screenwriting, and while it didn’t ruin Unbreakable for me it left the movie hanging on a rather sour note. I would have been fine if M. Night took an extra 10 minutes and showed us the epilogue to his story rather than just tell us through expository text.
Unbreakable is flawed, sure. But it’s got enough strengths that it still impressed and engaged me pretty much all the way through. The story is interesting, and it looks great, but the real charm of the movie comes from Willis and Jackson’s performances of really intricate and subtle characters. I totally understand why this is considered a modern cult classic and how Shyamalan rose to the top of Hollywood in just a couple years, but for me, Unbreakable is worth a watch for a nice change of pace from the grind that is modern superhero movie culture.