Watching Unbreakable for the first time in 2023, one must contend with two distinct legacies. The first is the career trajectory of M. Night Shyamalan. I haven’t seen all of his films (far from it), though I am making an effort to fix that. Critical consensus holds that he lost his touch in the early 2000s, becoming overly reliant on increasingly absurd plot twists, only to gradually resurrect his career by the late 2010s.
The second long shadow of Unbreakable is the one I spent most of the time thinking about as I watched. That is the way that superhero comic book movies have become a commercial and cultural juggernaut in the 23 years since it debuted. The notion that the outlandish wish-fulfillment concept of superheroes could be turned into riveting, mature cinematic drama was not unprecedented in 2000. But it was much more novel.
The film withstands scrutiny through both these lenses. As a Shyamalan film, Unbreakable expands on the sincere but thrilling tone of The Sixth Sense, this time with some ambivalence about embracing the unknown. Shyamalan once again portrays a fascination with the supernatural as a reflection of basic human truths and experiences. We see this through two men: David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a psychically drained man with a failing personal life and an uneasy approach to fatherhood, and his inverse image, the physically fragile but obsessively motivated Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson).
The narrative follows Dunn’s struggle to embrace his own superpowers (invulnerability, intuition) after a miraculous survival of a train crash. His state serves as a metaphor: a melancholic, everyday father expected to be a hyper-aware Superman for his family, and finding it hard to do so. The film also taps into wish-fulfillment, as we watch Willis gradually engage more with his surroundings and test the extent of his abilities, ultimately becoming an empowered savior.
Price’s character is equally complex: He’s a man tormented by his own limitations, yearning for escape by discovering someone who can break the physical constraints that bind him. And true to Shyamalan’s style, the final few minutes brilliantly recast this character into something more ominous, serving as a reminder that obsession with abstract “greatness” is not an intrinsically positive pursuit.
Shyamalan excels in his direction, framing the story with intensity and precision. The visuals are filled with long, probing takes that draw us into the characters’ mindset. The story is paced deliberately; another superhero movie might cover the entirety of Unbreakable’s narrative in its first act. Despite occasionally feeling slow and methodical, the length of specific shots and scenes deepen the character studies of Price and Dunn. Any additional scope of world-building or adventure would have undermined what makes Unbreakable truly special. (It’s for this reason that I approach watching Glass with some trepidation.)
The performances are superb. Willis and Jackson carry the film, and Robin Wright brings life to a simple character, here as Dunn’s estranged wife, Audrey. Her performance reminds me of Toni Collette in The Sixth Sense, greatly elevating a role that could easily have been forgettable. This is also the third consecutive film by the director featuring an impressive performance by a young actor, in this case, Spencer Treat Clark as Joseph, Dunn’s adoring son.
As a superhero movie-proper, it’s relatively sparse on what we think of as defining the genre: set pieces, chase sequences, and big-budget spectacles. But then, Unbreakable isn’t really a superhero movie-proper, is it? It’s a manifesto of sorts explaining how superheroes can make for great cinematic psychodrama for adults. Tim Burton’s Batman had proven the commercial appeal of the genre a decade earlier, and Sam Raimi’s excellent Spider-Man would establish the blueprint for the 21st superhero movie just a couple of years later, but Unbreakable feels like the Plymouth Rock for more cerebral superhero fare like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.
Indeed, Unbreakable is a unique and engaging film. It’s a bit more idiosyncratic than The Sixth Sense, but it’s nearly as great.