Okay, so, first: let me warn you that Unbreakable has a bit of a twist ending. I will be spoiling that ending here — if “spoiling” is even possible after the passage of twelve years. You’ve been warned.
Unbreakable is probably the quietest movie on my list. People mope and stare and talk in level tones, for the most part. They look at their feet. While there is a train wreck at the beginning, it happens between cuts. The only real action sequence — which occurs very, very late in the film — mostly consists of Bruce Willis climbing out of a swimming pool. You’d be forgiven for mistakenly believing that Unbreakable isn’t a superhero movie, that it doesn’t, as a friend of mine said on Facebook, “participate in the genre conventions of the superhero.”
You’d be wrong. But you’d be forgiven.
The reality is that Unbreakable depends on the tropes and cliches of the superhero genre more than most superhero films. It’s not colorful and flashy and filled with loud violence. True. But the tropes and cliches are so important to the meaning of the film that Samuel L. Jackson, as “Mr. Glass,” the “supervillain” of the story, has to educate you about them. Most of his dialogue — including the part where he explains the twist at the end — serves to bring any non-comics-obsessed viewers up to speed on the superhero storytelling conventions that Shyamalan is hanging his story upon. It’s a superhero movie hiding in plain sight.
“In a comic, you know how you can tell who the arch-villain’s going to be?” says Mr. Glass, toward the end. “He’s the exact opposite of the hero.”
Mr. Glass, a character whose bones break easily due to a birth defect, is the exact opposite of Bruce Willis’ character, a man whose bones never break, who has never been sick a day in his life. If we had been more familiar with superhero storytelling conventions, Shyamalan seems to be saying, then the ending wouldn’t have been a “twist” at all. We’d have known not to trust Mr. Glass.
Why do I love this movie? It’s hard to say. I have to admit that it’s not a lot of fun to watch, not even at the end when it all comes together. “Fun” isn’t the goal here. Unbreakable is essentially a grown-up film about grown-up things (divorce, missed opportunities, the lies we tell those we love in order to spare them, the disappointing decline that comes with middle age) that also manages to be about all the fantasies and weird power trips I used to go on when I was a twelve-year-old boy. That’s a potent combination. That it takes both sides of that equation seriously — the adult stuff doesn’t make the childish stuff look childish, and the childish stuff doesn’t really look like an escape from the adult disappointments — is a major achievement. Forget the disappointing decline of Shyamalan himself (I expect he’ll have a comeback): Unbreakable is the real thing.