I consider myself a fairly easygoing person when it comes to opinions. Hell, I even talked at length about just how meaningless opinions are in a previous blog post. But -and this is quite a big, contradictory but- there are and always will be a few things that have me fervently arguing my opinion like a loud and untiring child, one of which is the M. Night Shyamalan movie Unbreakable (2000.)
Now before I get started I want to say that I didn’t know the general feeling of audiences at the time of the movie’s release. The first time I saw Unbreakable was a late-night re-run on ITV Movies a few years ago. I have of course heard the stories of audiences booing during the final ‘twist’ scene, the kind that M. Night has become both famous and ridiculed for. I also read reviews citing the poor marketing, which I assume led comic book fans to believe that Unbreakable would be a J.J. Abraham’s breed of film fare. Thankfully I experienced none of these things first hand and was therefore uninfluenced; when I watched this movie for the first time I was seeing it with a fresh pair of eyes and what I saw was something I still consider to be an under appreciated masterpiece.
I have been asked many times what my favorite Superhero movie is, and I answer Unbreakable every time. There are lots of reasons why. I could tell you about the moody cinematography, the muted palette invigorated by a few strategically placed pops of color, the powerful writing and dialogue that never rises above a whisper; I could talk about the incredible score by James Newton Howard that serves as a subtle accompaniment to a film equally as subtle in its execution and I could talk about how this film manages to bring the world of the Superhero out of idealized fiction and into the real world in which we all live, but I won’t. I won’t because the main reason I consider Unbreakable to be a masterpiece is really down to the villain -and arguably the center of the film- Elijah Price a.k.a. Mr. Glass.
Born with a rare disease causing his bones to break easily, Elijah Price finds an escape from his struggles and pain within the pages of comic books. Heavily influenced by what he has read, a tragic and bloody search for his ‘unbreakable’ opposite acts as the crux of this quiet origin story which offers a real-world take on a superhero and super villain.
Now I could be very wrong about this, but I was always of the opinion that Unbreakable was really a movie about Elijah. The movie chronicles his entire life through various scenes and flashbacks, whilst David (what I would consider to be a device or vehicle to give the story purpose and move it along) owns only one flashback of his teen years. For example, the very first scene of the film is Elijah’s somewhat gruesome delivery into the world shortly followed by David in the present day, traveling on ‘the’ train before ‘the’ crash. It’s as if the audience is thrown into a small chapter in David’s life, a time that is steadily supplemented by Elijah’s presence like a vein of lifeblood. This very obviously represents the connection between the two characters, though I feel it also shifts the center of the film.
Crippled by Type I Osteogenesis Imperfecta, Elijah lives in constant fear of breaking. He is isolated and lonely, bitter and lost. It would seem from several scenes in the film that depression is a feeling he is also familiar with. Elijah grows up never really understanding where he fits in the world, and wonders why he had a chance at living when he feels he isn’t truly living at all. He begins to speculate that if he breaks so easily, surely there must be an opposite who is unbreakable? It is through this ‘other’ (David) that he finds his ultimate purpose. And in perhaps the best moment in the film – one that polarized so many opinions- Elijah has learned that his place resides in the dark half of the metaphorical coin, he is the villain.
‘Now that we know who you are… I know who I am. I’m not a mistake! It all makes sense. In a comic, you know how you can tell who the arch-villain’s going to be? He’s the exact opposite of the hero, and most time’s they’re friends, like you and me. I should’ve known way back when. You know why, David? Because of the kids… they called me Mr. Glass.’
A lot of care was taken in the portrayal of Elijah Price. One example is through a technique used incredibly rarely but always to great effect; Elijah presents many faces in varying scenarios throughout the film. For example, in scenes and interactions with David and his son, Elijah comes across and intelligent, mysterious, all knowing, almost wise and gentle. But in dealing with ordinary people outside of this little circle [see the art gallery or comic book store scene] he is unpredictable, unkind, unforgiving and not a little disturbing. It is the end of the film that ultimately shows the audience just how dangerous he can be. Elijah, like all the best characters in fiction, is like a prism; varying lights show different cuts and sides to his personality. He is not one thing or one personality type but a three-dimensional mind reflecting –and other times distorting- the world around him. Credit where credit is due, M. Night Shyamalan wrote and developed an incredibly complex and well-constructed villain.
Visually, this character is hypnotizing, too, with great attention paid to color and realistically visualizing the kinds of iconography and trademarks traditional of an arch-nemesis or villain.
In one scene Elijah explains to a prospective buyer how the artist has warped the image of the villain -to the point of anatomical inaccuracy- in a comic book panel to exaggerate his wickedness in comparison to the hero. And from the slight offset parting and uneven shaping of his Afro to the squared tailoring of his long coats and suits, Elijah has a uniquely distinguishable silhouette that is off-kilter at best in comparison to David. Donning rich purples and blacks further solidify bold visual trademarks. Trademarks that other characters (barring another villain in the form of the ‘orange-jumpsuit man’) clearly lack.
Yet more than the writing, more than the visual identity, it is Samuel L. Jackson’s portrayal of the character that really deserves most of the credit. Having seen -and loved- his performances in films like Pulp Fiction (1994), I had grown used to seeing a certain side to Jackson as an actor. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he was always type cast, but awful damn close. His portrayal of Price, however, was masterfully understated. Managing to translate such a complex character to the screen so subtly is commendable and it really is a shame that Samuel L. Jackson has not had the opportunity to really ‘play’ in this way more often since this film.
All in all, I think the main reason why I love this character is that he holds true to the phrase, ‘the villain is the hero of his own story.’ It implies that the villain doesn’t always know or realize the role he plays. Granted, it is a theme we see a lot in blockbuster films of the Superhero variety; nine times out of ten, the villain is a hard done by individual who simply sees the world through another perspective – this perspective always manifesting in the most extreme way imaginable unfailingly resulting in world domination… or worse. Elijah, too, fits into these categories but in the subtlest of ways and for completely different (not to mention understandable) reasons. He doesn’t want to destroy the world in a funny hat and cape, he just wants to know he isn’t a mistake; he wants to find his place in the big, wide world.
So yes, I consider Unbreakable to be a masterpiece because the same level of detail and care paid to Mr. Glass is paid to the rest of the movie. Just like the character of Elijah, this low-key film masterfully and subtly weaves a moody tale that could be likened to an urban legend of sorts. I would quite happily go head to head with anyone who thinks otherwise… or smack him/her upside the head with a rolled up comic book, and tell them how four-year old Jeb could be a rocket scientist when compared to their astounding stupidity.
Megan E. Smith copyright 2012-12-19