Unbreakable (2000)

Originally Appeared in The Green Man Review.

This is a film about archetypes. Much was made in the previews about a man who is the only survivor of a train disaster, emerging without a scratch, a man who never gets sick. One gets the impression that it’s a film about a phyla of immortals, or about some rare or odd occurrence, or simply about people who can’t get hurt. Even the web site is called areyouunbreakable.com. On the contrary, this is a film about mythology and its meaning.

Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) has grown up with osteo-genesis imperfecta, a condition that leaves the bones extraordinarily brittle. Frequently, when he leaves home, he is horribly injured. The slightest fall will incapacitate him. It is the larger-than-life tales in comic books that, ironically, are his connection with the world. His mother gives him one for each time he takes up the courage to go outside. The kids call him “Mr. Glass.”, because his bones break like glass.

As an adult, Mr. Glass is a comic art dealer and proprietor of an exclusive studio. He is interested in archetypes and the collective unconscious. Mr. Glass believes that comics are an unconscious “exaggeration of the truth” and deconstructs them to find that truth. Indeed, he is searching for it:

I’ve studied the form of comics intimately… I believe comics are our last link to an ancient way of passing on history. The anicent Egyptians drew on the walls; countries all over the world still pass on knowledge through pictorial forms. I believe comics are a form of history that someone somewhere felt or experienced.

Where Mr. Glass breaks, David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is apparently unbreakable: A security guard who has never broken a bone in his body. Someone who protects. Someone who spends every day in sadness, because he feels there is something he is supposed to be doing with his life, but isn’t. Mr. Glass believes he has found, in David Dunn, someone with a special purpose… “the kind of person these stories are about… a person put here to protect the rest of us… to guard us.”

So, too, this is a film about vocation — about the notion of a purpose to one’s life — a kind of work one is meant to do. Mr. Glass is convinced that there are special people in the world, with unique vocations, and particular abilities to perform them. He is questioning the notion that life is merely ordinary, and wonders if it’s possible for a person to know why he or she is here.

There is a thoughtful emotional subplot in the film. It is the pain of a son (Spencer Treat Clark) who wants to be like his father but discovers, in his father’s unusual qualities, that he is not like him and never can be. It is the exploration of the distance suddenly felt between someone with unique abilities and those who don’t share them. The theme is so true to life. Perhaps it’s an older brother who is a football star, and the younger feels simply banal. Or all the Barbies in a world where one’s looks are plain. How lovely to have made the film, too, a story about what it’s like not to be a Prometheus but still to suffer.

I would have liked as sophisticated a handling of the role of David’s wife (Robin Wright Penn). There is the marriage-destroying distance between them — the difficulty of loving someone who carries with him a relentless sadness, who cannot let himself be loved. We gather that she is trying to find love in the marriage. Still, Megan deserved a voice of her own, and didn’t really get one. She was the most passive character. More thought should have gone into making her with something more than just a collection of emotions. Another piece of irony: in the opening scene, our hero is making a rather unheroic attempt to cheat on his wife. Sure, it underlines that they have a troubled marriage, but the film doesn’t explore this with enough depth.

The outstanding performance of Charlayne Woodard, as Elijah’s mother, demanded more exploration of the relationship of mother and son. What we have is wonderful, but there just isn’t enough to give Elijah the required emotional depth his character demands. Jackson, in the film’s final scene, does in fact give us a wealth of beautiful passion sensitively acted. It is this amazing actor who rescues the character, and saves for Mr. Glass the substance he must have to be who he is. Again, though, one wishes there was more. I loved this character, especially in his last scene.

In the portentous words of a young Mr. Glass’ mother, as she bribes him with a comic book, “They say this one has a surprise ending…”

Writer and director M. Night Shyamalan who, in the previous year, gave us The Sixth Sense , has done a lovely job of creating the mood of a similarly enticing urban fantasy. There is just enough of the otherworldly that one questions through most of the film whether what’s occuring is coincidence or the fantastic. The decisions about wardrobe are also to be admired. In this particular story, wardrobe is crucial, and here is a light and subtle hand at work. The camera, too, feeds the viewer’s senses in an awakening crescendo.

There was nothing particularly noteworthy about the music. The special effects were pleasantly tame and have that dreamlike quality that they did in The Sixth Sense.

Unbreakable was perhaps hamstrung by its marketing campaign. It’s as though the trailers have a plot-direction altogether different from the one in the film. That always seems like a bad idea, since then no one gets what they expect. It seems, too, as though the film has been at least occasionally misunderstood, perhaps precisely because of the confusion of expectations. It could be looked upon as a gimmick-film, just as could The Sixth Sense , especially with the sudden and illuminating conclusion, but that is to miss the richness of its drama and poetic implications.

One must remember too, that the film is constructed much like its subject — heroic comic books. A careful glance will find distinct similarities in the form. I would have liked more development of the final plot elements, but like a small slice of chocolate cake, I wouldn’t have missed this film for there being less than I’d want.

The flash-animated official website is very cool, with interesting additional thematic material. This reviewer is using the wallpaper and screensaver right now.

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