Quote Of The Week:

"I'll be out back. I'm going to find a tree to chop down." - Walt Bishop, MOONRISE KINGDOM

Monday, 2 April 2012

A Second Look At: Unbreakable (2000)


Over the last decade it seems our cinemas have fallen foul of a sort of superhero epidemic. I don’t think I’d be alone though, if I suggested that this deluge of heroics is starting to feel a bit too overly familiar. While there have been some excellent entries in the genre, too many of these ‘average at best’ comic book adaptations seem content to tread the same tired path. But in this sea of mediocrity there is one film that stands head and shoulders above the rest. Playing like a Mike Leigh version of the superman legend, M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable is an outstanding reminder that, in the right hands, classic material can still feel innovative and fresh. A remarkable, underrated oddity, Unbreakable is not only Shyamalan’s finest film, but may just be the greatest superhero movie ever made.


Set in a cold, bleak vision of Philadelphia, Unbreakable stars Bruce Willis as David Dunn, a security guard going through marital problems, who can’t escape the feeling that maybe his life was meant for something more. But after emerging unscathed, as the only survivor of a devastating train crash, he’s approached by Elijah Price, a comic book obsessive convinced that David has the potential to be a real life superhero. As a sufferer of brittle bone disease, Elijah (played by Samuel L. Jackson) believes that if the natural world could produce someone like him, a man who breaks easily, then surely it could produce a polar opposite, a man who is effectively, unbreakable.  Naturally however, David is a little sceptical, but his son Joseph (played by Spencer Treat Clark) is far more willing to believe and along with Elijah, sets out to convince his father of his superhuman credentials. Now admittedly on paper, this may not read like a radical new entry in the comic book genre, but this is far from your standard tale of superhero discovery.  In many ways, Unbreakable feels tonally closer to films like Let the Right One In, than it does to its more obvious contemporaries like Sam Raimi’s Spiderman. In fact, Unbreakable could easily pass as a spiritual predecessor to that much celebrated Swedish horror. Preoccupied by themes of alienation and broken families, both films emphasise the human side of the supernatural dilemma. With a similarly meditative pace, due largely to calculated shot construction, creative staging and a restrained approach to editing, the films share a brooding atmosphere that suggests they occupy the same reality. It’s a harsh, unforgiving world that feels as brutally real as a ‘kitchen sink’ drama. Of course, Unbreakable isn’t the first superhero film to try and ground the events of the comic book universe. In fact, it seems that almost every new entry in the genre attempts to mine a darker, earthier side to their characters. And some, like The Dark Knight, have done this very effectively. But for all its gritty realism, Nolan’s benchmark adaptation is still restricted by the fact that the story centres on a man who goes out at night dressed as a bat. Admittedly the new costume is far cooler than Adam West’s 60s spandex; the production team have done a great job updating it. But when the costume is that modern, the addition of bat ears seems slightly irrelevant and will always smooth the edges of the intended realism, no matter how rough the story gets. Unbreakable however, suffers no such problems. It comes at the superhero mythology from a different angle and is all the better for it.

When considering Hollywood’s inability to successfully adapt his work, the graphic novel author Alan Moore once commented that “There is something about the quality of comics that makes things possible that you couldn't do in any other medium". And maybe he’s onto something.  Though a graphic novel may look like a readymade storyboard, film is a far more literal medium and the two should not be confused. In reality, the movies and comics are as separate as painting and sculpture, so what’s acceptable in one, may not work in the other. The idea of superheroes jumping around in brightly coloured jumpsuits seems to be almost universally accepted in comic books, but when you convert that image to film it starts to look a little bit ridiculous, even if you do manage to update the costume. Because no matter how much they disguise or remodel their origins, a film based on a graphic novel is inherently bound and subsequently hindered by the laws of that comic book world. But as a comic book film, not based on a specific comic book, Unbreakable has a significant advantage over even the most successful conversions. Free from the constraints of adaptation, Shyamalan is not restricted by obligations to source material and diehard fans. And as a result, he’s able craft a superhero fable that feels authentic within a real world setting. Unbreakable takes the ideas and themes of comic books, but shapes them specifically for the movies, thus avoiding any awkward stylistic translations. It wipes the slate clean and builds a film friendly superhero from the ground up. An approach that ultimately, and somewhat ironically, feels truer to the spirit of the comic book world than most straight adaptations. Unbreakable may not look or even feel like a superhero film, but that doesn’t mean it shuns the traditions of the genre; quite the opposite in fact. Beneath the surface it hits all the same narrative beats. It’s got everything you’d want from a good comic book film: a reluctant hero, a climactic confrontation and most importantly, a really good super villain.

Shot from a high angle, David's visions are reminiscent of a security camera
POV, reinforcing the idea that he's a protector sent here to watch over us.
Criticised upon release for what was considered a poor ending, many felt cheated by Shyamalan’s attempt to wrap up events with a simple text summary. But this concluding epilogue should not overshadow the affecting final scene. Having finally embraced his life as a vigilante, Elijah congratulates David with a simple handshake. But in doing so, he deliberately reveals some rather large skeletons in his closet. Knowing that David has the power to see the past of anyone he touches, Elijah essentially confesses that in his desperate attempt to find his unbreakable opposite, he orchestrated a number of catastrophic tragedies, including the train crash that brought David to his attention. And so, the superhero spectrum comes full circle. It’s a twist that outshines The Sixth Sense and provides the final piece of the comic book puzzle; Elijah is David’s arch nemesis. He’s even got the name to go with it. Dubbed Mr Glass by the kids at school because of his condition, it’s only in this final scene that the true meaning of his nickname is properly understood. Ideal for a super villain, it’s a moniker so perfectly comic book that it could have been yanked from the pages of any graphic novel. Disguised by a smokescreen of supposed realism, Shyamalan has found real world reasons to subtly introduce the staples of the superhero genre. Note for example, the discreet use of costume. Given that Elijah is hosting a gallery opening, you’d be forgiven for overlooking his smart clothing in the final scene as eccentric formal attire. But look closely and you’ll see with his long leather coat and decorative collar, his black gloves and diamond shaped zip, Elijah looks every bit the image of a classic super villain. Even David, at certain times, bears more than a fleeting resemblance to the archetypal idea of a comic book hero. When doing battle to save a family being held hostage, David wears a long raincoat with a low hood that conceals his face. Having worn it several times throughout the film, its significance is not immediately obvious, but the raincoat is of course, his cape. Masking his face and protecting his anonymity, it’s a superhero costume like any other. He even hangs it up in his wardrobe like an alter ego. And it’s this sort of symbolic reimagining, as opposed to a literal reading, that sets Unbreakable apart from its contemporaries. Instead of directly transposing the ideas of comic books, Shyamalan gives them a subtle nod within a more filmic reality. He takes the superhero mythology and makes it human. Which is the key to the film’s success.

Unbreakable’s finest scene is not a breathtaking battle between good and evil. It’s not a high octane chase through a city. It’s a small moment between a father and his son. Having saved the captive family, David has embraced the life he was destined to lead and in doing so, has begun to find some sort of contentment. Unfulfilled by years of wasted potential, to his wife Audrey and to Joseph, David has been a distant figure. But having finally accepted who he is, the “sadness” he feels starts to lift and as a result, he begins to re-connect with his emotionally estranged family. It’s a fresh start that seemed a long way off at the beginning of the film. So when Joseph comes downstairs, unaware of his father’s heroics the night before, he seems almost taken aback by the new sense of calm in the Dunn household. Having been through a difficult period in their marriage, the sight of Audrey (played by Robin Wright) and David chatting amiably around the breakfast table feels like a rare moment of contented domesticity. Almost wary of the unusual harmony, Joseph seats himself at the table where David quietly slides over the morning paper and encourages him to take a look. On the front page, an article describes the events of the previous evening, where an unknown vigilante saved a family from a madman holding them hostage. Recognising this anonymous act of heroics as the work of his father, Joseph immediately begins to well up and David quickly follows suit. Having struggled through the strains on his parents’ marriage, Joseph has been desperate to believe what seemed like the unbelievable. The scene channels the idea that every son, at some point, thinks their Dad is superman. Only in Unbreakable, it’s actually true. And by showing Joseph the newspaper, David quietly communicates that he has accepted who he is and that his son was right to believe in him. But despite this revelation, the two must fight to hide their tears. Audrey, who has been standing at the kitchen counter with her back to pair, strongly opposed Elijah’s wild theories and as such, it was agreed that the family would cut all ties with him. So David and Joseph struggle to compose themselves, knowing that this must remain their secret. Full of raw emotion, it’s a scene that could easily have been overplayed or cheesy, but it works perfectly due to spot on performances and an almost total lack of dialogue. Having gained the confirmation he has been so desperately searching for, Joseph and his father bond over a shared secret. Built on the universally unifying concept of “don’t tell your mother”, it’s a moment of poignancy we can all relate to. Because while Unbreakable may be firmly rooted in a world of superheroes, at its heart is a very human story; about faded dreams and not knowing your place in the world.

Suited and booted, Elijah assumes his secret identity
as super villain Mr Glass.
The characters aren’t simply functioning nodes designed to set up the next action sequence. Each has their own tragedies, their own history. Even the bad guy. In fact, it could be argued that although David drives the narrative, Unbreakable is actually Elijah’s story. Shyamalan devotes as much time to him as he does to David and it’s Elijah’s tale that bookends the film. As a result, he’s one of the few super villains that doesn’t feel paper thin. And he’s one of the few you can actually empathise with. Elijah, like many of us, is working through the realisation that life isn’t what he expected it to be. Because we’re not all meant for greatness and as such, many of us can struggle to find our place. As children we’re raised on the stories of superheroes, so naturally we all want to grow up to be the good guys. But it doesn’t always work out that way. Because if there’s a superhero, there must be a super villain, which means somebody has to be the bad guy. So in the end Elijah accepts who he’s destined to be. He comes to terms with the cards he’s been dealt and takes comfort from the fact that he knows who he is, even if he’s not who he wanted to be. The Dark Knight’s Joker may be an unstoppable agent of chaos, but even he can’t compete with this level of complexity. There’s no denying Shyamalan’s had a bad run of it lately, but his recent failures should not overshadow his past achievements. Unbreakable is a super hero film for grownups. Taking the staples of the genre, it creates something inventive and thoughtful. And in an era of Spiderman reboots and endless adaptations, we need films like Unbreakable more than ever.

3 comments:

  1. I like the story line of this film… but do you think M. Knight Shamalan can be compared to ALfred Hitchcock?

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  2. Finally somebody that think that this is a very underrated masterpiece!!!

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    Replies
    1. It's good to know that others agree! Thanks for reading.

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