One of M. Night Shyamalan’s most underrated films is, for me, an emotional and unforgettable gem about a damaged father (Bruce Willis) and his quest for identity, with the help of his adoring son.
Before we begin, I’d like to ask:
What is a superhero?
It, in my belief, is certainly not the ability to prance around in a cape and matching leotard. Neither is it witty one-liners or simply, the stuff of multi-million dollar franchises (see my less-than-impressed take on The Avengers). What a hero is, for me, is a far more emotional and lifelong journey:
“The greater [war] is to suppress the temptations which arise within your own self…It is not a matter of one time only but this endeavour is for every single breath you breathe and the moment you live” – Prophet Muhammad.
Our wandering (in more ways than one, as the opening scene of Unbreakable shows) protagonist David Dunn is, at first sight, a “normal” and grey-hued man. Despite being married, David strikes up conversation with an attractive woman on a train to Philadelphia, and goes so far as to hide his wedding ring. All of this sets the scene for an off-scene, though nonetheless horrific train wreck which leaves David the sole survivor.
“There are two reasons why [the doctor is] looking at you like this: 1. Because it seems in a few minutes, you will officially be the only survivor of this train wreck, and 2. You didn’t break one bone. You don’t have a scratch on you.”
This train crash serves as a catalyst for David’s journey of self-discovery as a man, and most importantly, as a father. His miraculous escape attracts unwanted and dangerous attention but of course – it being a Shyamalan adventure – is entirely underplayed and nuanced with intelligent and touching moments of humanity.
“Hard times don’t create heroes. It is during the hard times when the ‘hero’ within us is revealed” – Bob Riley
The elegant subplots of David’s crumbling marriage and strained relationship with his admiring son, serve as further home truths to us and to David, that even the things most precious to us can wear thin. There must be a special mention to the wonderful Robin Wright-Penn, who managed to reflect the film’s ambience entirely and present an ambivalent mix of heart-wrenching melancholy and a deep longing for truth.
“If you make this decision now – to be afraid – then you will never turn back. Your whole life, you will always be afraid.”
Into David’s life comes the presence of Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a paradoxically comforting and ominous force who propels and mentors David into accepting the possibility that he is…superhuman. I choose the word wisely here, because, as wonderfully and carefully explored in Unbreakable, “super” anything is problematic. Elijah, the comic book fanatic he is, states:
“[Super powers in comic books and popular culture are] An exaggeration of the truth. Maybe it’s based on something as simple as instinct.”
It is this instinct from all characters involved in Unbreakable that affect the outcome of the film’s terrific climax. I won’t give too much away about the plot; just know that David both shuns and defines the label of ‘hero’, and provides new light on what it is to be a good father. The exhilarating climax of Unbreakable made me believe in the power of a certain type of hero or, more specifically, the belief in the simple power of good.
“Love and fear. Everything the father of a family says must inspire one or the other” – Joseph Joubert.
- Willis’ trademark steeliness shines throughout this dark and emotion-laden film
- Robin Wright-Penn is magnificent as a lost woman and undervalued wife
- Uncovering secrets minute by minute is incredibly suspenseful and most of all, thrilling
- The intelligent and informative comic book homages paid by Shyamalan make even comic book novices such as myself feel a part of the culture.
- Spine-tinglingly haunting soundtrack from none other than James Newton Howard
- I challenge anyone to leave with a dry eye at the emotional climax between David and his son – nothing but positivity from me.
- Um…any complaints?
The most touching element of Unbreakable is the entirely satisfying notion that children, even in their most naive moments, can be the only lights to guide us where we need to be. Perhaps one of the toughest aspects of adolescence and simply, growing up, is realising that our parents are only human – weak, at times powerless, and vulnerable – just like the rest of the world. What does it mean to be truly Unbreakable? Watch this fantastic film, and I guarantee you’ll come away with a mind full of pure philosophy and existentialism than you could have expected.
“Heroes are made by the paths they choose, not the powers they are graced with.”
― Brodi Ashton