M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable (2000) is an utterly unique part of his canon –nothing like the film that preceded it, The Sixth Sense (1999), and nothing like the film that succeeded it, Signs (2002). While The Sixth Sense and Signs are obviously horror films, Unbreakable falls more appropriately under the suspense umbrella. Unbreakable is the tale of an unlikely superhero who only slowly comes to believe he has superhuman powers, and an ardent comic enthusiast who’s been searching for a superhero his entire life. Despite the ostensible pleasantness of this plot line, the film is remarkably dark and foreboding. Unbreakable is at least as heavy, if not heavier, than The Sixth Sense, and far darker than the uplifting Signs. As I find it impossible to discuss an M. Night Shyamalan film without addressing the ending, be warned that spoilers will occur in this analysis.
The first scene in Unbreakable is a sort of inverted rom-com scene that will make you wary of the main character, if you don’t downright condemn him. When an attractive woman named Kelly (Leslie Stefanson) asks David Dunn (Bruce Willis) if she can sit by him on the train, he subtly takes off his wedding ring, hides it in his pocket, and asks her what her plans are when she arrives in Philadelphia. However, unlike a moving rom-com scene, in which the unlikely couple meets by happenstance en route to a new destination, this scene exposes David’s flawed side. When Kelly awkwardly rejects him, and proceeds to change her seat, David slips his wedding band back on. Though we see Kelly initially, her face is often hidden behind the seat by the camera, indicating, perhaps, that she’s nothing special to David; rather, she’s one of many young women he would have hit on—an intimation that seems like a telling commentary on his character. When the seat blocks her face, it enhances her anonymity. Meanwhile, the camera rests on David, who will be our flawed superhero.
The film’s true action ignites when the train unexpectedly derails. David finds himself, confused but inexplicably unscathed in a hospital room. His skin bears not a scratch, and he is the only passenger on the train left alive. He goes home to his broken relationship with a distant wife, and his only slightly less broken relationship with his son, presumably stunned to be alive. At this point in the film, the viewer infers that David is searching; he is a dedicated football stadium security guard, but one senses that he feels his life has a greater purpose, that something is perpetually missing. One day he finds a note on his car asking him how many sick days he’s taken; the letterhead bears the name of a Philadelphia comic art shop. David realizes he’s never taken a sick day – indeed, he can hardly remember being sick – and goes to the store to find the note’s writer and purpose.
At the comic art gallery, David encounters Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) who theorizes that David is the superhero he’s been looking for. While Price believes David is unbreakable (hence the title’s name), Price has a rare (and real) bone disease called osteogenesis imperfecta (which literally means “bone that is made imperfectly from the beginning of life”). The disease causes his bones to break and fracture more easily than an average person’s would. Price, who walks with a cane, was born with two broken arms and two broken legs, and has experienced 54 breaks over the course of his life. Significantly, he has the mildest form of this multi-level disease. In school, kids called him “Mr. Glass” because he broke so easily. Price assumes if he’s Mr. Glass, the world must contain his opposite – someone who doesn’t break. When David survives the derailed train, Price thinks he’s found his man.
Of course, David doesn’t believe Elijah Price at first, and the film becomes, in part, an account of Price consistently trying to convince David that he’s a superhero while David rejects his advances. Even as David does come to accept that he has superhero powers, we have little proof of his “unbreakability.” To that end, much of the film can be viewed two ways: Through the first lens, a prophetic man (not coincidentally named Elijah) understands that David has a higher purpose and tries to convince the hesitant skeptic. Through the second lens, a man whose mind has been affected by his constantly breaking body, an unstable outcast with skewed vision, constantly harasses David, trying to convince him of a logical impossibility. Of course, by the end of the film, the first premise is the most supported. David does perform a heroic duty, and we realize that if David comes in physical contact with a person, he gets a clear vision of the person’s sins – clearly a superhero ability (albeit not one many would want).
David performs his first rescue toward the film’s conclusion. A psychotic man has forced his way into a home. He’s killed the man who lived there and chained up his wife and children. David breaks into the house, tries to save the already dead-wife, and saves the kids, although in doing so he struggles in a way that may be considered ironic given his “superhero” status. After his success, David goes back to the comic art gallery, where he talks to Elijah’s mom and shakes Elijah’s hand. (MAJOR SPOILER HERE). In a telling moment, David talks to Elijah’s mother, who explains that according to Elijah, every super hero has a villain he physically fights against and a more pernicious villain whose strength is his mind, not his physical prowess. The conversation is a harbinger of David’s next realization. David tells Elijah about his deed, shakes Elijah’s hands, and – with his gift to see peoples’ sins – sees Elijah causing a series of atrocities, each which killed hundreds of people, presumably in his effort to find the one man who could survive, the superhero who would be his nemesis. This scene is perhaps the darkest in the film, the scene that most contributes to its bleak ambience.
It is, in part, this darkness, this bleak ambience that contributes to the film’s irony. This film was written in 2000, before the Nolan Batman movies or the slew of Marvel movies came out. It is notably darker than many contemporary comic movies and remarkably darker than the campy early Superman and Batman movies that laid the groundwork for depicting comics in the film genre. If the film’s dark mood creates irony, its dark, angsty character – David is always sad, he says – augments this irony. He has, as stated before, a fractured relationship with his son and a more fractured relationship with his wife, although those relationships do mend throughout the film’s course. And while we tend to associate superheroes with scandalously tight little outfits and capes, David goes on his first rescue mission in an oversized black jacket with a big hood. In a glaring moment of situational irony, our superhero, meant to save the innocent from evil and the jaws of death, is dressed like the grim reaper. And while, during his first mission, he manages to save two children, he needs to kill the psychotic intruder to do so. When David kills the criminal, he goes to rescue the wife, who’s tied to a heater. She falls down dead. Thus, instead of a dazzling rescue scene in which our superhero saves the damsel in distress, he ironically rescues an already-dead woman.
That said, Elijah Price is the quintessential villain for such a film. His ability to kill throngs of people without hesitation makes him malicious and downright insidious. I’ve analyzed evil horror characters before on this website by using literary critic Terry Eagleton’s definition of evil. To Eagleton, a truly evil act is committed when harm is inflicted for no reason, no ultimate gain. If someone does something malicious just for the sake of doing it, that person is committing an evil act and may indeed be evil. By Eagleton’s definition, if a criminal invades a home and kills someone because he wants to steal her jewelry, he is doing something condemnable, heinous, even horrendous, but the act isn’t evil. If he invades a home and kills someone for the sake of killing her with no interest in the material gains, he is committing an evil act and may indeed be evil.
I’ve been fascinated with this definition for a long time. I first explored it on this blog in an article about Psycho, but have played with it many times since then. I find the definition incredibly compelling, because it draws a distinction between different forms of intent. If the bad act is a means to an end, there is a motive for it, making it flawed, even troubling, but not evil. If the bad act is an end itself, it has no motive, and is thus malicious enough to be called “evil.” Only, this definition is problematic when we examine Elijah Price’s character. Price, who has caused whole hotels to burn down and trains to derail, will provoke an atrocity that kills hundreds without flinching. And still, he’s been doing it all to find his superhero, to find the one man who doesn’t die in the atrocity. While nearly anyone would consider Elijah’s actions evil – indeed, would consider Elijah himself evil – Eagleton’s definition would oppose this characterization, because Elijah had a reason for the chaos and death he created. I would argue, however, that Shyamalan creates a brilliant picture of evil in Elijah Price.
It is also interesting that David is white, and Elijah is black. David is healthy – presumably unbreakable – and Elijah breaks “like glass.” I was initially troubled by this observation. Shyamalan takes a marginalized person, a person who could be “otherized” or considered “less than” in our hostile society because of his disability or his skin color and makes him evil. There seems to me something uncomfortable about making the healthy white guy the unbreakable hero of the movie while the disabled black man proves, at the film’s conclusion, to be a vile villain. And yet, I don’t think for a moment that Shyamalan is making a racist statement, and I imagine casting choices may deliver a message to the viewer. I think it’s significant to note that because of his disability and skin color, Elijah is twice-marginalized in a society that rewards sameness and homogeneity. Shyamalan, then, seems to explore what severe marginalization can do to a person, and he creates an unsettling answer in Elijah Price. Indeed, even Elijah’s last name suggests that there is a price to pay for being different.
Ultimately, what I love most about this film is the questions it raises. In a thought-provoking scene, David Dunn stands in a crowded train station, bumping into people, seeing their sins, and deciding what his superhero feat will be. This scene, and other elements of the film, raises the question: would anyone want to be a superhero? Would anyone want Dunn’s gift, or any special superhero gift? For, if being banished to the margins has a price, certainly having a special gift is equally costly. Dunn is forced into a God-like role; he’s given extra insight into the sins of humanity, and he must decide what sins he will punish, what people he will save. Indeed, the movie seems to question his movement toward vigilantism. When he enters the house taken by the invader to save his victims, one wonders if, after spotting the children, calling the police for a SWAT team would be more effective than trying to make the rescue himself. But he does make the rescue, and he successfully saves the children. In doing so, he kills the psychotic intruder who captures them. Is this justice? Do we endorse a vigilante who has the power to see peoples’ sins and the ability to punish the ones he deems most offensive?
Though remarkably different from his other films, for all the questions it raises, Unbreakable is a fantastic movie. It’s refreshing if you want something “a little different” than horror, but still suspenseful enough to keep you lingering on the edge of your seat. I may be partial (because I really like M. Night) but I would say this movie is another hit for a creative master.
Note: This article is part of a series intended to celebrate M. Night Shyamalan’s work while building up to his movie, Split, which will be released at the end of the week. If you’d like to read more about M. Night, you can also read my commentaries on The Visit, The Sixth Sense, and Signs.