Unbreakable

Unbreakable ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

It may be hard to remember now, but before M. Knight Shyamalan became a Hollywood punchline with a string of increasingly awful efforts during the midsection of his career, he was viewed as one of the most promising up-and-coming filmmakers, and considering the facts at the time, why wouldn't he be? I mean, he came from nowhere to make a sleeping monster of a hit with The Sixth Sense, a film that instantly became a cultural touchstone upon release, and would become the highest-grossing Horror film of all time, so it made perfect sense when Touchstone Pictures purchased his next screenplay for a record $5 million dollars, followed by another 5 mil to direct it; what a payday, eh?

However, upon its release in 2000, Unbreakable failed to live up to the lofty success of its predecessor, suffering from relatively poor word of mouth and an underwhelming box office, as many critics and moviegoers were united in their disappointment over the film's "dour" tone, as well as with the incredibly frusturating ending, which seemed like a desperate attempt by Shyamalan to repeat the lightning-in-bottle success of his breakthrough film. However, while I personally agree that the film does have some significant, noticeable flaws, I also feel that it has a lot of strengths working in its favor as well, and weak ending or not, it still ends up being a highly unique, personal take on the Superhero film, one that, in the genre's current age of Marvel-driven uniformity, we could honestly use more of.

It tells the story of David Dunn, a seemingly ordinary man who's hopelessly adrift in the world, as he's slowly crushed underneath the weight of everyday life; his relationship with his son is hopelessly distant, his passion-free marriage is slowly deteriorating as his eye wanders to other women, and he's looking to move away from his family altogether in an attempt to start a new life, one completely separate from them. However, on his way back to Philly from a (failed) job interview in New York, the train he's travelling on inexplicably derails, killing everyone on board... everyone, that is, but for David himself, who somehow survives without suffering a single scratch, and this tragedy soon leads David to cross paths with Elijah Price, a man with a degenerative bone condition who believes that, just like in the rare comics he collects for a living, where every hero has an equal-and-opposite villain, so too is David a mirror image of himself, a real-life superhero who never gets sick or injured, a man who is... "unbreakable".

And, while David is initially reluctant to entertain Elijah's insane theory, he still finds himself unavoidably drawn to the questions that he posed to him, and, after a period on introspection that raises possibilities that are as awe-inspiring as they are terrifying, he finally joins Elijah in a search for the truth, with some unexpected revelations along the way proving that, unlike in comics, "real life doesn't fit neatly into little boxes that were drawn for it".

It's one of the qualities I enjoy best about the film, the way that its premise draws so much intrigue in walking back and forth from the supernatural to the ordinary, as, despite his eventually discovered powers, David is utterly relatable throughout, as Bruce Willis gives a quiet but devastating performance as a man who is both hopelessly morose over the idea that he has no real reason to exist, and also equally terrified by the earth-shattering possibility that he does, as he finds himself irreversibly drawn into the orbit of the obsessive Price by some sort of mysterious, cosmic force.

To date, it's still the only Superhero origin movie I know where the hero's powers are discovered not by doing something like jumping or flying off of a skyscraper, but by simply seeing how many weights he can lift during one of his daily workouts in the basement (spoiler: it's all of them). This way, Shyamalan refreshes the Superhero genre just before it became a dominant cultural force in the early 2000's, by bringing a sort of grounded, realistic urban vibe that was fairly uncommon to see in the then still nascent genre, and which is still pretty rare to witness today, and even some of the subsequent films that have attempted a similar grit still just sort coasted on the novelty, rather than using it for something meaningful (I'm looking in your direction here, Joker...).

Besides that, Unbreakable also excels through its incredible sense of style, as it creates a cinematic world unto itself with the relentlessly methodical, patient pacing that allows the inherent intrigue of the premise to unravel in its own time, James Newton Howard's score that serves to create an overall atmosphere that's both incredibly ominous and foreboding, and downright mythic and inspiring depending on which mood is needed, and Eduardo Serra's incredible cinematography that makes clever, recurring usage of reflections and mirrored images in a central visual motif, as well as pulling off unexpected camera roamings that are somehow both "acrobatic" and subdued at the same time, as they aren't utilized in a "hey, look at a me!" manner, but in a way that only emphasizes certain dramatic moments when necessary, waiting for the right time to occur, and never taking undue attention away from the humans caught up in the middle of the supernatural drama.

And, while the final twist is blatantly implausible in the pure nut-and-bolts logistics of its scheme, and while Unbreakable may end on an incredibly rushed note that feels like M. Knight hurriedly banged it out on his typewriter so he wouldn’t be late for lunch, at least the character motivations behind it make sense, and the rest of the film doesn't exhibit that lack of care in the slightest, instead, creating its own rich, self-contained mythology, resulting in a true auteurist take on a genre that is in sore need of more such efforts. And so, with all of this in mind, the only thing left to ask is, are you ready for the truth... that Unbreakable is actually a pretty good movie? Because I am.

Final Score: 8

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