Thursday, September 3, 2020

The Best Movies of My Life: Unbreakable (2000)

It is difficult to know where to start with some movies, because they are just that good, and I've got tons to say about them. Unbreakable is one of those.

For me, this is inarguably Bruce Willis' best film, as it is for M. Night Shyamalan, who wrote, produced, and directed it. As for Samuel L. Jackson, this is tied for his best with Pulp Fiction, which will also eventually appear on this blog.

Quentin Tarantino, who wrote and directed Pulp Fiction, regards Unbreakable as a masterpiece. I couldn't agree more. It's the story about David Dunn and his evolution, not just as a person who, very slowly and reluctantly, comes to understand and admit to himself that he has "superpowers," i.e., physical or mental abilities well above human norms, but also as a person who, as he makes these startling discoveries bit by bit, comes into his own, perhaps more importantly as a man who finally discovers his purpose on this earth. As he does, his broken relationship with his wife begins to mend; the black depression that has held him down so long begins to lift, and the world opens around him. It's a world filled with shadows--the shadows of human beings with harmful, deceitful, or malicious intent, which one of his superpowers can detect.

Of course, you cannot have a superhero without a counterbalancing villain, and this is where Jackson's character comes in. Elijah Price was born with a rare disease that renders his bones extremely fragile and prone to fracture. He was literally born with broken bones, ones he sustained as he passed through his mother's birth canal. He is as breakable as a human being can get and still reach adulthood. His life is surrounded by padding and protection. As he grew up, often recovering from yet another agonizing break, his mother bought him comic books, which he voraciously read, eventually, as an adult, becoming a curator of the finer art found in them.

Dunn meets Price by means of a massive train derailment that saw all the passengers perish--except Dunn himself, who came out unscathed. At the memorial service, Dunn emerges to find an invitation to Price's Limited Edition art gallery, where Price asks if he has ever been ill. Put off by Price and his imagination, entirely unaware of who and what Price is, Dunn leaves. But the seed has been planted. Eventually, while talking to his wife, Audrey, played by the marvelous Robin Wright, he admits: he has never been ill or injured, not even when he played college quarterback, where he (as one might imagine) excelled. He was never injured even when he and Audrey were involved in a serious car crash, one in which, to save her, he pulled off the car door with his bare hands in order to get to her. He quit playing football after that, under the pretense that he himself had sustained injuries, a lie that even he began to believe after a while.

Dunn, for years, has worked as a security guard, his life becoming ever more flat, ever more undefined, mundane, and depressing. As his own shadows overwhelm him, his marriage to Audrey suffers, to the point where they decide to separate. That's where we find him at the beginning of the film. Their boy, Joseph, played by Spencer Treat Clark, tries to get them to hold hands as Dunn leaves the emergency room, but they can't even do that long enough to get outside.

Dunn's evolution is one of the most inspiring stories I can think of. As he wrestles with the possibility that Elijah Price could be right about him, he finds himself in his basement with his boy, where he is working out on the bench press.

He eventually calls Price, who, to encourage him, tells him to go where people are.

This movie for me has particular impact, because for nearly forty years I too was much like David Dunn as he languished. As I found the courage to do what I felt, and still feel, I was put on Earth to do (write), I felt myself begin to come, more and more, into my own. Writing isn't a superpower, to be sure; but I don't need it to be. And though there have been many difficult, even tragic events since then, and even though I still struggle with depression many times, I know in my heart that what I'm doing with my life is right, is good, and is what I was put here to do. I also know that had I not found the courage in the early aughts to follow this path, that I'd be long gone by now. The shadows would have claimed me whole, and I would have perished, both body and soul.

Unbreakable is, as Tarantino points out, a masterpiece. Watch it if you haven't. If you have, watch it again.