Catching Up: Unbreakable (2000) – Unfulfilled Potential

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Bruce Willis in Unbreakable

I’m not ashamed to say I missed Unbreakable when it first came out, I was ten after all. What I am slightly ashamed with is that I was willing to let it slip through the cracks of films I had yet to see. If I wasn’t so curious about the upcoming release of Glass, then I might well have gone years without watching what turned out to be M Night Shyamalan’s  best film and a loving tribute to superhero culture in a time when Joel Schumacher had decimated it.

Unbreakable, if like me you didn’t know, follows security guard David Dunn (Bruce Willis) who inexplicably survives a devastating train crash that kills everybody on board except for him. Catching the eye of Elijah Price (Samuel L Jackson), a comic book enthusiast who has spent his life seeking out possible superheroes, Dunn begins to entertain the notion he survived the crash for a reason beyond luck.

For someone so used to the expanded universes of the MCU and DCEU, Unbreakable is not just a welcome breath of fresh air, but a clever diversion off the path of conventional origin stories. Moody and atmospheric, this isn’t the story of a perfectly sculpted, honest to a fault Captain America-esque hero. David Dunn is a flawed man, both with the state of his marriage and his career but most of all his temperament. There is an overwhelming sadness to the film that eats at you.

The off kilter shooting style Shyamalan uses not only pushes this feeling to breaking point but it compliments Willis’ subtle but often times heartbreaking performance. The silence with which Dunn swallows his pain is part of what makes him the hero we all know he could be. The imperfect world he inhabits breeds a feeling of uncontrollable emptiness, something that is hard to shake over the course of the film. The fact that his characters rarely fill his shots makes them seem almost irrelevant to this world, just like they could be forgotten in the crowd if we didn’t know they existed.

This emptiness is present in Dunn, as he tries to fill it in many different ways. The possibility of something more when presented to him brings a sliver of sunlight to the film that blossoms slowly but surely into some compelling drama. Accompanied by a terrific score by James Newton Howard that proves to be equal parts depressed, introspective and triumphant, Unbreakable feels like the three act comic books its based on.

The slow, steady pace never screams superhero in the same way as Marvel does, instead choosing to dissect what makes a hero in the first place. Rarely in a superhero film is the idea that the real hero is the people around you that push you to be more than you are. Shyamalan’s lighter touch here gives Willis and Jackson in particular to really push their characters. The long takes mask a feeling of anticipation and tension that carries you through the clunkier moments, of which there were very few to find.

When push comes to shove, Unbreakable thrives through its story, a discussion of what makes us special through the veil of a superhero story. Not only do the choices made within define our lives but they can bring such regret if they are the wrong decisions. While some cling to what is, others look to what could be. Teasing its story like a novel, this is very natural storytelling where life has the habit of getting in the way of what David  and Elijah want.

The idea that being super makes you anything more than what you are already is a fallacy according to Shyamalan, in fact it might just compound you more than anything. That might be the greatest trait Shyamalan has instilled here, that sense that what is truly important isn’t how good you are, what you can do or what makes you special. It’s that you really know yourself, that might be why Unbreakable lives on in peoples mind’s years after its release. Maybe that is what makes it special.


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