Shyamalanathon 2009: Unbreakable (2000)

This week I'm looking at the films of one of my favorite writer/directors, M. Night Shyamalan. So far I've reviewed The Sixth Sense. Spoilers follow.

Coming out at the start of the superhero renaissance of the '00s, Unbreakable gave us the realistic superhero. While Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (2005) gave us a grittier view of the Dark Knight, M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable gave us a skin and bones superhero movie, with little embellishment. Very little about it seems too far out of the ordinary to actually happen. It's a film that is spectacularly subtle. Almost everything about it is muted--even the extraordinary elements. But the more times I see it, the more I'm impressed by its elegant story telling.

The first frame as a title card of facts about comic books, indicating that this is going to be a meta-story about comic books, heroes, and villains.

Samuel L. Jackson plays Elijah, a man whose life has been spent with comic books. Known as Mr. Glass because of his easily broken bones, he seeks out his opposite, an unbreakable man. Elijah is usually seen in shades of purple, while David, his opposite, is seen in green. The secondary colors give us a more subtle version comic book colors.

The lighting of this movie is often very stark. In this scene, David (Bruce Willis) is lit by a light bulb with visible lens flares. Nothing in this film seems particularly glamorous or glossy. Just real.

David and his son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) share a fun moment when they pile as many weights as possible onto the bar. The situation more than the acting is what makes the scene so humorous. Again, subtlety is the name of the game.

While this scene shows David's extraordinary strength, David's typical superhero tropes seem realistic. He's strong enough to do more than an average man, but probably couldn't lift an airplane. His uniform is a green poncho he wears for work. His weakness is an ease for drowning in water. The one real extraordinary thing about him is his ability to see the bad things people have done when he touches them. But even that isn't that flashy.

A funny moment in the comic book store. Elijah is depressed from his latest encounter with David and is moping in the comic book store, while a clerk (Bostin Christopher) needs to close the shop. Minor characters are often given scene stealing moments in Shyamalan films.

Audrey (Robin Wright Penn) and David on their first date as they start over. It's one long take with the camera slowly pushing toward the couple.

Many of the scenes in Unbreakable are made of long takes. In an early scene, we learn the family's dynamic: David is the only survivor of his train crashing. When he comes out into the waiting room full of victims' families, his son rushes to him, followed slower by Audrey. Joseph gives David a big hug, but Audrey just lightly gives David a kiss on the cheek. As they walk out of the hospital, Joseph forces his parents hands together, which they only hold for a second before letting go as Joseph turns around. It's a revealing moment that establishes the family dynamic of the rest of the film. Audrey and David are struggling to keep things together, while their son needs and wants things to work out. This is established effectively without any editing or words.

A creepy dude taking advantage of a drunk girl.

Once David discovers he has a talent for instinctively knowing things, he explores his power. The bad stuff that's flashbacked on when David touches a person is seen in this upper corner view. While the colors are already muted to dank versions of secondary colors, these flashbacks are seen in black and white, with only identifying clothing items colored in. We witness all this from an upper angle. Somehow, David's power to see the bad things people have done are seen in a familiar way as if his mind has access to security cameras.

David finishing his heroic work, wearing his green poncho.

Another long scene is where David follows the man in the orange jump suit. After he frees the two girls in the bathroom, he goes into a bedroom containing a woman tied up as well. This is where the man in the orange jump suit comes in. Nothing ever breaks up and nothing is embellished as we see David slowly choke the man to death. If you don't look closely, you almost miss the extraordinary way David bears multiple collision to the wall or how he hangs on so tightly to the struggling man. The camera movement simply follows the fight back and forth and slowly raises to an upper corner of the room, again kind of like a security camera. The lack of editing makes this action so real, it's easy to miss how subtly the incredible is happening.

The music punctuates this scene well. Keeping in a minor key, the music is as melancholy as it is triumphant. His act of heroism against the man in the orange jump suit is accompanied by mezzo forte horns. In other words, this isn't "Fanfare for the Common Man." It's triumphant, but not overwhelming.

Through the film, we see David take up some sort of mantle of saving people. He's brought from his passive denial of his gift to an active embrace. When he saves the family from the man in the orange suit and starts embracing his own family, we see him become more of a man than he was. Too bad his motivation came from Elijah, whose obsession brought insanity.


  1. I'm enjoying this M. Night week you've got going on. Being a comic book nerd, I love Unbreakable. My favorite one by him for sure, right in front of The Happening. Haha just kidding that was the worst.

  2. I've only seen The Happening once, and I'm kind of dreading it. We'll see how it goes a second time around.

  3. This is one of my favorite movies!

  4. Unbreakable is my favorite Shyamalan movie. He deserves credit for making a superhero movie with taste and mystique, without a lot of special effects bullshit for the kiddies.

    I think Bruce Willis is terrific in this, as are the supporting players as you pointed out, Kelsy. The story just pulled me in. If people are confused by the ending, that just endears it to me more.