Unbreakable (2000)

(c) Touchstone Pictures

For his fourth feature film, M. Night Shyamalan tells the story of a tin man in search of a heart.  Only this tin man doesn’t live in the magical world of Oz—he’s stuck in the drab, pitiless, colorless world of the real.  In this place, there are no heroes.  There doesn’t seem to be a point to anything.  Then comes the day when this tin man, named David Dunn, wakes up in the hospital to learn that he is the sole survivor of a horrific train derailment.  And he doesn’t have a scratch on him.

Shyamalan’s tin man may look invulnerable, but he carries a multitude of scars.  He’s rusting on the inside.  His home is cracked and close to broken.  Surviving the accident is just the first catalyst to the reawakening of his soul.  There’s something very different about him, and that difference attracts the attention of Elijah, an art dealer with a very unique idea about who David really is.

Many things work together to keep Unbreakable from turning into a weird parody of comic book heroism.  It draws its look and inspiration from those colorful pages, but opts for a more restrained pallet.  It’s graphic novel noir, tainted with sadness, devoid of cheer.  Everything about it feels muted—from the dull colors, to Bruce Willis’s understated performance, to the story’s near total lack of adventure and suspense—and yet it’s all strangely arresting.  

Most of the narrative is built on a kind of dualism.  Elijah has a condition called Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a very real (though very rare) disease that leaves every bone in his body as frail as a twig.  He is, for lack of nuance, David’s mirror opposite. Shyamalan even uses an assortment of mirrors and other reflective surfaces to unfold Elijah’s arc just to make sure you get it.  But less obvious turns in the story invite you to think about what you don’t see while Shyamalan plays around with what you do see, and that’s where some of the story’s real strength lies.

For instance, when David emerges from the memorial service to find the card Elijah left on his windshield, we find he’s all alone in the parking lot.  There are a few things we can infer here, the most obvious being that David is the last to leave.  We can assume he’s been at the church for hours.  The families of the victims have all left. The news media which was sure to cover the event is nowhere to be seen.  Maybe he was hiding.  Maybe he just wanted to be alone.  Maybe he was praying.  Whatever he was doing, the notion underscores David’s despair in a very subliminal way.

Unbreakable never caught on as well as The Sixth Sense or Signs, probably because of it’s bleak tone and humorless quality.  David Dunn is like a page out of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass—“Oh me, oh life … the questions of these recurring.”  It isn’t until David starts to contribute a verse to the powerful play that the tin man at last receives his heart.  That odd sense of dualism even pays off when an image that once conveyed sorrow—a cloaked man standing in the rain—later conveys triumph.

Bleakness, however, overshadows so much of the film that Shyamalan is unable to bring the story to a crescendo.  The tin man finds his heart, but the film never really does.  A final revelation—that oft-used staple of the director—hints at the possibility of so much more only to be undone by an underwhelming coda.  When Elijah is revealed to be so much more than what we first thought, the story shifts gears, only to stall and then fade to black.

This film was, we’ve since learned, only supposed to be part one.  The whole thing certainly feels like it’s just getting started.  But whatever its weaknesses, it remains a meditative and thoughtful narrative about a repressed man who finds his purpose, and the healing that takes place once he embraces his identity.

Bruce Willis (David Dunn)
Samuel L. Jackson (Elijah Price)
Robin Wright (Audrey Dunn)
Spencer Treat Clark (Joseph Dunn)
Charlayne Woodard (Elijah’s Mother)

Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

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