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Old movie review: UNBREAKABLE asks very big questions

Last night, we watched one of my favorite movies, Unbreakable (2000). It’s Shyamalan’s best film (with Signs as a close second), with the most on its mind. Like his other movies, it’s nail-bitingly intense, and it does have a twist at the end; but it’s also about how we come to know ourselves. Audaciously, it asks the question, “What does it mean to be a good man?”

This post has no end of spoilers! It’s intended to encourage people to re-watch this movie, which doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.

The entire movie plays with the idea of good vs. evil, and asks us to consider how they really relate to each other. Do they depend on each other for their existence? It shows us a comic book world and tells a comic book story, and teases us with the idea that comic books give us an accurate, black-and-white picture of the world; but ultimately, it tells us that good and evil are not equal and opposite. It tells us that good is true and powerful, while evil is deranged and deluded.

The movie often puts true words into the mouth of evil: As Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) says, “Real life doesn’t fit into little boxes that were drawn for it.” He says this, but he doesn’t act on it. Elijah Price is the perfect modern villain who sees everything, considers everything, and constantly seeks meaning — but he draws all the wrong conclusions. He displays Egyptian pictograms, Christian icons, and prehistoric cave paintings on his walls, alongside the line drawings from comic books from the 40’s) — but he doesn’t make any distinctions between what meaning they may convey. In his world, everything he encounters tells him one thing. He says that the world doesn’t fit into neat boxes, but he certainly behaves as if it does.

But let’s step back for a moment. The first two times we see Elijah Price, it’s in a reflection: first in the mirror of the dressing room where he was born, and then in the TV screen of his childhood apartment. When he opens his first comic book, the camera trickily rotates so that the comic book stays still and the entire world turns around to accommodate it. This is where the skewing begins. Elijah later says that he’s waited his whole life to meet David Dunn (Bruce Willis), because the villain only knows who he is when he meets his exact opposite.

He’s swallowed whole the idea that comic books tell us the truth about the world. He acknowledges that the traits of the hero and villain are exaggerated, but he believes they portray something not only true, but dead serious (refusing, for instance, to squander a comic book work of art on a child in his gallery).

You may think, “Ah, then this is a comic book movie, pitting against each other the equal, opposite, mirror image forces of good and evil.”  And this is certainly what Elijah believes is happening. He tells David:

Your bones don’t break, mine do. That’s clear. Your cells react to bacteria and viruses differently than mine. You don’t get sick, I do. That’s also clear. But for some reason, you and I react the exact same way to water. We swallow it too fast, we choke. We get some in our lungs, we drown. However unreal it may seem, we are connected, you and I. We’re on the same curve, just on opposite ends.

and then later:

Now that we know who you are, I know who I am. I’m not a mistake! It all makes sense! In a comic, you know how you can tell who the arch-villain’s going to be? He’s the exact opposite of the hero.

He believes that he will find meaning in his life — his purpose for being, the proof that he is not a “mistake” — by being the opposite of Dunn. They are both (like the name of his store) “limited editions”: extraordinary people, and they do seem to be mirror images of each other, black and white.

But notice what actually happens in the movie: David’s powers, and his potential goodness, turn out to be objectively real, and efficacious; whereas Elijah’s identity as evil is one he has chosen. He has always been “Mr. Glass,” the name given to him because of his undeniable, innate fragility, but where he goes wrong is to become a mere “glass” reflection, an inversion, of what he encounters. David, on the other hand, is already doing some good, as a security guard, keeping people safe; but he hasn’t come into his own, letting his true greatness out.

It seems, at first, that the movie wants us to see that good needs evil to exist — that we exist only as reflections of each other. And David Dunn does need Elijah to make him become himself, to see his power and his goodness. It was because of the evil catastrophes that Elijah engineered, and the questions Elijah asks, that makes Dunn realize for the first time that he is a “limited edition” who is “unbreakable.”  If it hadn’t been for the train wreck, David would never have come into his own as someone who truly provides security (emblazoned on the uniform that he didn’t even recognize as his superhero suit) in a dangerous world. If it hadn’t been for Elijah’s evil, he would not have known his own power as a hero.

Or would he? Notice that when he comes home after the wreck, he still intends to leave his family for some nebulous new start in New York. Notice that he has not yet escaped what the movie presents as his root trouble, that sadness in the morning — which Elijah correctly identifies as not knowing why you’re here in the world. He is still, as he tells the woman on the train in the very first scene, “alone,” and without identity, because he hasn’t fully chosen to be himself yet.

Who really rescues him from this trap? Not Elijah, but his son (Spencer Treat Clark), who believes with all his heart that his father is good and strong and a hero (and who turns out to be right!). As they walk out of the train station after the wreck, the son puts his parents’ hands together; and his son puts extra weight (“All of it!”) on his barbell, revealing to David what he is capable of. Finally, his son turns up the pressure with a gun, which shows David once and for all that no one can endure the pressure and misery of not knowing who he really is. The adults in the room think that the worst thing that could happen is that David will be shot; but the son only puts the gun down when he’s threatened with the thing which is actually worse: that David will leave, disconnect, deny his family, continue to be let life make choices for him.

What really makes the difference is when David chooses. He has already drifted, as Elijah points out, into the role of protector. Elijah says,

You could have been a tax accountant. You could have owned your own gym. You could have opened a chain of restaurants. You could’ve done of ten thousand things, but in the end, you chose to protect people. You made that decision, and I find that very, very interesting.

But David doesn’t yet choose things consciously, with full knowledge of what he is choosing, until his son forces him to answer the question: Is he great, or is he not? Is he invincible or is he not? Is he a good man, or is he not? He has to choose — and it’s then that he recommits to his family, integrating all the parts of his life, not just his physical strength.

It’s not enough to be the strong man who can see danger and who can save the world from mere ugly “maintenance.” That’s not the whole of who he is supposed to be. Maintenance is the real villain he has to struggle against (in the person of the killer in the orange suit, but also as an existential condition): maintaining things, keeping things as they are, letting them be. He has to choose deliberately as a whole man. He did this once when he chose Audrey (Robin Wright) over football; and he does it again, when he chooses both Audrey and his son, and his role as a hero.

When he quit football so that he could be with Audrey, he thought he had to stop being great for the sake of love; but later, he finds a way to choose both (although I will admit I’m disturbed that he plans to keep his power a secret from her!). He tells her that he knew something was wrong when he had a bad dream and didn’t turn to her for comfort (because she, as a physical therapist, is the one who heals and puts things back on track). She is not a “limited edition,” but he, David, needs her, and her love, and the love of their son, in order to come into who he really is. He needs not only invincibility, but healing. He cannot be who he was meant to be merely by defining himself against killers; he has to also choose love.

Anyway, that’s how I see it!

Please note that you can watch this movie as a tense, thrilling action movie, and enjoy the heck out of it. You don’t have to think about love or redemption or existential identities if you don’t want to. But if you do, you’ll hear this amazing movie telling us that while we can learn to become who we are through our relationship to other people, good does not need evil to be good. Evil is meaningless and insane; and good is powerful and real, but you can’t just let it happen — you have to choose it.

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