Before Y2K passed us all by, we were still searching for a tangible villain to hold onto as a movie-going audience. Gone were the Russians after the decline of the Cold War, the source of so much material from the late seventies on up. The Vietnam War was far in the past; there was a sensation of “been there, done that” to it all. So we started turning our eyes in every direction we could; backward to the old bad guys of World War II (Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, heck even The Phantom Menace would fit), forward to the possible effects of our reliance on technology on the future (The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor), and upward, to the one enemy the majority of us who live in homes with foundations have still never seen (Independence day, X-Files: Fight the Future). It would still be a little more than a year before fate brought us new scoundrels to fear and a new set of wars to transpose into pulp.
At the end of it all, after western civilization failed to collapse with the new millennium, M. Night Shyamalan released Unbreakable, his second movie after the ultra-successful The Sixth Sense. It opened well enough, earning thirty million in its first weekend and ninety-five million overall, but this had more to do with the way it was marketed as “By The Guy Who Did The Sixth Sense” than anything else. Lost in all this is the fact it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, telling a story the way the best of all time have been told: by focusing inward, at that which makes us human, and the struggles we face today, in our everyday lives, our spiritual desire to be either the saved or the savior, and introducing a villain that is, for all intents and purposes, a reflection of ourselves.
David Dunn is a man just like any other; father and estranged husband, struggling with the dual terror of work and finding his place in the world. After a horrific train accident at the beginning of the film – which follows a fantastic human scene of David musing through the guilt before taking off his wedding ring and chatting with the pretty lady beside him – Mister Dunn is found to be the only survivor.
He is discovered after this event by Elijah Price, a comic book aficionado who is afflicted with osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic disorder which renders his bones brittle. It is here that the film gains its overwhelming sense of synergy. Whereas Elijah is frail and introspective, David is strong – it is discovered he’s never been sick in his life – and a bit naïve. They are, in both theory and practicality, flip sides of the same exact coin. This is the point brought about by most all of the traditional comics written before the emergence of “grey matter” into the genre, yet no movie has ever done as good a job as this of highlighting their connection. The tete-a-tete between the two characters is equal parts intense and filled with longing. Elijah has long searched for the one to answer his ideology that there exists a man at the other end of the spectrum as he; David is an introvert who longs to simply connect with others, which Elijah, with his outward personality and flamboyant dress, possesses.
It is through their budding friendship that the truth behind David’s existence is slowly revealed. This is the overall best aspect of the storytelling. There is very little violence in the film – only one scene at the end, really. It tells the tale through dialogue and calm visual representation, using bright color to highlight the important events unfolding. David goes through many evolutions along the way. It is discovered that he is stronger than most men, that he is not easily hurt. We find out he is unusually altruistic: in an effort to save his dying relationship with his soon-to-be wife, a young David fakes an injury during a car accident, thereby saving Audrey from the miserable life he assumes would be forthcoming were he to keep on his path as an athlete. Their son, Joseph, thinks there is something special about his father from the beginning, and it is to him that David exposes himself toward the end of the movie as a way to strengthen their bond and save Joseph from the horror of self-doubt that has plagued him his entire life. In all, it’s really just a story of a man discovering his place in the world – a duty that no other comic book movie, which this basically is, has ever accomplished.
The acting is superb and the pace flows slowly without feeling dragged out. Bruce Willis embodies David Dunn as much as Samuel Jackson becomes Elijah Price. In fact, the acting is so well played out that the twist at the end of the film, which had every chance to come off as cheesy, became a highlight, and even almost obvious in hindsight. The overriding theme – that there is an emptiness which dwells within each of us that longs to be filled should we ignore our true purpose – resonates with the audience. We all want to find our path in life, after all. And I’d bet than any of us has had that sensation, upon waking up in the morning, that there’s something we haven’t done which we should have.
“They called me Mister Glass,” Elijah tells David at the end of the movie, after their true intentions are revealed. But the unasked question between them is what resounds the most, and also helps make this one of the best films I’ve ever seen.
Where do we go from here?