To be unbreakable is to endure. No matter what. You might bend, you might suffer, you might worry or face what seem insurmountable trials, but somehow, you survive. It’s a myth, of course, that a human being might be so absolutely sturdy, but it’s a useful myth, replayed again and again in children’s stories, movies, and comic books. To be unbreakable is to be heroic, to be so resilient and well-intentioned, so modest and moral, that you withstand all opposition, no matter how nefarious, mean, or broken.
Unbreakable opens, somewhat ironically, with a scene about breaking. More exactly, it’s about the extreme pain of breaking. In a Philadelphia department store in 1961, a child has just been born. In the darkness of the manager’s office where she’s been ushered for the apparently unexpected event, the mother (Charlayne Woodard) lies to the side, as a doctor (Eamonn Walker) arrives. While the baby screams uncontrollably in his arms, the doctor’s face betrays his horror: he asks if the infant has been dropped or mishandled, his eyes growing wider as he looks down at the infant. You can only expect the worst. And you get something very much like it: the child’s arms and legs have been broken during the birth process.
Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Wright Penn, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard
Cut to the present day. David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is embarking on the train ride that will change his life. It’s the train ride that you already know will end in disaster for everyone but David, because he is the film’s titular character: he is unbreakable, but he doesn’t know this. In fact, he imagines himself as fragile, miserable, and not particularly honorable. This point is made subtly. The camera observes David as he flirts with a pretty young woman seated next to him, furtively removing his wedding band in order to do so. The camera peeps at him from between seats, shifting back and forth from the woman to David, taking the perspective of a little girl seated in the row ahead of him: he looks back at her, sad and busted. But it hardly matters. The train crashes.
These extraordinary first scenes beautifully composed and quite provocative set up Unbreakable‘s dual storylines and shifting rhythms, as the two protagonists head toward each other, toward a collision. Like the little girl’s point of view, the film moves between the unbreakable David and the radically breakable Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson). Both are tortured in their own different ways. David is a regular schmoe, working as a security guard at Temple University’s football stadium, fretful about his future and in particular about his failing marriage with Audrey (Robin Wright Penn) and increasing distance from his young son Joseph (Spencer Treat Jamison). Elijah is a successful comic book art dealer, world-beatingly wealthy and well-respected, but ever afraid of physical collapse, due to his medical condition, osteogensis imperfecta (in a word: he has brittle bones). He walks with a cane, wears black leather gloves and jacket, and is understandably pissed off at the world while also avoiding interactions that appear even slightly dangerous.
The very extremity of the differences between the two characters is surely tantalizing, even if their combined symbolic weight is heavy the clueless, seemingly invincible white man and the angry, vulnerable black man. Their introductions make a promising start for writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s new film, who no doubt has been feeling the pressures of expectations following his super-hit, The Sixth Sense. Unfortunately, Unbreakable never really gets out from under these expectations, to the extent that its structure and themes repeatedly recall those of the earlier film the meticulously layered mystery, the Bruce Willis character’s domestic crisis, the new-agey meditations on life and death, the deliberate pacing and clever camera placements, the pale wife with precious little to do, the teary young boy played by an actor with three names (young Jamison, recently tearful in Gladiator, bears more than a passing resemblance to Haley Joel Osment).
Though it bears all these surface similarities to The Sixth Sense, I think that Unbreakable might be best described as Die Hard for art-house audiences, and not only because the third film in that franchise, Die Hard With a Vengeance, also starred Willis and Jackson. Like its action flick predecessor, Shyamalan’s film finesses a standard good-versus-evil storyline with occasionally canny characterizations, ostensibly wily plotting, and Willis’s famous smirk. Put another way, Unbreakable creates concern for David’s eventual fate (even though it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion) by focusing on his human weaknesses. Because David, unlike Die Hard‘s eminently bruise-able John McClane, lacks physical frailties and so can’t display his wounds quite so dramatically, Unbreakable exploits his emotional flaws. This means that David is again and again pondering his place in the world, wondering about his failures as husband and father, his abandonment of his early promise as a football player, his calling as a security guard. That he must confront these issues in the context of ludicrous plot turns (he pretends to suffer a serious injury that no one ever notices is not real, apparently not even his doctor) doesn’t help anything, least of all your capacity to believe in him.
Most importantly for the film’s purposes, David is contemplating his strangely evolving relationship with Elijah. After reading about David’s miraculous survival of the train wreck (which kills 131 others that is, everyone else on board), Elijah contacts him and explains his interest in David as it is based in his own condition. Elijah believes that because he has spent his own lifetime feeling fragile and beset his schoolmates taunted him with the epithet, “Mr. Glass” there his opposite must also exist, someone who is relentlessly hardy, un-sick, and never injured. Elijah’s theory is that David is a real life incarnation of a comic book superhero who has only to realize his full potential as a crime-fighter and moral guardian. Elijah points to David’s apparently unthinking choice of vocation as a stadium security guard which Elijah terms a “protector” as proof of David’s subconscious inclinations. Though David protests, this seems only to fuel Elijah’s conviction: the reluctant hero is, of course, the ideal one, as he doesn’t presume his moral (or other) superiority.
The pieces to this puzzle fall together in ways that are occasionally entertaining and clever: one well-wrought scene has David and Joseph testing his super-strength by piling weights onto the bar that David bench-presses in the basement, with dreary light and smart shot compositions displaying father and son’s shared anxiety and excitement. But more often, the movie piles on melodramatic weights (exacerbated by James Newton Howard’s overbearing score), leading you through David’s doubts and thrills, as he begins to believe Elijah’s explanations for his despair and yearning: he’s only been looking for a sense of mission and people to rescue.
There are obvious issues here, perhaps too obvious to mention. That it’s a black man encouraging this white savior to discover and pursue his magnificent calling is not a little disturbing. It’s not only that Elijah is a bitter and isolated man, an obvious product of a genetic malady and unhappy social conditions: namely, he’s black, grew up in what appear to be projects with his single mom, is wheelchair-bound after falling down a flight of stairs (a particularly harrowing series of shots), and living a solitary life as a result of his genetic malady. It’s not that David is in fact the perfectly gentle and generous husband, wanting desperately to make his family happy even as he’s struggling with his own individual, heartfelt uncertainty. It’s not even that Audrey ends up telling her son to beware this black man, to avoid him because he’s “crazy,” or that Elijah’s anger (however well-motivated) is measured against David’s persistent goodness (the guy just can’t seem to help but do the right thing). It’s also that these dynamics are so apparently unconsidered as if the film’s “color-blind” casting has nothing to do with the ways in which these characters might be apprehended by viewers or function in the culture at large. And this is, quite simply, a fatal flaw, especially in a film that conveys such an apparently earnest faith in the usefulness of heroic myths generally, and their comic book manifestations specifically. In comic books, the characters (heroes and villains alike) have traumatic backstories that inspire them and clear moral lines that bind their actions. They’re schematic by definition, their situations carefully coded and culturally meaningful. Unhappily, Unbreakable‘s codes and moral lines are too familiar and too visible.