We Failed This Film is a series about various films that simply didn’t get the love that they deserved upon initial release. For the eleventh entry, we’re taking a look back at M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, the director’s greatest and most overlooked work.
How We Failed It
Now, it’s almost hard to believe (considering The Happening and The Last Airbender), but M. Night Shyamalan was once one of the best working directors. I saw Signs when I was ten years old, and it changed my life. I had never watched a film before and immediately grasped onto the subtext and the fact that a film could be about more than what was explicitly on screen blew my mind. Shyamalan became the first filmmaker I loved, and I obsessively sought out his previous work in addition to anxiously awaiting new releases. I’m a firm believer that his work from The Sixth Sense to The Village is great, with Lady in the Water and onwards standing as where he quickly deteriorated. (Disclosure: I have not yet seen The Visit.) However, Unbreakable remains arguably the best work of his career and the most overlooked.
David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is a security guard for a college stadium and involved in a horrible train crash that kills everyone except for him. He walks away from the crash miraculously unharmed, without a single scratch or bruise. Afterwards, David is contacted by a mysterious stranger named Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a comic book art dealer with a frail bone condition, who believes that David may in fact be a real life superhero.
Unbreakable actually made significantly good money unlike most films discussed in this column. Off a $75 million budget, Shyamalan’s film would score a $95 million domestic gross, which wasn’t enough of a return to make studio heads break into applause, however foreign markets bought into Unbreakable, giving it a healthy worldwide gross of $248 million. So how did something that made a significant impact at the box office get lost in history?
As per usual, the critical reaction had a part to play in it, as reviews were pretty split at the time of Unbreakable‘s release. Shyamalan had a lot to live up to after the success of The Sixth Sense, with some admirers like Roger Ebert writing “Unbreakable, the new film by M. Night Shyamalan, is in its own way as quietly intriguing as his The Sixth Sense. It doesn’t involve special effects and stunts, much of it is puzzling and introspective, and most of the action takes place during conversations. If the earlier film seemed mysteriously low-key until an ending that came like an electric jolt, this one is more fascinating along the way, although the ending is not quite satisfactory. In both films, Shyamalan trusts the audience to pay attention, and makes use of Bruce Willis’ everyman quality, so we get drawn into the character instead of being distracted by the surface.” Philip French concluded his review with “Shyamalan, however, doesn’t know how to resolve his picture. It ends abruptly, surprisingly and shockingly, and one leaves vaguely dissatisfied. But it’s a film to see, to enjoy, and perhaps to ponder.”
Todd McCarthy wasn’t convinced that Shyamalan was living up to his promise, kicking off his review with “If ever a filmmaker vaulted from unknown to lionized status on the basis of one film, it was M. Night Shyamalan with The Sixth Sense, a little-anticipated ghost story that became one of the 10 highest grossers of all time. The question of whether this singular writer-director can deliver again will, by itself, guarantee a large turnout for Unbreakable. The answer is that he delivers much of the same: Same star, same preoccupation with telepathic and quasi-supernatural/religious powers, same hushed tone and deliberate pace, same sense of absolute control. But there are also serious differences: A weaker story, increased pretentiousness, some ill-advised narrative zigzags and a “surprise” ending that can’t begin to compare with the one in his previous picture.”
The misleading marketing campaign didn’t help much either, with the trailers selling a very loud psychological thriller instead of a pondering superhero tale. Unbreakable just looked much more generic of a film than it actually was. Normally, experiencing a better film than advertised is a great surprise, and of course a word of mouth marketing approach doesn’t work when you’ve made your film seem unappealing from the get-go.
Ultimately, Unbreakable was simply too far ahead of its time as it came before the big boom and arms race of superhero films. Audiences weren’t yet immersed in the type of cinematic superhero storytelling that Shyamalan was deconstructing here, the market for superhero films wasn’t oversaturated yet. Had Unbreakable been released in 2010 rather than 2000, audiences and critics would have been ready to receive it as the breath of fresh air in a tired genre. Another contributing factor that keeps the production hidden these days is the fact that Shyamalan has made so many awful films at this point that nobody likes to acknowledge that he also made some great ones. We want our filmmakers to exist in a firm binary of good/bad, without acknowledging that great filmmakers can make awful films, and vice versa. In this fight to paint Shyamalan as a universally bad filmmaker, Unbreakable got buried away from the respect it deserves.
Why It’s Great
A common theme that runs through Shyamalan’s filmography, even in the bad ones, is the theme of broken relationships and the possibility of repair. Unbreakable deals with this theme right from the start. The first scene finds David pathetically attempting to cheat on his wife with a pretty sports agent that happens to sit next to him on the train. Minutes later, she’s dead along with everyone else. When David enters the hospital lobby to greet his wife Audrey and son Joseph, there’s no joy or relief on the parents’ faces. It’s like they have to pretend that they’re happy he survived. Only Joseph seems glad, and he places the hands of his parents in each others, but they separate as soon as Joseph’s not looking and exit the building. Their marriage is pretty much dead, as they sleep in separate rooms with neither one quite willing to pull the trigger on divorce. David plans to move to New York, deeming their relationship past salvation. Much of the film actually revolves around David and Audrey’s attempts to reconnect and heal. It’s no mistake that the most cinematically heroic shot is not of a feat of physical strength, but emotional strength, as David carries Audrey up the stairs to his room to sleep in the same bed at the end looking like Superman carrying Lois Lane from danger.
Unbreakable is shot unlike any other superhero film. It’s as un-theatrical and un-fantastical as possible, and that’s the point. It’s perhaps the most realistic and grounded take on the “what if” scenario of a real life superhero. Shyamalan and Cinematographer Eduardo Serra shoot very intimately in an observant manner. The first 10-15 minutes are only made up of a handful of different shots, with Shyamalan continuing to rely on longer takes throughout the film to emphasize the weighed down emotion of David. Shyamalan and Serra dip the look of the picture in a blue color scheme to heighten this sense of existential weariness that David lives with, in addition to paying homage to comic book coloring schemes. It’s also worth noting what a gift Shyamalan displayed in Unbreakable by visually identifying character dynamics in the most subtle of ways. Consider the scene where David and Elijah talk in a balcony hallway of the stadium. The stands descend downwards on either side of them until they are the endpoint, with the hallway trapping them in this close proximity. The moment insinuates that no matter what happens, these characters are linked, this is their fate.
Superhero stories are tales of fate and destiny, and Shyamalan uses that traditional narrative structure to intriguing effect. Much of what drives the somber mood of Unbreakable is the existential grayness David feels each morning due to the fact that he’s not living up to his potential, that he’s not doing what he was always meant to do. Elijah believes that if someone so physically fragile like himself exists, then surely someone must exist on the opposite side of the spectrum who is physically impenetrable. When Elijah meets David (and in subsequent encounters), he tries to adapt certain aspects of David’s life to fit this heroic narrative. Elijah thinks the fact that David’s job as a security guard makes him a protector of sorts (supporting his theory). When David has the intuition that a guy in line at the stadium is carrying a silver gun with a black grip, Elijah is determined to prove him right, going so far as to follow the man out of the stadium and falling down the stairs — an extremely dangerous act for him. Elijah sees the gun and identifies this intuition as a superpower for David to develop. He takes the fact that David drowned as a kid as a sign that water serves as his kryptonite, his one weakness. When the twist ending occurs, it’s one that validates Elijah’s longing to belong in a superhero narrative, seeing himself as the villain who was always meant to face off against David’s hero. Just like David discovered his purpose in life, so did Elijah. The superpowers in Unbreakable don’t feel super, but simply heightened a few steps from normalcy. David discovers he hasn’t taken a sick day and that he can bench upwards of 300 pounds. It’s super strength and healing without the spandex.
Shyamalan subtly nudges the audience towards Elijah’s theories with his presentation of the character origins. Both men are marked by pain and sacrifice like most comic book heroes and villains, with Elijah even gaining the comic book moniker of “Mr. Glass” in his childhood due to his condition. In his past, David gave up his promising football career by faking an injury to be with Audrey, akin to Clark Kent giving up his superpowers to be with Lois. David traded his immortality for love. It’s also worth noting that David Dunn has an alliteration in his name that pops up a lot with superheroes — Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Clark Kent.
Unbreakable also makes great use of coloring, particularly in the train station scene near the climax. In that scene, the people that David latches onto are each wearing a bright color that stands out from the blander colors worn by everybody else. People are also wearing brighter colors in the flashes that David receives about what sins and crimes they’ve committed. It’s a subtle bit of highlighting by Shyamalan to draw the audience’s attention to these individuals amongst large crowds. This scene highlights David accepting who he is, and Shyamalan heightens this sense of superheroic activism simply with the security raincoat that David wears, with its massive hood serving as the superhero outfit.
The fight scene in the climax is the biggest move by Shyamalan to ground Unbreakable from theatrics normally associated with superhero films. He does it in one long unbroken take from above, portraying the fight as more of a struggle than a flurry of fists and combat. The “action” is hardly action at all, seemingly unrehearsed and un-theatrical. That scene functions as a microcosm for Shyamalan’s technique and method of adapting the superhero film to a grounded reality. To put a sobering exclamation point on the moment (and steering away from cinematic tradition), Shyamalan ends the scene with David untying the victim, only for her to fall over dead. He’s too late to save this one.
The collective acting is superb across the board. Willis has a believable lived-in sense of weariness that informs each interaction. David’s a very passive man, just going through tired motions in his life. He’s ultimately convincing as a man who is perpetually drowning in quiet misery and emotional suffering. As Ebert noted, his everyman ability is put to great use to bring to life the tale of a regular guy becoming a superhero. It remains one of Willis’ greatest performances, a reminder that he can really deliver incredible work when he feels like it. Elijah Price remains one of Samuel L. Jackson’s most memorable roles, a mixture of obsession, anger and intelligence that he can communicate in the simple tone of his voice or limp of his walk. He commands each scene with certainty and drive, which masks a life full of disappointment and anger. Shyamalan focuses intently on Robin Wright’s Audrey, and the actress fantastically carries the performance. For example, the emotionally bare scene where Audrey asks David if he’s been with anyone since they’ve been having trouble. David replies no, and Audrey tries her best to hold back tears as she tells him she wants to try again. It’s an honest scene that Wright makes convincing and felt, as Audrey carries a similar existential weight to that of David.
James Newton Howard’s score is one that manages to merge the sorrowful mood of Unbreakable with the inherent sense of heroism of the subject matter. There’s a trumpet melody that comes in when David realizes his potential, no matter how small. With each act of increased realization, the volume of the trumpet’s heroic melody rises. When David gets rescued from the pool (his greatest weakness!) and rises again, the trumpet’s melody has been adopted by a full orchestra for effect.
Unbreakable is a film about a man discovering he’s a superhero, but also about a man finally finding out what he’s supposed to be doing with his life and embracing that idea. As Elijah remarks to David, “You know what the scariest thing is? To not know your place in this world, to not know why you’re here. That’s…that’s just an awful feeling.” In crafting a superhero film, Shyamalan also crafted an emotional film about accepting your destiny and fate, regardless of whether that’s good or bad.
Thankfully, Unbreakable has a certain remembrance for some, at least now that superhero films are so common. People are still discovering the film and engaging with it, even despite their reservations towards Shyamalan. Unbreakable also has a vocal supporter in Quentin Tarantino, who remarked “…It not only has Bruce Willis’s best performance on film he’s ever given….it’s also a brilliant retelling of the Superman mythology, in fact so much so, that to me the film was very obscure when it came out as far as what it was about. I actually think they did themselves a disservice, because you can actually break down what the film was about by basically one sentence which would have proved far more intriguing than their ad campaign, which is is basically “What if Superman was here on Earth, and didn’t know he was Superman?”…Unbreakable is one of the masterpieces of our time.”
Shyamalan had originally planned a trilogy to originate from Unbreakable, but after the lukewarm domestic returns, the studios turned it down. He would keep at it for several years, but 15 years later, the possibility of getting a sequel feels as good as dead. However, if Shyamalan were to be able to make one, I would be first in line to see it. A rediscovery of Unbreakable seems to be happening since Shyamalan’s The Visit was his first full blown box office hit since The Sixth Sense. The hope is that this sense of renewed confidence and bankability will lead Shyamalan to at least make good films again, which will then drive interest to his former work. If The Criterion Collection was to ever put out a superhero film, Unbreakable would fit the bill.
Dylan Moses Griffin has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.