Unbreakable (2000)

*. As comic-book culture took over the film industry around the turn of the twenty-first century something of a Holy Grail came to be imagined: the adult comic-book movie.
*. This was in keeping with a shift in the zeitgeist generally. We weren’t calling them comic books anymore, for one thing. They were graphic novels. And they most defintely weren’t for kids. This is the point made by Mr. Price when he throws out the fellow who is going to buy one of his comic prints as a present for his 4-year-old. They aren’t toys, they’re art.
*. If comics weren’t for kids anymore, then neither were comic-book movies. Batman was no longer Adam West, or even Michael Keaton, but the Dark Knight, a troubled, brooding, complicated man. And while a movie like Deadpool was meant to be funny, it had enough naughty (but not, to my mind, adult) bits to get slapped with a kid-unfriendly R-rating.
*. I’m more than willing to go along with graphic novels as being a true adult art form, but I think the adult superhero movie is a near-contradiction in terms. It’s not the movies’ fault though; it’s the (adult) audience that has been infantilized.
*. If I were, however, forced to suggest any superhero movie as being adult it would be Unbreakable. And this despite the fact that it has almost no violence, bad language, or sexual content. Instead what it has is a mature pace and a carefully constructed atmosphere of ambiguity. These are the sorts of things that don’t appeal to kids.
*. As far as the pace goes I think the thing to keep in mind is that the script Shyamalan shot was only the first third of what he had written. He decided he didn’t like the rest. So what you have here is basically the standard first act of a movie, introducing us to the two main characters (their “origin story,” as they call these things in comic books). This first act is then stretched out, by way of long takes that are slowly developed, for a full two hours before culminating in a strange but effective anti-climax that underplays the conflict between the hero and the villain. Presumably a more conventional confrontation was what was coming next, before Shyamalan realized that he’d already said all he had to say.
*. Turning to the ambiguity, I love the way that the question of David Dunn’s super powers is left open-ended and really unresolved even at the end. Is he unbreakable? Immune to violence and disease? We can’t be sure. He does seem to have some kind of psychic gift but that’s about it.
*. Well, you may point to the scene in the basement where he lifts so much weight. That’s certainly evidence of something, but not necessarily of him being a super hero. That scene follows directly on his calling his son away from a football game where a local big man and football star is playing with the kids, so perhaps he feels energized to prove himself. This strikes me as being the real point of the movie, that David wants to reclaim the hero status he relinquished to get married. Now he wants to become a hero to his son. I think that’s probably a universal male fantasy, probably all the more so for being nearly impossible to realize.
*. I have a bit of a problem with the premise. Supposedly the idea was, “What if Superman didn’t know he was Superman?” Yes, but, why wouldn’t Superman know he was Superman? It’s all a repressed memory? I find that a little hard to credit. Surely by now David would have had to have discovered his indestructability.
*. M. Night Shyamalan has said this is his favourite movie and I also think it’s his best. I guess there’s something a little sad about that since it was early work and he’s made a lot of movies since.
*. At the end of the day, however, I think this is Samuel Jackson’s movie. And the reason he works so well is that while the character is an eccentric, and he’s given an odd, distinctive look, Jackson actually plays him in a low register. Aside from being an evil genius, Mr. Glass doesn’t have any super powers. He’s just a sad villain. Bitter at his lot in life, his bitterness has mellowed into a psychopathic fatalism.
*. The conclusion, that disappointed many, plays a bit like a denouement, but it’s so much more dramatic a climax than David’s silent heroism in his fight against the maintenance man. It’s actually amazing that Shyamalan got away with it: no violent confrontation between the hero and the villain but only a few lines of dialogue from Mr. Glass and a very quick curtain.
*. More was on its way. At the end of Split David Dunn would reappear, setting up that missing final act. But was it really missing? I don’t think it was. Stories end in different ways. For the kind of movie Unbreakable is, I thought it closed on just the right note, not leaving me wanting any more.

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