I had a bad dream.
I didn’t watch The Sixth Sense when it was in theaters and therefore never had much of an affinity for it due to knowing the twist before eventually sitting down. I’m not therefore certain why I was excited to check out his follow-up Unbreakable. It could have been friends wanting to go or simply that it was “the” movie to see that weekend in November. All I do remember is my confusion when the opening screen of text arrived with statistics about comic books. I thought I was at the wrong screen—a frustrating realization considering it was packed and we were close to being in the front row. Thankfully it wasn’t long before we finally saw M. Night Shyamalan‘s name to settle in for an unexpected ride.
Watching the trailer again close to twenty years later is wild because it’s so indebted to the success of The Sixth Sense‘s thrills than the product it’s actually selling. People attribute this to being why Unbreakable failed at the box office (if earning twice its budget can be considered failure). I’ve always believed it had more to do with the slow pacing and repetitious plotting, traits that got audiences too invested in the suspense to not laugh at dour line readings by characters walking as though in a fog on heavy barbiturates. The middle act can be a trying experience even when you know what’s coming, but the success of its first and third turned it into a cult classic about to see its second sequel hitting theaters.
In hindsight I’m probably underestimating exactly what Shyamalan was doing. You could say he was ahead of his time in deconstructing a genre at the same moment it was being created (X-Men hit screens just months prior). Its production is anecdotally funny too considering Disney was the studio that bought the filmmaker’s speculative script despite ensuring the comic book nature of it remained under wraps. The current king of Marvel didn’t come to that decision as a means to protect the property’s twist, however. It chose that avenue because it believed the nature of comics would detract certain demographics from attending. So they leaned on the mystery of a horrific tragedy’s lone survivor (Bruce Willis‘ David Dunn) learning that more than luck was on his side that day.
It’s no spoiler to say the “more” is superpowers. We’re not talking spandex or high-concept weaponry, though—just the hyper-realistic result of being impervious to injury. Because you can’t often see these things when you’re too close to them, David never put two and two together. He never noticed he didn’t get sick or processed his lack of broken bones or ligament tears despite being a star athlete in high school. No, it’s a comic book geek turned comic book fine art dealer Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) who opens his eyes to the impossible possibility. A man saddled with a rare bone disease that shatters his limbs with the tiniest of pressure, he hoped to one day discover someone like David to balance the scales so-to-speak.
What follows is similar to any origin tale: a journey of skepticism and wonder. Elijah becomes a sort of sage voice of wisdom unpacking decades of comic lore to test David’s abilities and let his latent heroism out into the world to make a difference. The pupil is unsurprisingly unconvinced. Not only does he not feel special, David barely feels normal. He’s in the midst of a separation with his wife Audrey (Robin Wright) and thus lost in the throes of depression. Sadness spills out from every pore as his young son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) gravitates towards the excitement Elijah’s theory conjures. With every step towards acceptance, though, comes a close call portending destruction. Is David super? And can he be a hero even if he’s not?
Shyamalan constructs this tale with a keen handle on the superhero format, playing with expectations both in the real world and the fantastical. He blocks scenes in a way that provides his audience perspective, framing the screen as though a moving set of panels drawn on the page. Color is punctuated throughout with some moments giving off a Sin City vibe five years before Robert Rodriguez went über stylish with his aesthetic—metaphor lending itself artistically to intentional visual choices by Shyamalan. Eventually David’s intuition takes a bigger role in the proceedings with touch providing glimpses into the past of strangers harboring dark secrets. Unbreakable may be PG-13, but it goes to some of human nature’s most nightmarish corners to finally let this hero embrace his true purpose.
If you’ve seen Split (the thematic sequel turned full-blown continuation of ideas removed from his original draft to focus more on David and Elijah), you’ll know this underlying depression isn’t merely a byproduct of narrative conflict. Shyamalan is really looking to subvert the stigmas associated with emotional and psychological disorders. He seeks to show that how our body reacts to certain stimuli isn’t necessarily isolated from who we are or who we can become. David’s malaise is prefaced as being a result of his living a life removed from God’s will. He’s chosen to ignore his calling for a simpler existence and therefore has found his body in revolt. The filmmaker does a much better job in Split as far as getting this idea across, though.
It’s difficult here to not see Audrey as an albatross rather than a beacon. I think we can infer upon Shyamalan’s intent, but things ultimately shake out to the effect that David chose her love over his responsibility. That latent misogyny unfortunately taints a rather complex and nuanced relationship bolstered by two quietly subdued performances. Sometimes Willis and Wright are so quiet that their pain can be lost within the mounting external tensions, but you have to appreciate what they’re bringing to material many would dismiss as childish mythologizing. It’s crucial too since we need David’s unwavering modesty to remain intact for the climactic reveal to land. We need his trusting, Boy Scout nature to define him so the rug pull can prove even more devastating.