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Dissecting the Classics – Unbreakable

January 18, 2019 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Unbreakable Glass

*Looks at my schedule* Well, okay. Guess I actually am doing another M. Night Shyamalan movie. That probably won’t happen again.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.


Wide Release Date: November 22, 2000
Written and Directed By: M. Night Shyamalan
Produced By: Barry Mendel, Sam Mercer & M. Night Shyamalan
Cinematography By: Eduardo Serra
Edited By: Dylan Tichenor
Music By: James Newton Howard
Production Company: Touchstone Pictures, Blinding Edge Pictures, Barry Mendel Productions and Limited Edition Productions, Inc.
Distributed By: Buena Vista Pictures
Bruce Willis as David Dunn
Samuel L. Jackson as Elijah Price
Robin Wright as Audrey Dunn
Spencer Treat Clark as Joseph Dunn
Charlayne Woodard as Mrs. Price

What Do We All Know?

If you’re reading this article, you are probably at least aware that Glass was released this week and is one of 2019’s more anticipated films. 2016’s Split got some attention due to mostly not sucking (a high bar for its director), but it got a lot of attention from a certain section of people due to its ending, which revealed a connection to the 2000 film Unbreakable. For those who are unaware of the movie, it was Shyamalan’s sophomore effort after The Sixth Sense and was largely praised, and became something of a cult film for superhero fanatics in the early 2000s when getting one superhero movie a year was rather novel.

I had seen Unbreakable and was fond of it, and hearing about Split‘s tie-in is what ultimately made me give it a chance. So clearly the movie had stuck in my head and had enough equity to garner my interest, but how good was it really? The film has a cult following that insists its own of the best superhero movies ever made, but it’s also a Shyamalan work and while the man does have one impeccable masterpiece to his credit, most of his films are outright bad and even the good ones tend to be deeply flawed. So is it a good but overpraised relic, or an outright disaster? Neither? Both? I really didn’t remember, so it was time to go back and watch it.

What Went Right?

For those who are unfamiliar with the film, this will contain quite a few spoilers but not the big spoiler. David Dunn is a security guard who is having trouble connecting with his wife and son, but that starts to change when he miraculously survives a horrific train accident. In fact, he’s the only survivor out of well over a hundred, and that draws the attention of Elijah Price, who asks him if he’s ever been truly sick or injured. Price is an art broker who specializes in comic books. His obsession stems from a rare disease that makes him especially prone to breaking bones and getting sick, earning him the playground nickname of “Mr. Glass”. Convinced that there must be someone on the opposite end of the spectrum, Price pursues Dunn in an attempt to convince him that he is a real life superhero and should do something with his gifts.

While this film isn’t nearly as good as The Sixth Sense, it shares certain traits with it that one can expect from the director. The film is a slow burn, it deals with something extraordinary invading the normalcy of everyday life, and suspense and tension abound. It’s also a really well laid out character piece focusing on the dual lives of David Dunn and Elijah Price. We get a strong sense of these characters, what made them who they are, who they want to be and where their lives are going. And it doesn’t hurt that Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson are playing these characters. Willis can sleep walk through movies he doesn’t care about, but he clearly cared about this one and gives a solid performance. Jackson is positively relishing his role as an obsessed comic book fan who is off-kilter and just a little scary.

Despite nominally being a superhero movie, the film is really just a solid thriller, almost feeling like an episode of the Twilight Zone. There’s some really compelling drama that comes from David’s son Joseph, who is all too eager to believe his Dad is Superman and will do anything to prove it. The reveal of the twist ending is also well executed, and rather than coming out of nowhere, feels like the logical end point of the story. On the technical side there’s some interesting camera work by Eduardo Serra, patient editing by Dylan Tichenor, and James Newton Howard’s excellent score. The one action scene in the movie is done as one long take from an almost top-down perspective, and Howard’s score helps the moment feel almost meditative rather than exciting.

From this point forward, I’m going to have to go into full spoiler territory, so you have been warned. Elijah Price is reason #1 why this movie is as watchable as it is. His illness makes him innately sympathetic, but you spend the whole on the fence about it because he’s still so imposing and comes off a little crazy. I’d also be curious to see if anyone more educated than myself has applied Queer Theory to the movie, because Price falls heavily into queer-coded bad guy tropes without being foppish, which I find fascinating. The reveal that he’s been the villain all along is a great one, and doesn’t feel out of left field because we never get to feel comfortable around him anyway. Instead, it’s the lengths that he goes to that shocks us and makes him a truly great bad guy. One who’s so compelling that simply calling a movie Glass is enough to get several of us excited.

What Went Wrong?

Look, it’s still a Shyamalan movie. Unbreakable has its fair share of stilted dialogue and a sense of self-importance, but it isn’t crippling. That said, I do think the film has one notable area of bloat, and that’s the marital troubles between David and Audrey. We know there’s something going from scene one, but I’m not quite sure what Shyamalan was going for in terms of this plot element. Are we supposed to assume that his marriage is holding David back? I don’t know, but I also really don’t care, and I think that their scenes drag along pointlessly most of the time.

And In Summary…

So I had this film on the docket for review, though I had other movies as back up just in case. I haven’t seen Unbreakable in roughly a decade, and while I enjoyed it at the time I’m always skeptical of my opinion on Shyamalan’s work. After all, I used to be terrified by Signs. But going back to this one actually improved my opinion of the film considerably. Watching it through a critical lens gave me a new appreciation for the set design and the camera work, and I think the script and acting make David Dunn and Elijah Price into great characters. Shyamalan’s patented twist feels more like an earned reveal than a big swerve, which is also nice. While I think Unbreakable is probably overpraised in the grand scheme of things by people who insist it’s one of the best movies in the genre, I will give it credit for being decidedly different, compulsively watchable and pretty great on its own terms.

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