Quick Hit: One of M. Night’s best films.
I remember loving this movie upon first watch as a young preteen. I was hesitant throughout the years to return to it – after all of Mr. Shyamalan’s failures to bring other materials to the screen, I couldn’t help but worry that I would have been viewing it through age related rose-colored glasses. But with the return to form that was Split, I couldn’t help but return to it. And, to my delight, it was just as I remembered it from the early 2000s – a slow thriller that is built on turning audience expectations into something else entirely.
It all starts with the casting of Bruce Willis as David Dunn. By using such a known action hero (see Die Hard, etc, etc.), Shyamalan instantly gives you the feeling that you’re going to be watching a shoot-em up, which is anything but the case. There is very little explicit violence throughout the film, instead choosing to view things as they arise, and simply present them as they are. This all starts with a question – can David Dunn be hurt? He’s never been sick, and he seems to have survived a train crash that left all others dead or fatally wounded. And there isn’t a scratch on him – in the words of Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), he is miraculously unharmed.
Elijah himself is a terrifically formed character. Mr. Jackson plays him as bitter but fiercely intelligent, a man who has risen above his physical ailments but still consistently irked by them. This is never more evident than at a point in the movie where Elijah falls, breaking several bones. It’s shot in a matter of fact manner, with very little glitter on the fact that a man we have spent nearly an hour with has fallen and hurt himself - badly.
That’s something to say about how Shyamalan takes the entire movie – it’s tightly wound, something to be said of all his best films, and moves along quickly, yet seemingly unhurried. The majority of the film’s plot is moved along by conversation, but never once would I say I was bored or hoping that the movie would get to its next point. Like any good mystery, it takes its time, allowing both the hero (Dunn) and the audience time to form conclusions about what is happening.
There’s also a tremendous amount of logic brought to the table, most notably by Price, who posits simple questions with simple answers. If there is someone like him, who is easily broken, why wouldn’t there be someone on the other side of the spectrum, who is hard to break? It’s that intense realism that adds to the plot and makes it feel grounded and real, which is when Shyamalan is at his absolute best.
The side characters add a lot to the film, because they continue to ground us in that reality. From Elijah’s mother, who takes a near bribery approach to get her young morose son involved in the world, to David’s son, who continues to give the story the wonder that it deserves, none of the characters reactions are overly large. Indeed, when you consider the knowledge that Dunn is in a failing marriage to his wife (Robin Wright), and still chooses to go to her to ask whether she remembers him every being sick. This little moment allows the characters to come together, which of course, gives them a flicker of hope. It’s the little moments that build to a thrilling conclusion, and it’s why Unbreakable continues to be one of my favorite films. I’m giving this one a deserved “A+”.
For more on this film, check out IMDB.
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"