Even before the main titles, Unbreakable starts out offering data about the wide readership of comic books in the United States. And the antagonist character, Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), is a dealer in comic book art, so that writer/director M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense) has a context in which to have the camera linger on some mythic comic drawings – the iconic characters that personify the eternal conflict between good and evil. What becomes clear only by the end of the film is that that’s what Shyamalan delivers, a comic – stylish, well-produced, well-acted, and disguised as a suspense thriller, but as fundamentally simplistic and essentially thin as any Captain Marvel potboiler. The wrappings try to make it look like more, but that’s all it is – and even at that level it doesn’t hold up very well.
David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is the sole survivor of a train wreck. He starts to wonder why, and why he doesn’t ever get sick. Other evidence starts to mount up, but he’s reassured by the fact that he was injured in an auto accident back in college, so he really couldn’t be (gasp!) invulnerable, could he? His marriage is falling apart. He doesn’t say a whole lot, but he does project massive measures of moodiness.
Price has a congenital condition called osteogenesis imperfecta which makes him vulnerable to bone breaks. He was even born with broken arms and legs and he’s nicknamed "Mr. Glass." He has some ideas about Dunn, the survivor, and he leaves Dunn a cryptic note leading Dunn to visit him at his gallery. Dunn denies Price’s hypothesis, but the seeds have been planted and Willis can knit his brow and do some more moodiness.
Essentially Shyamalan takes it from there–it’s a one premise movie and there will be no spoilers here. But while the film remains focused on its premise, it’s unconvincing in the details. Dunn works as a security guard, which, in the comic book scheme, fits the paradigm of good-guy protector. But why would a college graduate pushing forty be working as a security guard, an entry-level dead end if ever there was one? Would anyone really have to ask at the personnel office whether they had taken any sick days? What’s the source of the problems in his marriage–it’s never indicated. (Robin Wright Penn (Forrest Gump) gives a fine performance as the wife.)
Price’s brittle bones provide plenty of bitter motivation, but what’s motivating Dunn? You never really feel you know anything about him or his wife; they’re just cut-out-paste-in plot elements. Penn’s performance fills out a hint of a real person, but the script leaves her short. A key scene involving their son (Spencer Treat Clark) is supposed to be full of threat and suspense, but it comes out flat and uninvolving because the boy’s behavior doesn’t ring true. Shyamalan uses the score, a dark palette (endless dark blues), jump cuts, and lots of close-up low angle shots to manipulate the audience into an illusion of suspense, but the essential plotline is so unilinear and so frequently telescoped, that real scariness never happens.
The most egregious offense in Unbreakable is its championing of a vigilante ethic. Superman saved the victims and caught the bad guys, but he tied them up and delivered them to the police. Shyamalan’s is a darker view: his icon of goodness ends up acting out in a manner surely contrary to "goodness" in a civilized society.
"The scariest thing," the script declares, "is to not know your place in the world, to not know why you’re here." What’s far scarier is sophistic morality disguised as pretentious comic-book entertainment.