M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable Success

Deal W. Hudson
January 2, 2001

Shyamalan’s 1999 blockbuster, The Sixth Sense, took the movie-going public by surprise. His previous film, the brilliant but underappreciated Wide Awake (1998), had gone straight from lackluster reviews to video-store oblivion, so Shyamalan well-deserved the success and acclaim The Sixth Sense suddenly brought him. It made more than $250 million and has passed Raiders of the Lost Ark to become No. 15 on the list of top-grossing movies ever.

Shyamalan’s newest movie, Unbreakable, will be viewed with different eyes. Audiences will come expecting another supernatural blockbuster on the order of The Sixth Sense, another everyman’s journey into the netherworld. If the audience I sat with is typical, however, Unbreakable may be too much of a mental stretch for most people. This is a pity, because of Unbreakable, although not quite the equal of The Sixth Sense, offers a stark and powerful challenge to the pervasive moral vertigo of contemporary life.

Both on the surface and beneath it, Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense have much in common besides their star, Bruce Willis, who impresses me with his capacity for stillness in front of the camera. The setting once again in Philadelphia. David Dunn (Willis) is about to leave his wife, Audrey (Robin Wright Penn), and son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), to take a job in New York City. In The Sixth Sense, mother and son struggled to overcome their sense of loss after being deserted by their husband/father. In Unbreakable, they struggle to keep him home. Their story ends happily only after they pass through a frightening encounter with the mystery of the unseen.

In The Sixth Sense, Willis’s character, the psychiatrist, Malcolm, was the agent of the unseen who helped the young boy, Cole, accept his encounters with the dead. In Unbreakable, which I am tempted to call a sequel to The Sixth Sense, the Willis character, haunted by family dissatisfaction and guilt because he is the sole survivor of a train disaster, is led through his hell of self-doubt by the very breakable Elijah Price (Samuel 1. Jackson). Price, who has suffered 54 bone fractures since childhood because of his extremely soft bone tissue, owns an upscale gallery of comic books and comic illustrations. Price’s ministrations, and his belief that his comic books portray an otherworldly reality lead Dunn to accept the fact that he has a very different kind of sixth sense – the ability to see crimes committed in the past and the strength to capture their perpetrators.

That Shyamalan chose comic book warriors to dramatize a spiritual battle confused some members of the audience I sat with who just couldn’t take it seriously. Nobody could know less or careless, about comic books than I, but Shyamalan persuaded me to play along with his conceit. Artists who use artifacts of pop culture to establish a point of contact with their audience can suffer from the very simplemindedness they are attempting to overturn – and this may be the principal flaw of Unbreakable. It led to misplaced laughter in several important scenes, including one in which young Joseph’s belief in his father’s heroism is finally confirmed.

Shyamalan asks his viewers to take seriously a character who believes that comic books are the successors of ancient hieroglyphic wall paintings and that the battles comic books depict are age-old cosmic struggles between good and evil. He obviously anticipated that this concept might be difficult for the audience to swallow, so he appended an apologia for comic books to the beginning of the film. Shyamalan rightly insinuates that subcultures exist (such as the one that Price inhabits) in which people receive their worldviews from comic books. He runs into trouble, however, trying to communicate with an audience whose imagination has been formed by comic books – and soap operas, gothic novels, video games, and talk shows, media that do not admit of subtlety or ironic distance from their subject matter. Shyamalan’s complex portrayal of the intersection of comic book reality and supernatural reality is likely to go over most people’s heads.

What will keep average viewers engaged with Unbreakable is their identification with Dunn and his home life? Dunn suffers from middle-aged depression: He gave up the football career he wanted to marry a woman to whom he felt a guilty obligation because she almost died in a car wreck while he was at the wheel. His subsequent drab life as a security guard at the stadium where he was once a football star neither matches in any way his youthful aspirations nor sets an impressive example for his son. The compromise with domesticity leaves him dreaming of liaisons with young women and fleeing his family for New York. Through his encounter with Price, which wakens him to his special gifts, he realizes his dream of starting anew in a genuine and meaningful way.

The twist in this movie is Price’s hidden – and finally revealed – motive for finding Dunn and convincing him that he is a real-life comic-book protagonist. Price describes himself as “at the opposite end of the spectrum” from Dunn; he was nicknamed “Mr. Glass” as a child because of all his broken bones. Dunn suddenly realizes that than one mishap besides the train wreck. It turns out that the differences between Price and Dunn run far deeper than the relative health and frailty of each.

Price’s years of hospitalization and isolation have turned him into a kind of evil genius, with an obsessive desire to find a hero – Dunn – to verify his role as a villain, in the way that Dunn’s robustness verifies his own fragile state. Price wants to order in his moral universe, and he also knows that the revelation of a moral order will include a revelation that his own crimes will be duly punished. Knowing evil for what it is, as the opposite of the good, even at the cost of seeing oneself as its embodiment, is the unsettling conclusion of this film. To a culture swaddled in moral and metaphysical denial, such a denouement may well be incomprehensible; it certainly seemed so to the snickering audience I sat with. That is all the more reason to congratulate Shyamalan for bringing his deeply countercultural vision to the screen. At age 30, he has plenty of time to recalibrate his use of pop idioms in future cinematic ventures.

But Unbreakable didn’t miss its mark by much. Perhaps among those who laughed, the seeds of future moral insight were sown. I’d like to think so.

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