“It’s alright to be afraid, David, because this part won’t be like a comic book. Real life doesn’t fit into little boxes that were drawn for it.” -Elijah Price
Unbreakable is a film either loved or hated. People who hate it tend towards two poles: bemoaning that it has silly super hero elements stapled onto reality, or complaining that tepid and boring reality has infected a perfectly serviceable super hero flick. I prefer to apply the Reeses Axiom in this particular case.
Shyamalan originally envisioned the film as a three act story in the traditional structure of a super hero narrative: origin story, maturation into power, confrontation with nemesis. Shyamalan decided during the writing process that the origin story in this case was the most interesting story to tell and deserved to be expanded into the full length of the feature. That decision is derided by many fans of comic book films, who note that the origin story is so overdone as to be cliched at this point. How many freaking times do we really have to see Batman, Superman, and Spiderman go through essentially the same first hour of the film anyway? The difference in Unbreakable is in an unswerving devotion to grounding the film firmly in reality every step of the way. It is a retelling of the cliched super hero origin story with every genre element stripped out. If The Dark Knight distilled most of the fantasy of comic books out of the bottle, Unbreakable is Everclear, something even purer if not nearly as palatable.
Unbreakable follows an extraordinarily simple and logically appealing premise: if there are those with genetic flaws that make them supremely frail and weak, what if there are people on the other side of the curve who are impossibly invincible and strong? Would they even know what they were, or would they remain hidden in anonymity? After all, you don’t go to the doctor if what’s abnormal is that you never get sick.
Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson turn in superb performances as David Dunn and Elijah Price, both playing completely against the types that have dominated their careers. Willis is quiet, withdrawn, nary a quip in sight. Jackson is a genius trapped in a broken body, swinging between polar opposites of foaming passion and suicidal depression. The weakest component of the film is Spencer Treat Clark, who just doesn’t quite have the acting chops to hold up the large portions of the film dedicated to his portrayal of Willis’ son. It’s a shame Shyamalan couldn’t have snagged Haley Joel Osment for one more film.
The film’s visuals echo comic books, in the subtle ways that drab blues and grays dominate except for significant characters who jump out with signature colors of green, purple, orange. There are several shots that emphasize realistic projections of comic book norms, the most striking perhaps when David climbs out of a pool in the midst of the final confrontation, raising himself from one knee on clenched fist, head bowed, drenched poncho hanging around him exactly like a cape in a split second pose made iconic by just about every super hero comic book in print.
The script takes its time, allowing the events to unfold more as a mystery to be unraveled than the forging of a hero. David is a skeptic, looking not for something to make him special, but something to make him fit in. He wants to know why he survived. He wants to know what he’s meant to do in this world. He’s not a hero, he’s a man. The unfolding of the mystery plays out not as triumphant or gleeful, but as something horrific. David is horrified to be the only survivor of a train wreck, not a scratch on him. The doctors don’t look at him as a miracle but with a palpable unease. When David breaks in to see the wreckage of the train, sees that there is no rational way that flesh could survive it intact, he is sickened. When his son piles an ungodly amount of weight onto the barbell, and watches his father lift it without noticing, they both react with a breathlessness approaching terror. Horror is rooted in the unknown, and there is no more terrifying unknown than not understanding what you are, even if the mysteriousness is good in some objective way.
At its heart, the film isn’t really about comics or superheros so much as the myths we make to explain the world, the exaggerations we pile one on top of the other in a societal game of telephone, turning something simple into something grandiose. There’s a conversation early in the film in which Elijah explains how perfectly realistic an original sketch of a superhero is: muscles and proportions perfectly and lovingly sculpted like a work of Michelangelo. It’s only once it gets into the publication process that the exaggerations seep in, the fake bulges, the spandex, the otherworldly powers. Simple concepts become elaborated as we read them off of Plato’s wall, unimaginable strength turns into punches through steel, indestructible flesh becomes a mutant healing factor, the fact that a heroic man can drown like any other is explained by kryptonite.
But the myths work in the other direction too. The kernel of truth at the heart of them gives us some direction, some hint at the incredible things that truly are possible.
“Do you know what the scariest thing is? To not know your place in this world, to not know why you’re here.” -Elijah Price
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.