There’s an old joke from Seinfeld that you need to end on a high note and get the hell out. When a movie overstays a welcome, it’s a problem. We’ve certainly seen films that run too long, or pack on an unnecessary denoument. This is a tragic issue of failed timing. Sometimes, however, the issue is greater in magnitude. Some films don’t just overstay their welcome, but actually compromise or even contradict their established gains. They ruin themselves, basically.
In the abstract, consider how the recent Hobbit films have damaged the legacy of the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, or how Frank Miller’s recent comics work has caused many comics scholars to suddenly view even in his great older work in a more cynical light. A movie can break itself, and that’s what Unbreakable does.
Unbreakable, directed by M Night Shyamalastairbenderwasunbelievablybad, was his immediate follow-up to “The Sixth Sense” and it again featured Bruce Willis, this time as a psychologically reluctant hero. He is a superhero who is, essentially, afraid to be special, and that’s an aspect of superhero psychology that isn’t commonly explored, especially not in the level of depth that Shyamalan applies here. Yes, we have the idea of the burden of responsibility screamed at us by the Ghost of Uncle Ben and his analogues, but never the simple fear of just being special, of standing out. It’s compelling, densely psychological, and downright beautiful.
Taking it from there, this is Shyamalan’s best-directed film, in my humble opinion. The Sixth Sense was good, and here Shyamalan refines his moody, atmospheric, magic realism style to pointed effect, just before he goes too far with it and gets a little silly – a slide that begins with “Signs” and slowly takes over his career. Unbreakable, though, is paced beautifully, and features stunning cinematography that captures the most haunting representations of the urban/suburban sprawl that I can think of outside of a Will Eisner comic.
The story is just David Dunn (Bruce Willis) coming to terms with the impossible-to-believe yet thoroughly evident fact that he is a superhero – strong and invulnerable. He has been hiding it his entire life, but is spurred to become the realization of a fantasy by the combined influences of his forgivably immature son and the enigmatic Mr. Glass, a man whose life has been defined by illness and the fragility of his body. His fantasy, like that of Dunn’s son, is also quite immature, but that’s kind of the point of the film: fuck it – be immature. The fantasy is noble and beautiful and represents a form of idealized innocence. In pursuing it, Dunn is accepting that he doesn’t have to accept the grimness of meagre existence, both by stepping into a more fantastic model, and by directly opposing the evils of the world (such as the incredibly terrifying home-invader who becomes his main antagonist).
Beyond that, the film commingles family with superherodom in a really heartening way. As mentioned, it’s Dunn’s son, and his raw enthusiasm for what his father might be, that drives Dunn’s acceptance. Furthermore, accepting who he is is also the only way to mend his relationship with his wife. “I had a bad dream,” he tells her. “It’s over now,” she responds, and I turn to mush and want to sob and reflect heavily upon my own choices in life whilst high-fiving everyone who brought this majestic piece of cinema onto the screen in front of me, from Shyamalan himself, to the greasy-faced kid who handed me my popcorn on the way in. We did it, everybody! We did it, and it was perfect, and special and….oh it’s still on. Let’s see what else we’ve got then.
Then it ruins itself like every rock-band frontman in history.
Mr. Glass has been killing people, it turns out, en mass, for decades, in order to reveal a superhero. It is a stupid, impossible plan. A twist of a gimmick of a tacked-on piece of nonsense, that completely undermines anything and everything the film accomplished. Now Dunn isn’t a hero, but a product of atrocity. Now Glass is a monster, not a dreamer. Now being hopeful and idealistic is a terrible mistake. Do you remember the face that Oprah Winfrey made when James Frey told her that he’d made his entire book up – that perfect icon of a culture’s collective sense of betrayal and disappointment? That is exactly what the last ten minutes of “Unbreakable” is about.
It’s not the only movie to do this. Stepbrothers is a brilliant comedy, but its epilogue contradicts the idea that childhood is a (beautiful) moment that can only be returned to in subversive ways (The Fucking Catalina Wine Mixer, as example). Even the still-undisputed best Superhero film, The Dark Knight, goes off the rails with a heavy-handed and improbable monologue in the final reel. No film, though, steps so hard on so much perfection than Unbreakable does in its last ten minutes. That’s how close you were, Mr. Shyamalan. That has to suck.
The Dark Knight Returns is still a brilliant book. Lord of the Rings is still a brilliant film trilogy, and Unbreakable is still a spectacular film…so long as you turn it off when you here the line that, ironically, isn’t true: “it’s over now.” Ten minutes later, you’ll wish it had been.