"They Call Me Mr. Glass"
I don't understand why "Unbreakable", M. Night Shymalan's second film is not more widely praised. "The Sixth Sense" is a hard act to follow, but "Unbreakable" is a remarkably good film and one of my favorites.
If you look at the career of Shyamalan, the similarities to the career of Orson Welles are remarkable. Each started off with a bang, creating truly memorable films. Granted, "The Sixth Sense" is no "Citizen Kane", but both are remarkable in their own rites. Then each made a second film which was good, but flawed. In Welles case, this may have been the result of studio tampering. After that, each subsequent film has been less successful, less interesting, and less memorable. Welles will always be remembered for his masterful first film, and some flawed but interesting work throughout his career, "The Lady from Shanghai" stands out as a good example. It is far too early to tell if Shyamalan will suffer the same fate, but after the disastrous "The Village" and the mediocre "Lady in the Water", it doesn't look promising for the former wunderkind.
David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a security guard at a college football stadium in Philadelphia, travels home from New York on the train. As he flirts with a woman and contemplates how well his interview went, he begins to notice something is wrong. Then the train crashes. David is the only survivor and he doesn't have a cut on him. His wife, Audrey (Robin Wright Penn) and son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), are overjoyed to see him when he is released from the hospital. Soon, David receives an invitation from Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), the owner of a rare comic book store called "Limited Edition", to come and visit. Elijah has a rare disease making his bones brittle. When he was born, his legs and arms were broken during delivery. Elijah is convinced that David has superpowers, but David is dubious. Soon, he begins to wonder and puts himself to various tests.
"Unbreakable" is a very intelligent, well made movie about the myth of superheroes. I think the film may have been a little ahead of its time. Shortly after the film's release, Michael Chabon published "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" and suddenly there were many projects examining the origin of myth and superheroes, giving the ideas entertaining twists and fictionalized roots. So why didn't "Unbreakable" catch on? I'm not sure. Perhaps the film's approach is too cerebral, rooting everything too much in the real world. People may have been disappointed because David never really takes on a super hero persona. It happens in stages, in a more subtle way.
There are many layers to every character, giving them depth and interest, making it a joy to watch them. David is a minimum wage security guard struggling with his relationship with his wife and child. He is trying to get a better job, to make things easier for them, to ease the strain on the family. The train accident leaves him shell shocked, but he doesn't give it much thought. Then, when he meets Elijah, he naturally discounts the strange man's theories. But Elijah has many facets as well. He sells rare comic books and comic book art, something that kept him going through his lonely childhood. But he won't sell the prized possessions to just anyone. He is far too attached to the pieces for that, they have to be able to appreciate the work they are about to purchase. If he doesn't believe they will, he doesn't sell it. He is obsessed with all things 'comic book'. As he grows older, he becomes convinced that there are real super heroes out in the world and scans newspaper stories and newscasts for stories about survivors. Then David appears, in his own hometown, and he is sure.
This is one of Bruce Willis' best performances to date. As David, he is a quiet man, unsure of his status in life at any point. Then, as he begins to question why he survived this train wreck, when no one else did, he becomes even more skeptical. As he deals with these questions, he still has to deal with the problems most people have; his strained relationship with his wife (they sleep in different rooms), his son, work, money and more. As he slowly becomes convinced of Elijah's theories, he sets small tasks for himself; he bench presses huge amounts of weight, as his son watches with admiration, he can see or sense things about people just by touching them, he looks for people to help. At one point, he decides the idea is just too ludicrous and completely discounts it, causing Joseph to become confused. Joseph is so sure his dad has superpowers that he sets a test of his own. This is a very emotional scene because everyone is scared. When Joseph presents the challenge, David is scared that he may just be a regular human and will die. So he yells at his son, his wife yells at their son, finally getting him to stop.
We meet Elijah, right after he is born, and learn of his condition. Later, as a young boy we learn of his loneliness. He doesn't like to go outside, to play, because he always breaks a bone and that causes him pain. Then, as an adult, Samuel L. Jackson takes over the role; walking with a glass cane, wearing predominantly purple clothes, Elijah is a memorable presence. At one point, he chases a man David stopped, to see if he is actually has an item that David saw, providing more evidence of the security guard's powers. Chasing the man, on his fragile legs, he trips and crashes down some stairs. In the next scene, David meets Elijah who is now in a wheelchair, his legs broken and immobilized to help them to heal. Elijah is even more determined to prove David has unusual powers, but David is even more reluctant. As the two characters continue to exchange ideas and thoughts, we realize there is something going on, below the surface that we can't quite identify. Something that is driving both of them.
Shyamalan does a masterful job with much of the film, letting scenes play out, letting them go to places we might not expect. There are many scenes involving David and his family and many may ask why it is necessary to have to watch this. Let's get to the superhero flying. These scenes add texture and back-story to the characters. Because we know David is having trouble with his family, we understand why he is reluctant to immediately jump into the role of superhero. He doesn't want any harm to come to them. Also, he is just learning about the whole thing, we are watching the birth of the character. As he deals with his job, we learn about events in his past, revealing a lifelong reticence to create or attract attention.
One particularly impressive scene happens late in the film. Almost convinced, David sets out to prove that he has some powers. With Elijah's guidance, he goes to Grand Central Station and walks slowly through the crowds of people. As he has just left work, and it is raining, he still wears his Security poncho, his cape. As he brushes against people, he is able to sense something about them; he is looking for someone to help, to save. One teenager participated in an assault, throwing a bottle at two African American couples from a passing car, injuring one of the women. Another college student took advantage of a drunken co-ed in his dorm and he now returns home to mom and dad. Then David finds him; brushing against a maintenance worker, he gets a vision of the man invading a home and causing all forms of havoc. This is David's test. He follows the man to his new home and quickly assesses the situation before setting about his task. This scene is masterful because it contains almost no dialogue, yet we always understand what is going on. It is also suspenseful and well done.
Perhaps even better, is the next scene in which David reveals to his son what happened the night before. Joseph starts to cry because he is both proud of his Dad and happy to see that he was right.
Shyamalan also introduces us to Elijah very early and lets us see some key moments in his life, developing the character even further. The obsession with comic books, his belief in human super heroes, and his disease will all make sense in the end.
All that said, the film is available as part of a two DVD set. The second DVD has a wealth of extras, including a documentary narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and many more standard extras hosted by the director, 'making of' documentaries, creation of technical aspects, etc. But the packaging is some of the worst I have ever seen. The film is packaged in a cardboard sleeve, which is encased in a cardboard slip cover. Because of this, the box was partially smashed when I received it. Removing the plastic and the security tags yanked off a large chunk of the cover art. The security sticker was stuck directly to the cardboard and the cover art. The package is completely ruined because of this. This damage could've been avoided by using the regular plastic holders 99% of DVDs are packaged in.
"Unbreakable" is a film I think about often. The performances are powerful, the story is interesting and believable and the production values are top notch. You should give it a try.