M. Night Shyamalan’s Masterpiece "Unbreakable"

Predating the current vogue for comic-book movies, Shyamalan's version of an origin story feels unique, at once modern yet timeless.
Greg Cwik


His origin story begins modestly…

The camera dwells on an unassuming man, white, balding, his head resting against the window of a speeding train as the world blurs by. When an alluring woman catches his attention, this man, indolent and unamazing, slyly tugs from his finger the wedding ring, that golden noose. He makes small talk, the laconic banter of the lonely. It’s almost painful to watch. The listless flirtations of this poor mundane man are captured in one long, unobstreperous take. There’s a patience to the scene, an unembellished sense of banality to this brief, unimportant moment in the lives of two strangers.

Cut to the hospital, another wide, patient shot, the lumpy shape of something—a body?—blurry in the foreground. This unamazing man, David Dunn (Bruce Willis), sitting stoically on a gurney, is told by a befuddled doctor that he is the lone survivor of a catastrophic train wreck, defying all logic, and that, despite the fact that the wreckage is strewn over a mile, bodies mingled with smoldering metal, David has not a bruise, not a scratch, not a single ailment or malady afflicting him. Everyone seems flummoxed—everyone except for David, who remains taciturn, almost inert. (David is so serene and mollified, nearly catatonic at times, it’s easy to forget that just 15 years earlier, Willis was known for his riotous performance as a different David: David Addison, a detective prone to singing and trenchant, libidinous raillery, in the network TV series Moonlighting.)

David is, we come to learn, a superhero, but not the kind with which our current culture has been over-saturated. David has no iconic costume, no marketable slogans or moves, no charisma; he will never festoon the cardboard boxes of Happy Meals, or spawn a panoply of collectible action figures. David Dunn is a boring superhero, which is why, at least partly, Unbreakable (2000) retains its power.

Few filmmakers have has been as egregiously underappreciated this decade as M. Night Shyamalan. In the last few years, bloggers for both Esquire and Vulture posed the question, “What happened to M. Night Shyalaman?” (A better question would have been, “What Happened to Film Criticism?”), and FiveThirtyEight posted a piece ominously titled “The Death Spiral of M. Night Shyamalan’s Career” in 2015. Too often maligned for his “twists,” Shyamalan is not the daft one-gimmick charlatan his detractors have made him out to be. Since Bruce Willis’s spectral epiphany at the end of The Sixth Sense (1999), critics have focused intensely on Shyamalan’s proclivity for abrupt revelations in his scripts, details suddenly revealed with dramatic aplomb, the jigsaw pieces finally put together. Twists have become his defining tic. Take, for example, his 2004 film The Village, a critical failure despite its $250 million box office draw. Shyamalan conjures a cryptic world replete with the chicanerous denizens of a hermetic settlement, this tiny town enfolded by dark and foreboding woods in which shrouded horrors lurk, and beyond which modernity lurks. The film was chastised for its twist, and for its sealed-off logic (as if works of fiction must adhere to realistic notions of logic), but those deriding the film ignore the aching, agrarian beauty of Roger Deakins’s cinematography, the frightening use of negative space, the deft shifts in perspective, the Rod Serling-esque tragedy of that reveal, and the fear of confronting the reality of one’s deep-seated beliefs. Still, the conversation surrounding that film was, and is, mired in an obsession with the twist. Twists, twists, twists, like a downward spiral.

And yet it is a twist that has, inexplicably, lead to the reemergence of M. Night Shyamalan. Split (2016), his “comeback” film, was well-received, and made over $278 million on a $9 million budget; but it was the final moments, a deftly sneaky (and immensely silly) reveal, that caused an uproar, and made the film one of those “You have to see it” phenomenons, a secret meant to be vivisected and analyzed in glossy magazines by professional critics and in the annals of online archives by amateur pop-culture sages. The film follows a man (James McAvoy) who has 23 different personalities inhabiting one corporeal body. Most of these personalities are benign (a flamboyant fashion aficionado, for example), but some have more mendacious and malicious motives: a coterie of personalities conspire to unleash the as yet unseen personality, a craven Übermensch called The Beast.

In the film’s final moments, after the chaos has calmed, a long, slow tracking shot passes over the face of diner patrons, who watch a news report on the villain the media has begun to call The Horde; one person notes the similarity to a wheelchair-bound criminal from 15 years earlier, as the camera settles on a familiar face: David Dunn, sitting serene, his glassy eyes gazing at the television. The patron struggles to recall that villain’s name. “Mr. Glass,” David intones.

The ending of Split feels like a giddy send-up of the Marvel Extended Universe, a last-minute cameo from an otherwise irrelevant character (that Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury has previously been the one to make a last-minute perfunctory appearance lends an air of metafictional merrymaking to the whole situation), a continuation of a universe—a reason, however affected, for moviegoers to come back for more. What made the twist so bizarre, and perhaps so brilliant, is that no one was clamoring for a sequel to Unbreakable, but no one who enjoyed Split seemed opposed to it, either.

Unbreakable made a quarter-billion dollars at the box office, but has, in subsequent years, seemingly receded from public consciousness in the wake of the emergence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the subsequent legion of superhero movies. Even now, when the listless origin story has become ubiquitous, Unbreakable feels unique, at once modern yet timeless. It’s a brooding film, one that doesn't glamorize the life of a superhero. David’s family becomes cursory, his whole life relegated to the periphery once he is forced to reconcile with the reality of his powers, with his true identity. There’s a sense of the Sisyphean here, that to be a superhero, to be special, is to be doomed and alone. The film’s aesthetic—its austerity, pathos, and crestfallen, reluctant hero garbed in a common raincoat—is incongruous with the house style of the Marvel movies, and the incommodious self-seriousness of the DC movies. Shyamalan finds the sublimity skulking in the quotidian. The color scheme is sapped of vibrancy, except for violent intrusions of orange and, notably, purple: Whereas David’s “costume” is doleful and drab, the man who tries dauntlessly to make David accept his fate, Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), a supremely intelligent comic book connoisseur whose bones are precariously fragile, predominantly wears fabulously tailored suits of purple, a color often associated with power. In the final scene, Mr. Glass is revealed to be David’s nemesis; it was Mr. Glass who, in search of his rival, a moral and somatic antipode to his maniacal, brittle self, derailed the train. Without a hero to oppose you, what is the point of being a villain? There’s an ontological ennui to Mr. Glass’s sinister stratagem; only he can truly understand David’s loneliness.

The languorous long takes that comprise the majority of Unbreakable are integral to the film’s pervasive mood. Shyamalan has always had an exquisite eye for cinematographers. Even with his most reviled films (The Last Airbender, which was shot by the Lord of the Rings photographer Andrew Lesnie, and After Earth, shot by The Empire Strikes Back photographer and Cronenberg consort Peter Suschitzky), his choice of DPs is unassailable. (Shyamalan’s roulette of cinematographers brings to mind Jimmy Page's rotating roster of producers; Page chose to have each Led Zeppelin album produced by someone different so that people would realize the cohesive sound binding all of the albums together belonged to Paige, not the producers. Similarly, Shyamalan’s impeccable visual sense is obvious in all of his films.) For Unbreakable, the filmmaker tapped Eduardo Serra, who had recently earned accolades for The Wings of the Dove and What Dreams May Come. Serra’s patience, his pensivity, his assiduously-composed shots, reflect the film’s sepulchral tone, its somber and ruminative approach to the fabulous. (At least nine shots in Unbreakable last over two minutes.) Consider the scene when David, having finally accepted his role as a hero, saves a family that is being held hostage by a lunatic in an orange jumpsuit; consider how the camera remains obfuscated by the undulating curtains caught in an unsound wind as he prowls the house; how the orange of the lunatic’s outfit seems to burn against a backdrop of neutrals; how the camera, almost obstinately still until now, tumbles suddenly towards the pool below. The serenity gives way to chaos as David writhes and thrashes in the pool (water being his kryptonite), slivers of light piercing the water; then, the handle of a pool skimmer pierces the murk, pulling David to the surface, where the camera slowly pulls back to reveal that his saviors are the children. It’s a moment of quiet triumph. The subsequent fight between David and the man in orange is done in one long take, rather than the vacillating frenzy of unstable close-ups preferred by the Marvel films, or the manufactured machismo of Zack Snyder’s films, with their calamitous fisticuffs and all that computer-generated mayhem. This fight, this film, are suffused with an air of melancholy; there’s something sad, even tragic, about David, about the fact that the world needs someone like him. 

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