On My Shelves: Unbreakable

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Capsule summary: Bruce Willis plays an ordinary man who does security work. After a train accident somehow leaves him miraculously untouched, he is contacted by a mysterious man who tells him he may not be ordinary at all, but so extraordinary that he can no longer lead an ordinary life. The truth is even stranger, and more frightening, than it seems at first.

 

It is a rare thing to come across anything NEW in either the thriller OR superhero genres. This combination, produced by M. Night Shamalyan before his decline, manages to give us something new for both. We start with a young boy, Elijah Price, who is born with a terrible medical curse: his bones are so brittle that they can break under any significant strain. To motivate him to at least try to make as much use of his body as he can, his mother buys him comic books which he likes and places them on the playground across the street; Elijah accepts the challenge, and the comic-book world within…

 

… Years later, a devastating train accident occurs, leaving security worker David Dunn (Bruce Willis) untouched though nearly everyone else is killed. Elijah (played in unusually understated fashion by Samuel L. Jackson), who now runs a collectibles store focused around comic memorabilia, contacts David. It seems that Elijah, because of his incredible fragility (for which the neighborhood children have nicknamed him “Mr. Glass”), formed a theory that the bell-curve distribution of human traits demanded that there be someone on the “opposite end” from him: someone virtually unbreakable, superhuman. Elijah (played as an adult by Samuel L. Jackson) is clearly somewhat nuts, yet there is a wierd and compelling power about him, and about the faith he has that there is a higher power motivating these events.

 

David does not accept this theory at once, but eventually other odd coincidences force him to at least test this nutcase’s ideas… and the test results are everything that Elijah expects, stunning even David and his son; the sequence with David attempting to find the limit of his strength is simultaneously amusing and chilling.

 

In the end, David accepts that there is, in fact, some part of him driven to seek out and oppose true evildoers — those who kill with pleasure and so on — and in a dramatic sequence fights his first battle as a vigilante. Ironically, even though he does NOT go looking for some funny costume and tights, the outfit he wears works *AS* a superhero costume, even supplying him with an appropriate superheroic name: “Security”.

 

*BIG* SPOILER WARNING, DO NOT READ ANY FARTHER IF YOU WANT ANY CHANCE TO WATCH THE REMAINDER OF THE FILM UNKNOWING

 

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But the true shocker comes at the end, when we discover that, in order to FIND his superhero, Elijah has been CAUSING multiple disasters, winnowing through countless scenes of destruction to find the one unbreakable man or woman. The man we thought was playing “Professor X” to David’s X-Man life is, in fact, more akin to the Joker looking for his Batman. “Mr. Glass” could not be a superhero, so obviously he would have to be the villain — and FIND a hero to oppose him.

 

     This discovery is one of the most terrifyingly chilling moments I’ve ever seen in cinema. The horror on David’s face as he realizes what “Mr. Glass” has been doing… how many people he has killed or maimed in the name of finding his superhero… is heart-rending, and though he turns in Elijah, it is very much a replaying of the classic superhero watching the villain led off, wondering if the villain can ever pay enough for the crimes he’s committed.

 

     “Mr. Glass” is also a brilliant depiction of a… more realistic, so to speak, Joker – a man unhinged by something terrible in his life (in Elijah’s case, his brittle bones confining him to a painful life with nothing but his increasingly bent imagination) that he ends up seeing the world through a filter so strange and dark that his very perceptions are not ours; what is wrong to us becomes inevitable for them. In Elijah Price we meet the ultimate consequences of obsession; even with him in prison, we must wonder… will he truly be rendered powerless? He was never a man of action – couldn’t be – yet he achieved everything he set out to do. Such a man will not be easily stopped by mere prison bars.

 

The ending of the movie also leaves open the other obvious question: will David ever play Hero again? Despite this shock, we don’t know. I would guess… yes. The ironic fact is that Mr. Glass *WAS* telling the truth. There IS a special power in David, one specifically there for finding those of true evil intent, and he truly does have a strong drive to act on it. But what a dark and sinister origin to have…

 

In this film, Shamalyan’s talents were well-used, with a stellar cast to back him up. I think this is Shamalyan’s best work – I certainly liked it better than The Sixth Sense, his other generally well-thought-of work. I strongly recommend Unbreakable.

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Xander Opal says:

    Unbreakable is a rare gem indeed. M. Night Shamalyan did an excellent job of working with tension and anticipation; the setting was just close enough to the Real World that there was no guarantee that the protagonist would win, or even survive.

    Interesting, I never noticed that David Dunn’s name is alliterative in the tradition of superheroes through the ages.

  2. Douglas E. Berry says:

    This one is a favorite of mine. Great performances from Willis and Jackson good cinematography, well-directed. A real treat.

    Sadly the last good film from M. Night.

  3. The most thrilling part, for me, was during the rescue: the bad guy found his ‘super weakness’ by accident.
    Great show, well plotted and moved well from scene to scene.

  4. Stephen St. Onge says:

    Agreed, a marvelous film, although I like THE SIXTH SENSE a little more. Now if Shamalyan could just be persuaded to make a film WITHOUT a surprise ending, he might get his mojo back.

Your comments or questions welcomed!