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Non-Review Review: Unbreakable

When people hear the name M. Night Shyamalan, a lot of different films pop into their heads. Everyone knows The Sixth Sense – most know Signs. He’s ridiculed for The Village and The Happening. The Lady in the Water slips under the radar, but that might be a good thing. What tends to get forgotten in the midst of all this is Unbreakable, which is probably the best movie that Shyamalan has directed. He’s known as something of a one-trick pony, relying on twist endings that throw his audience for a loop and – though Unbreakable contains its own novel twist in the tale – this is the one film on his filmography that doesn’t depend on that reveal. It’s a movie that stands up to the scrutiny of a second viewing answering questions and actually seeming painstakingly obvious in retrospect. It’s so good that it barely missed my list of the top 50 movies of the decade.

Holding out for a hero...

Note: As alluded above, the ending of this movie is a key part of discussion about it. Rather than splitting this post in half, I’m going to discuss it below. Don’t worry, I’ll give you a head’s up. I would make one recommendation though: don’t spoil the movie for yourself. It works better whent he audience doesn’t know quite what they are expecting. You could make the case about most movies, but I think that this movie in particular deserves to be seen sight unseen with an open mind.

Okay, you’ve decided to read past the disclaimer. Which means you’ve either seen the movie, or you want it spoiled, or you just don’t care. Which is grand with me. The movie cleverly grounds itself as a psychological drama, setting itself up as though it intends to be a study of survivor guilt. David Dunn (played by Bruce Willis) is the only survivor of a catastrophic train wreck. This throws everything in his life upside down, affecting his young son and his almost-estranged wife, as well as leading him to wonder why he survived the tragedy. Was there a reason?

That’s really all you want to know if you want to see the movie for the first time. Anyway, it’s worth reflecting on Quentin Tarantino’s summary of the film (on Sky Movies during his season):

What if Superman was here on earth…but he didn’t know he was Superman?

Tarantino also named the movie one of his ten favourites of the last decade (as if you don’t trust my opinion of it). Anyway, David finds himself drawn to a strange comic book dealer Elijah Price. Elijah is the opposite of David, far from unbreakable. The movie gives his condition a medical title, but he’s effectively made of glass – that the children in the playground called him “Mr. Glass” is an apt description.

Elijah espouses the philosophy that is very common in Shyamalan’s work – the notion that there are forces at work beyond human comprehension and that there is a greater meaning for everything which occurs. This is the same sort of worldview which underpinned Signs, but it arguably works even better here. David and – to arguably a greater extent – Elijah are both looking for reasons and meanings and signs in the world around them. In fact, everyone in the movie is, to varying degrees. They are looking for a manner of understanding the world around them. Some sort of logical pattern which the world must fit.

Elijah suggests that comic books codify some sort of ancient myticism, fables and stories about the truly gifted among us. And – to an extent – he’s right. Comic books are the myths and legends of our modern culture. Look at Bruce Banner, the man who is also a hideous monster, or Superman, the man of tomorrow, or X-Men, those who are different, or Batman, who haunts the shadows and the night like an avenging demon. These are all archetypes which feature prominantly throughout the history of storytelling, and comics deliver them in their purest form. Much as ancient man related the world through story and legend (consider, for example, how many creation myths there are), so to do comic books tell our own fables, simplistic yet deep – full of impossibilities and wish fulfillment and hidden truths. For Elijah, these truths aren’t necessarily so hidden.

What M. Night Shyamalan has done here is simple: he’s framed a coming of age drama through the lens of the comic book saga. Everyone has wondered about their place in the world, their greater calling, and David and Elijah attempt to piece it together using their own frame of reference. It’s a shrewd and sophisticated move, but it works. It would arguable work with any other frame of reference (movies, trashy novels), but superhero comics offer any easily-understood genre, and one which Shyamalan evidently has a great deal of affection for.

The movie is arguably more of a comic book movie than many of the adaptations which we have seen in the past decade. It’s aware of itself – clearly metafictional. It’s a superhero narrative featuring two characters who know it’s a superhero narrative, and may even be manipulating it as such. Shyamalan knows his craft relatively well and there are a whole heap of clever stylistic touches running through from David Dunn’s alliterative name (a comic book trope), Elijah Price’s nickname (“Mr. Glass”), the fact that Elijah always dresses in the same colours and has flamboyent accessories, the stark use of colour (particularly colour-coded individuals) and so on.

There are two ways to look at the film: it’s a drama stylised after the superhero genre, or it’s a superhero origin filtered through a coming of age drama. Which is dominant depends on the individual viewer and their perception of the film going in. I remarked above that this film actually rewards re-watching and it does – the film has a capacity to shift depending on what you are focusing on at any given moment. Whether you are watching the human elements or the classic comic book devices.

I’m going to discuss the ending now. Keep in mind it’s generally the single M. Night Shyamalan twist ending which isn’t popular knowledge, so you want to be careful about spoiling it. Seriously. Okay, well, you’re obviously still reading this so let’s get straight to it.

The revellation that Elijah Price has been manipulating the entire movie is a smart one which turns the concept on its head slightly. If this was all meant to happen – if David really is a hero – then surely Elijah’s intervention would not have been necessary. The movie only resembles a comic book because Elijah has distorted the narrative to fit that conventional mould. David’s journey is not of his choosing – it’s as a result of Elijah’s intervention. Without Elijah, he would have mourned and contemplated, never having realised what he was (if anything, to be honest – there’s no real evidence he’s anything but lucky). Elijah is the real focus of the story – he’s the real character searching for his identity.

But in doing so, Elijah subverts the comic book narrative he so desperately wants to be part of. He wins. The bad guy doesn’t win in these stories (certainly not in the silver age fare which Elijah clearly hopes to emulate). Sure, Elijah ends up, appropriately enough, in an asylum (home to many a supervillain), but he has acheived his goal: he knows who he is and validates his existence. And his arrest and capture hasn’t saved any lives – he’s already found David, so his reason for murder and mayhem is over. Besides, Elijah knows that if he were ever to kill David his own existence would be invalidated and – arguably – he would cease to exist. (That last part is one of the more interesting theories about why the Joker never kills Batman.) By the same token, David’s heroism is somewhat undermined by the logic that he was the reason Elijah killed so many people.

Comic book heroes and villains often actually make each other – look at Tim Burton’s Batman for the most obvious example – but they rarely actively seek one another. If Elijah and David were to be foes, fate would have made it so, not Elijah. It’s rare that a villain exists before a hero, let alone actively seeking him.

In the years that followed Unbreakable, we’ve had more than our share of big budget superhero action movies, but we’ve only really seen an exploration of the genre recently. It’s all hinted at here, well ahead of time and in a smart, sophisticated manner. It’s a movie way ahead of its time and well worth yours.

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