After being blown away by our reexamination of The Sixth Sense for Episode 12 of our podcast, I thought I should revisit one of M. Night Shyamalan’s other films, Unbreakable.
I wanted to revisit it because I’ve had the exact opposite relationship with Unbreakable as I’ve had with The Sixth Sense. I was blown away by The Sixth Sense the first time I saw it, but time and cynicism has belittled Shyamalan’s first film and I’ve come to, as many others have, mock it. Conversely, I was underwhelmed by Unbreakable the first time I saw it, but as time has gone on, more and more people — especially comic book creators I admire — have sung its praises and I’ve come to esteem it differently. The Sixth Sense was better than I remembered. How did Unbreakable‘s second viewing go?
Simply put, I appreciated and far more enjoyed Unbreakable this time around than I did the first time around. It’s a movie that works better the second time because it’s a movie that requires context — which, if we’re comparing it to The Sixth Sense, makes it a weaker film. If you’re sitting down to go on a journey or to take part in a story, then Unbreakable is, as it was when I first saw it, underwhelming. Not enough happens and what happens takes a little too long to happen.
But. If you recognize this film as the first act of the hero’s journey, then it’s quite remarkable and thoroughly enjoyable. This movie ends at the conclusion of Act 1 of a three-act play. Our hero has just recognized who he is and our villain has just revealed himself. There’s clearly more to this story, but this is all we’re being given and that is why the film is a frustrating affair.
There are marvelous scenes in this film. My absolute favorite is after our hero’s first night as a caped crusader. His son, who has believed in him all along, comes down for breakfast. The family’s not been in a good place this entire film, so the son doesn’t know what kind of morning this one’s going to be. To his astonishment, his dad slides the newspaper over and nods wordlessly to it. The son looks down. The headline is about a mysterious “hero” who saved a family from a home invader. The boy looks up. His dad smiles and nods. “You were right,” he says and then puts a finger to his lips. He has a secret identity to uphold and this is going to be their little secret. The boy, overwhelmed, is moved to tears. It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous scene that I adore — and, if I had it my way, the movie would have ended there.
Beware! Here there be spoilers!
The movie ends with Elijah Price (played by Samuel Jackson) revealing to David Dunn (played by Bruce Willis) that he is, in fact, a supervillain. Not only is he a comic book art dealer, but he’s the one responsible for the train crash at the beginning of the film as well as two other acts of terrorism. It’s such a strange, unexpected and over-the-top reveal that the audience is left reeling while the credits start rolling. The thing is, the whole movie is an exploration and dissection comic book characters and art while also weaving in the question of, “what would a superhero really look like?” The hero of the film, David Dunn, answers that question. He doubts himself. He’s insecure. He’s not happy. Even when he finally accepts who he is, he’s clumsy and nearly dies. He is not Superman. He’s not even Batman. But when Price (or, as he calls himself, “Mister Glass”) accepts the fact that he is the villain of the story, he’s revealed to have already been a terrorist responsible for at least 500 deaths.
I’m sure there are some who might respond to this by saying there are real villains in this world, real unspeakable evils that are capable of thousands of peoples’ deaths and all it takes to stop them is any regular Joe stepping up and saying, “no,” and that’s what this movie is about. And while I like that idea and even subscribe to it, that’s not what this movie is about. David Dunn isn’t just some regular Joe. He’s Superman. He’s Mister Incredible. He doesn’t delude himself into being a hero and then discover that he’s actually just a normal guy. This is a superhero’s origin story and while it could also work as a supervillain origin story, the final reveal of the movie tells us that this supervillain already had his origin story and this isn’t it.
How did Price delude himself into thinking he was David’s friend? How does Price not see he is the classic supervillain archetype? Why does it take Dunn’s acceptance of who he is for Price to accept who he is? The movie ultimately leaves the viewer with a lot of unsettling, unanswerable, and unsatisfying questions.
I’m glad I revisited it. Going into it with the framework in my mind that this was a superhero’s origin story made 95% of the film work really well. If it had a better ending, one more consistent with the tone of the rest of the movie, it wouldn’t feel so slow and pointless. But as it is, the conclusion isn’t quite enough to justify the character’s journey. I would recommend watching it if you enjoy the superhero genre or some form of writer. The movie does build nicely in a slow and methodical way that allows the characters to go on their own journey, as opposed to being forced through some arbitrary plot points. I like the characters and I would like to see more of them. If a TV show was made from this, I would watch it. If a sequel was made, I would be there opening weekend. But this movie leaves you wanting so much more than it’s ultimately an unsatisfying film.