Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Elijah Price, asks late on in Unbreakable: “Do you know what the scariest thing is?” There are a lot of answers that come to mind, all entirely subjective. For some it’s heights, for others it’s death, for me it’s spiders (and pretty much anything that crawls). He answers: “To not know your place in this world, to not know why you’re here.” It is this very fear that drives M. Night Shyamalan’s anti-take on the usually theatrical superhero movie, breaking the ground on intimate, human-led storytelling at a time before the genre absorbed the world’s worship and became the big-budget, bombastic religion filmgoers bow down to several times a year.
Quentin Tarantino described the film’s story simply as: “What if Superman was here on earth, and didn’t know he was Superman?” Very fitting indeed. After surviving a horrific train crash which kills everyone else onboard, David Dunn (Bruce Willis) encounters Price, setting him off on a road of self-discovery. Price, nicknamed Mr. Glass, suffers from a rare condition that makes his bones brittle and susceptible to breaks. Growing up was difficult, afraid of something simple as enjoying a swing park – but then his mum bought him comic books, giving him a fresh philosophical insight on life.
As the opening title card tells you, over 62 million comics are sold every year in the US. Their tales of heroes and villains illuminate and possess the imaginations of children, teens and adults alike. But for Price, he sees the literature as “exaggerated truths” that pass down mankind’s legacy across generations, similar to that of the Egyptians’ hieroglyphics. He sees himself at one end of the spectrum; as such, there must be someone else. Someone unbreakable. He believes Dunn fits the bill.
The signs of Dunn’s powers are forecasted early on; delicate, ethereal lighting on the train almost hints that it’s a journey to the afterlife that he will be denied. But watching his personal unravelling of his own capabilities is utterly captivating. Shyamalan is a filmmaker who injects a sense of horror into whatever he does; The Sixth Sense is a psychological drama, Signs is a sci-fi thriller. Unbreakable is a deconstruction of the superhero movie, with flourishes of creepiness that almost never transport the experience too far into a very different time at the movies. He plays with the levity and boundless nature of superhuman abilities; the highlight is a playful, unassumingly epic scene in which Dunn tests his strength with a humble bench press. But the lighting and the atmosphere hang an uneasy aura over the standard triumphant origin tale.
The performances are absolutely magnificent, with Willis turning in a career-best, beautifully sensitive take that really lends an authentic comprehension to an otherwise farcical reality. Jackson is benefited much further by Shyamalan’s terrific screenplay, quick-witted and incendiary, begrudging and mysteriously inquisitive. He’s a fascinating character, both adeptly performed and written.
Dunn’s character is afraid of water, and shades of blue loom across the film’s colour palette like a constant worry. Comic books distinguish a moment’s morality with colour; similarly, Unbreakable, in a very calculated fashion, deploys greens and purples to add to the storytelling. Eduardo Serra’s gorgeous cinematography enhances this, shots sometimes capturing hope and melancholia simultaneously (for example, a silhouetted Dunn looks out onto a football field, stopped by the monsoon-esque rainfall beyond the shelter of a tunnel). Combined with Shyamalan’s steady, confident, low-frills direction, the result is strikingly smooth. Only the odd moment falters; expository flashbacks are a little unnecessary and a third-act plot device goes rather sinister in a way that tips the acute balance of tone.
But beneath it all lies James Newton Howard’s breathtaking score. Punky, mysterious and damn cool, he adds an unexpectedly stylish flair to a composition that so easily could have descended down a generic crescendo-laden route. The key to a great soundtrack is whether it gives you goosebumps, not just the first time you hear it, but every time. Unbreakable succeeds in this area easily – your heart will always race.
Glass hits cinemas soon and it is of utmost importance you make the effort to seek this out. For a few reasons; you’ll understand that moment in Split, you’ll be more invested in Glass as a result. But most of all, you’ll travel in time to the start of the millennium for a truly exceptional, convention-twisting genre-piece that preceded the superhero boom.
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Wright