Almost two decades on, Unbreakable, the first in the series, is a cult classic — hailed for the same traits that, in 2000, were considered shortcomings
In Unbreakable, David Dunn (Bruce Willis) can sense a stranger’s crimes through simple physical contact. One of the strangers is a small-time drug dealer: played, in a signature cameo, by director M. Night Shyamalan himself. It’s possible that Willis might have brushed against the enigmatic filmmaker at some point again years after the film, only to visualise the pained faces of victims like Mark Wahlberg, Paul Giamatti, Dev Patel and Will Smith in some truly regrettable endeavours. And he might have just chosen to “rescue” Shyamalan by returning for Glass 18 years later.
Yet, for the longest time, the hovering ghost of Shyamalan’s career was not his steep descent into cinematic oblivion. It was that Unbreakable, his finest, a movie that subtly pre-empted the barrage of Hollywood comic-book franchises, came on the heels of his third and most popular film, The Sixth Sense. It was Touchstone Pictures, seduced by its path-breaking success, that marketed Unbreakable as the next ‘psychological thriller’ from the “maker of The Sixth Sense.” Just a few months after Christopher Nolan revitalised this genre with Memento, this was a self-defeating strategy.
Unbreakable received lukewarm reviews from critics who analysed it for what they hoped it to be: a dark, slow-burning drama with a ‘twist’ ending. The signs were there. Unbreakable, too, starred action star Bruce Willis trying to reinvent his image through solemn performances. In both, he is part of a failing marriage in Philadelphia. In both, a perceptive child prompts him towards self-realisation. And in both, Willis played a character unaware of his own form — a superhuman ignorant of his gifts, like a ghost who doesn’t know he is dead.
Interestingly, this was a trope reflected in our early impression of the two films — a supernatural horror flick that’s actually a human tragedy, and a quiet psychological thriller that’s actually a superhero-origin story. At the time, then, Unbreakable was dismissed as an underwhelming ‘follow-up’ over-designed by the Hitchcockian auteur whose mastery diluted his suspense. At the time, this was the curse of being unbreakable.
James McAvoy in Split.
Almost two decades on, Unbreakable is a cult classic — hailed for the same traits that, in 2000, were considered shortcomings. Boring is now understated, unfamiliar is now original, and realism is now timely. If it had been presented for what it was, audiences might have misunderstood it instantly instead of understanding it differently in the long run. This became evident when, in 2009, a surprised Quentin Tarantino called Unbreakable a “brilliant retelling of the Superman mythology”. The mistake, it turns out, ironically bolstered the intellectual stature of Shyamalan’s lost world.
Unlike its flashier successors, Unbreakable was not derived from a physical comic-book universe; it is instead based in a regular universe with characters that want to believe in the sanctity of a comic-book universe. It raises questions about the inherent motives of modern-day superhero cinema — while half the industry is dedicated to spawning spin-offs that reiterate the fantasy-fiction of comic-book literature, Unbreakable pivots on humans who treat such literature as a final link of the ancient ways to pass on authentic history. “An exaggeration of truth,” as the film’s mysterious comic-book connoisseur Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) puts it, rather than unbridled imagination.
Most importantly, Unbreakable pivots on the power of self-belief — Price spends all film trying to convince Dunn that he is a superhero — rather than actual superpowers.
Ideas of power
We live in a world whose leaders snatch, abuse and advertise the illusions of power. Hollywood is full of self-aware superheroes who crack jokes about power, but never hesitate to let it define their identities. Given this self-gratifying landscape, it’s important to note that Unbreakable is about a modest security guard hesitant to believe in the very concept of power. He is, in a refreshing departure from type, unwilling to wield it. By hesitating to take responsibility for what he is capable of, he essentially battles the child in himself to express colourless adult ambitions. An everyman like Dunn, with no predecessors and no ready references, is far more relevant today than ever before.
Which is why it came as no surprise that Split (2016), a thematic sequel, marked Shyamalan’s return to form after years of storytelling wilderness. If Unbreakable is a posthumous need of the hour, Split is an unnerving reflection of this hour.
Split is literally a psychological thriller, disguised as a rare ‘supervillain-origin’ story. It is centred on Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy), a man afflicted with dissociative identity disorder who is torn between 23 different personalities. His dominant personality imprisons three teenaged girls in an unidentified basement — one of whom is Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), an outsider who somewhat relates to the accidental psychopath.
Both of them bear wounded souls, after being abused in their childhood by close family members. Through a psychiatrist, it is hinted that those with such mental illnesses are not necessarily different in a “lesser” way, but possibly supernaturally gifted higher beings.
Broken and better
The thought is provocative, especially considering that Crumb’s most transcendent avatar is a ‘beast’ that kills humans untouched by suffering. Far from stigmatising mental disorders, this works as an analogy for corruption and decadence; the victim-of-circumstances motif is elevated into a binary device of morality that supports the good vs. evil narrative.
Samuel L. Jackson in Unbreakable.
We usually believe that tough experiences harden our spirits. Split suggests that beyond a point, even strength is dichotomous. “The broken are more evolved,” the beast ultimately declares, slyly condescending on the titular core of Unbreakable. You can almost sense the two films reacting to one another.
Dunn unwittingly integrates “brokenness” into his life to defy his deep-rooted evolution — his marriage is broken, he once feigned a shoulder injury, and his faith in humanity is brittle. Crumb would mock pretenders like him. It takes Price, an unhinged introvert prone to breaking into so many pieces that he is called Mr. Glass, to remind Dunn of what he really is. It takes Crumb’s worst, a bestial epitome of instability, to remind Casey of what she is destined to become.
Glass, the final movie of the trilogy, whose trailer was recently unveiled, will be the first Shyamalan film to officially release as a superhero thriller. Much of the first two films’ magic is derived from the fact that viewers didn’t expect a franchise narrative. The twist was not within the films but the films themselves. This time, we already know Glass will combine the protagonists — indestructible Dunn will hunt for ‘pieces’ of Crumb — in a shared universe.
Perhaps the key to our perception of the third film’s self-awareness lies in two companion scenes across Unbreakable and Split. In one, a boy aims a gun at his sceptical father, convinced the bullets will bounce off his chest; he is desperate to prove that superheroes exist. In the other, a little girl aims a gun at her predatory uncle, convinced the bullets will pierce his chest; she is desperate to prove that beasts should not exist.
With Glass, it’s Shyamalan aiming at an entire generation of comic-book enthusiasts. He is desperate to prove that life exists — somewhere in a vacuum between superheroes and beasts.
When not obsessively visiting locales from his favourite films, the writer is a freelance film critic.
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