Several scenes from M. Night Shymalan’s Unbreakable have stuck with me over the years. The opening exchange (and botched flirtation) between our hero, David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a security guard, and a sports agent (Leslie Stefanson) on a doomed commuter train was a point of obsession for me after first seeing the film during an annual trip to Pittsburgh for Thanksgiving. Years later, following a rewatch, the scene where Dunn’s wife, Audrey (played with subtle notes of grief by Robin Wright), asks her husband if he’s dated or slept with anyone since a potent rift in their marriage stuck with me for days. It’s that kind of movie—one where you pour over and reconsider every angle of the camera and narrative, each one of which yields a curious thought not only on comic book mythology, but on the fractious relationship between screenwriting and filmmaking.
The most recent time that I took the film in, expressly for this piece, another sequence popped out, specifically the tracking shot of Dunn and his son (Spencer Treat Clark) walking across a playground after the young boy got into a schoolyard fight. Shyamalan captures a series of playground games as he follows the father and son, each one marked by an exact sequence of numbers meant to count off how one completes the game. And like these games, Unbreakable, along with most Shyamalan films, is marked with an obsession with How Things Are Done or, to put it another way, direction and structure. Even considering Shyamalan’s ghastly Will and Jaden Smith vehicle, After Earth, the entire film is essentially a father laying down instructions on life and survival for his endangered son, left alone in a lethal alien wilderness.
In the case of Unbreakable, it’s the accepted structure of comic book design and mythology that Shyamalan is interested in, doled out by Dunn’s friend and eventual nemesis, Elijah Price, a.k.a. Mr. Glass, played by Samuel L. Jackson. There’s quite a lot of talk about how heroes and villains are drawn in comics – the hero always has a square jaw, while the villain tends to have bigger eyes. And the director similarly highlights protagonists and (mostly minor) antagonists with visual signals, most noticeably by color, including Price’s dark purple and black outfits. When Dunn goes searching for villains, each one of the people with evil tendencies dons brightly colored threads, from the abusive mother with the bold pink coat to the rapist with the green shirt to, finally, the man with the orange work outfit that Dunn must defeat to save what’s left of a local family.
The rest of the world, including Dunn, is marked by a bland mix of dull colors – browns, tans, dark greens, and greys – and Price’s look cleverly matches with both the world and the villains, as does Shyamalan himself in a notable cameo. The entire sway of the story is in Price convincing himself and Dunn that they are connected, and that the security guard is in fact a superhero, with a sort of telepathic ability to sense evil, incredible strength, and an inability to be damaged by anything, save water. The tension of the film is less in whether or not Dunn is this person, as that’s pretty clear from early on, but rather in whether he will act on his gifts, and accept his fate as a hero.
Shyamalan, who has never written a better script than this, smartly details Dunn’s origins in human terms, leaving out the nonsensical reasons of why he would have these powers. Instead, the writer-director takes his time looking at why Dunn would hide, or disavow, this part of his make-up. The main reasoning, naturally, is love for Audrey, who suffered major injuries during a car crash while they were younger, and vowed she would never marry a football player like Dunn. It’s clearly the repression of Dunn’s abilities, as an athlete or hero really, that has led to their current rift, with Dunn entertaining a new job in New York, a good three hours away from his current home in Shyamalan’s native Philadelphia. Shyamalan’s thinking here is that one cannot ignore one’s fate; that if the universe is pointing you in a certain direction, you shouldn’t scoff, and it’s a great relief that Shyamalan doesn’t connect this directly to religious or philosophical belief. He makes the film into a sort of muted family melodrama, and by anchoring Dunn to his family rather than some cosmic need to save the world, he creates his most grounded and emotionally effective film to date.
It’s also crucial to the film’s success that the idea of fate is undermined finally by the revelation that Price was the man who caused the commuter train to crash, and also was behind a myriad of other terrorist attacks. Price’s obsession with his own fate has led him to horrifying acts, even if he has finally found something like self-assuredness. Having locked onto a story and a mythology for himself, he has become a ghoul, and in this, Shyamalan essentially warns against an obsession with stories in general, of not paying due service to the more personal human elements of life, the quieter moments of revelation and submission. Considering the fact that Shyamalan remains a far better director than he is a writer, it’s not hard to see how this might reflect on his own struggles, especially after being known as the director with the clever twists.
One can see a similar battle in The Village, but whereas the final reveal of Unbreakable also highlights the strange, seductive bond between Price and Dunn, the ending of The Village adds nothing to what came before it at all. This whole schematic grew to a maddening caterwaul with The Lady in the Water, one of the most purely frustrating films that the aughts delivered into theaters, especially considering the dedication shown by Paul Giamatti and the great DP Christopher Doyle.
Unbreakable, however, hits the mark straight on, and the supposed surprise of the end underlines a variety of the filmmaker’s thematic interests, and the emotional payoff is even stronger than that of The Sixth Sense. In the end, the film has a stirring sort of grace, an alert sensitivity to the perils of ordinary life that so often limit the scope of a potentially extraordinary one.