Film / Unbreakable

"Do you know what the scariest thing is? To not know your place in this world. To not know why you're here. That's... that's just an awful feeling."
Elijah Price

Unbreakable is a Psychological Thriller that's also a Deconstruction of the Super Hero genre. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan, the film stars Bruce Willis as security guard David Dunn and Samuel L. Jackson as comic book art gallery owner Elijah Price.

Unbreakable begins with the birth of Elijah, whose mother discovers that he was born with broken arms and legs due to osteogenesis imperfecta (which makes his bones as fragile as glass). The film then jumps to the present day where David, on his way home to Philadelphia from New York, ends up in a horrific train crash that kills everyone but him — and David himself is perfectly healthy and unharmed.

Elijah — now a respected owner of a comicbook art gallery — makes contact with David, asking a simple question "How many days in your life have you been sick?" David is caught off guard and starts thinking back on his entire life, even consulting his wife Audrey, and he cannot remember taking one sick day, having a single headache or getting bruised. David makes contact with Elijah in return, who offers a very dramatic possible answer. If he, Elijah, is on one end of the spectrum by being so frail and brittle, then the equation must be balanced out by there being someone in the world who is on the other end of the spectrum, being superhumanly durable — and he believes David to be this person. He bases this conclusion on his love of comic books, and believing that "super" humans exist but are dismissed because of the commercialization of super heroes.

David doubts he's a Real Life superhero, but the possibility leads to some deep self-examination. In addition to being (allegedly) Made of Iron, David also seems to have a subconscious ability to "read" people and know the evil things they have done... or are about to do. He begins to wonder whether it's possible that he's never been hurt in his life or if it's all coincidence and selective memory, and whether his alleged extra-sensory powers are all just in his imagination. David starts considering how the theory, if true, could affect his purpose in life and his family's failing happiness, especially after being the lone survivor of a train crash, both of which have already caused him deep depression. After all of that, David has to ask himself the most important question: is the risk he'll take to discover the truth worth it?

Unbreakable has a hell of an ending, and it's pretty much the only ending to a Shyamalan film that hasn't become an "It Was His Sled" ending. If you haven't seen the movie yet, avert your eyes from the spoilers below and see it for yourself.

This film provide examples of:

  • Achilles' Heel: Elijah is confused that David is capable of drowning just like anyone else, until he remembers that every superhero needs a specific weakness.
  • Adult Fear: The scene when David's son finds and loads his gun. Dear God.
    • The audience doesn't see the injuries because the camera is positioned from a child-Elijah's perspective, but we do get to see the face of his terrified mother as she looks down at his completely shattered body on the floor of a carnival ride.
  • Affably Evil: Elijah.
  • Alliterative Name: David Dunn, most fittingly.
  • Alone with the Psycho: David encounters a family that has been helpless in the hands of a psychopath for days when he invaded their home, killed the father and tyrannized the wife and children.
  • Animation Age Ghetto: In-universe. Elijah refuses to sell a rare piece of comic book art to a father who is only looking for a gift for his four-year-old son, rather than someone who would appreciate the work of art.
  • Appropriated Appellation: Elijah takes his childhood nickname of "Mr. Glass" as his supervillain name. He lampshades this when he reveals it to David.
  • Ascended Fanboy: Elijah. He used to read tons of comics in his lonely childhood, and became what is essentially a real-world supervillain.
  • Author Appeal: It was Samuel L. Jackson (himself a major comic book geek) who suggested that purple be the theme color for Elijah. This is because purple is Jackson's favorite color, and is also the reason why he uses a purple lightsaber in the Star Wars prequels.
  • Badass Cape: Played with. It's not a cape, it's a rain poncho, but it undeniably makes David look more badass during his first foray into superheroism.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: While Elijah gets sent to a loonie bin, he does succeed in finding the incredibly durable person who contrasts his condition, and turning the man into a hero to contrast his own role as a villain, fulfilling the purpose to which he's dedicated his life.
  • Bald of Awesome: When Bruce Willis isn't asked to don a hairpiece, you know you're in for something good.
  • Berserk Button: Don't ever suggest to Elijah that comic books are just for kids.
  • Big Bad Friend: Elijah is the Big Bad of the film, which he reveals only when he and David are starting to become friends near the end. He sees life as the prototype of a story after becoming intrigued by the comics his mother gave him, so he killed hundreds of people in mass disasters over the years to find his antithesis, a real hero. He manipulates David over the course of the film to fill this archetype not to save people, but to find meaning in his own life.
  • Bittersweet Ending: David is a superhero now...but his friend and mentor Elijah is actually his fated arch nemesis and comitted to a mental instution. To make it even MORE bittersweet, Elijah is happy about this outcome, as he finally knows where he belongs in life.
  • Black and Nerdy: Elijah grew up with comic books, because his frailty forced him to find a non-physical hobby.
  • The Cape: David is definitely this type of superhero. He even dons a rain poncho that looks somewhat like a cape. Underlined by a shot near the end of the film, when David comes home after saving the two girls; he hangs his guard's poncho up and the camera lingers on the word SECURITY on the back.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: Elijah sees himself as such, judging by his rant near the end of the film. See Heel Realization
  • Career-Ending Injury: David's football career was ended in a car accident, but not by it, as he faked a leg injury because his career was incompatible with Audrey.
  • Cheap Costume: A humble poncho. David still manages to make it look good, though, especially in the newspaper artist's recreation.
  • Clark Kenting:
    • Subverted; David has been unknowingly doing this his entire life, unaware of his true nature as The Hero.
    • Played straight at the end though, only Elijah and Joseph are aware of his secret as he accepts his destiny.
  • Color-Coded Characters: A deliberate addition to the style of the film. Like comic book characters, many of the people David encounters wear a signature colour. David's is green. Elijah's is purple. The janitor is orange. And like The Sixth Sense, red has major symbolic importance in the train station.
    • Also, whenever David senses someone has done or is planning to do something wrong, they are wearing bright colors or some other distinctive clothing that makes them stand out from the crowd.
    • As shown in one of the behind the scenes features on the DVD, the wardrobe department played to this by having each character dress in more muted coloured versions of their outfits initially, with the colours becoming more vivid as their heroic/villainous aspects became more apparent.
    • The protagonist and antagonist are racial opposites.
  • Combo Platter Powers: David has superhuman strength, is at least Made of Iron if not Nigh Invulnerable, and can also see a person's evil deeds by touching them.
  • Comes Great Responsibility: Embraced by David, who ended his sports career and started working as a security guard because he feels an urge to help and protect people.
  • Conversational Troping:
    • Elijah talks about the Lantern Jaw of Justice and other stylistic traits and conventions.
    • At the end, David and Elijah's mother talk about Villain Tropes at Elijah's art gallery. She says that Elijah believes there are two main types of villains. There's the soldier villain, who fights the hero with his hands, but there's also the brilliant and evil Arch-Enemy, the really dangerous one, who fights the hero with his mind. Elijah is revealed to be the latter.
    • During the scene where Elijah sells one of his comic artpieces he explains how the character has been made to look like a villain, by giving him dark skin and large eyes, both of which fit Elijah.
  • Create Your Own Villain: Inverted. Elijah, aka "Mr. Glass", kills hundreds of people in order to find a real-life superhero, then convince him to follow the call. Also played with, as the supervillain purposefully created himself by becoming a mass murderer criminal mastermind.
  • Creator Cameo: M Night Shyamalan plays a drug dealer.
  • Crisis of Faith: In a Deleted Scene, David has a conversation with a priest who is distraught and doubting his faith in God after losing his nephew in the train crash. This exacerbates David's Survivor's Guilt.
  • Dangerously Genre Savvy: Elijah, almost literally.
  • Date Rape: One of the people David passes in the train station is shown to have done this to an unconscious woman at a party.
  • Dead Sparks: David's marriage.
  • Deconstruction: This shows us a very dark version of the idea of a superhero, and of someone being Genre Savvy.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Elijah and his mother spent most of Elijah's life trying to avert this. Elijah's goal to discover a superhero is in order to prove to himself that he's not a "mistake" and that there's a reason he was born. But he's willing to accept any reason for existing.
  • Don't Try This at Home, Kids: In the weightlifting scene, David specifically tells his son that what he's about to do is very dangerous and he shouldn't try it.
  • Detect Evil: David has something like this. Whenever he touches someone, he gets a glimpse of the most heinous thing this person has done recently. See also Touch Telepathy.
  • The Ending Changes Everything: And we do mean everything. The revelation that that Elijah not only caused the train wreck, but multiple other disasters to find someone like David casts everything he says and does in a much more sinister light.
  • Evil Former Friend: It's a plot-point, and the last spoken lines in the film are the evil former friend specifically talking about it as a trope in fiction.
  • Exact Words:
    • When David relays to Elijah that Joseph considered trying to shoot him to prove that he cannot be harmed, Elijah pointedly declared that he never said he couldn't be killed.
    • David's wife asks him if he's cheated on her since they started having marital problems and he replies that he hasn't, although certainly not for lack of trying.
  • Foil: Explored as a concept.
  • Foreshadowing: Lots. Most notably every establishing shot of Elijah through his life being framed in a glass object (mirror, television, picture display panel) and his mother noting "They say this one has a surprise endin'!" Details like this make the movie equally entertaining during repeat viewings.
    • His mother's remark that whatever God has planned for him will happen seems to portent Elijah's apparently inescapable destiny as a supervillain.
    • When Elijah is selling a comic picture his description of a typical supervillain describes himself.
  • Genius Cripple: Elijah. Which is not a very good thing.
  • Genre-Busting: It's a psychological thriller meets family melodrama meets Super Hero Origin.
  • Genre Deconstruction: Deconstructed the "Real-world Superhero" long before that trope became popular.
  • Genre Savvy: Elijah. And his genre-savviness killed hundreds of people.
  • Heel Realization:
    It all makes sense. In a comic, you know how you can tell who the arch-villain is going to be? He is the exact opposite of the hero. And most times they are friends like you and me. I should have known way back when, you know why, David? Because of the kids! They called me Mr. Glass.
  • Heroic Bystander: The two kids who David rescues near the end of the film end up saving him from drowning. Definitely a crowner.
  • The Hero's Journey: Deconstructed. It doesn't help that the villain Elijah knows his mythology and the Campbellian elements to manipulate David into accepting The Call to Adventure.
  • Ideal Illness Immunity: David realizes he hasn't been sick in many years - if ever.
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: David until he accepts the calling.
  • I Just Want to Be Special: Elijah has this bad. Mostly due to his medical condition.
  • I Never Told You My Name: Elijah reveals to his care worker that he knows David by asking, by name, how her husband was injured in a car wreck.
  • Immune to Bullets: Played for drama when David's son threatens to prove Elijah's theory while pointing a gun at David. Ultimately an Aversion, since David manages to talk him out of it and we never learn what would have happened if David got shot.
  • Infant Immortality: In a deleted scene, David asks a bishop about what happened, how he can be fine when his watch was crushed like it'd been hit by a sledgehammer. The bishop then angrily reveals that the kid on the train in front of David was his grandnephew.
  • Indecisive Medium: With references to Comic Book visuals, by positioning the characters in door frames, and such.
  • It's All About Me: Having a Hero around is good, but the Villain doesn't care for any of that and quickly reveals that he performed his heinous deeds for selfish reasons to find his place in the world.
  • Jaded Washout: Played with. David was The Ace in his college days and is now holding to a humble job and a crumbling family.
  • Lantern Jaw of Justice: When showing off a piece of comic book art to a prospective client, Elijah explains how the square jaw is common to superheroes, while supervillains have more pointed facial features. Later, a sketch artists rendering of the the hero who saved the kids (David) is given a jawline to rival Dick Tracy.
  • Law of Conservation of Detail: Like nearly all of his films, Shyamalan intricately controls almost every line of dialogue to have some significance. Listen carefully to the first scene between David and a train passenger, it all feels very natural but reveals a lot of current and future story elements.
  • Kryptonite Factor: Explicitly acknowledged in the film, as every hero has some weakness.
  • Made of Iron: Justified with David.
  • Made of Plasticine: Justified with Elijah.
  • Meaningful Rename: Elijah declares himself 'Mister Glass', after the name the other kids used to call him due to his condition. It's a stark contrast to David, who pretty much assumes the name of the film with his 'power'.
  • Meta Casting: John McClane is Unbreakable, who knew?
  • My Dad Can Beat Up Your Dad: Made especially ironic/funny when Potter says this to Joseph, who turns away so Potter won't see his smirk because he knows what his dad can do. And then it turns dark when Joseph nearly shoots David because he wants to know if it'll bounce off.
  • Nigh-Invulnerability: Deconstructed. It leads to serious Survivor's Guilt. With Bruce Willis playing the hero it has added significance.
  • Not So Stoic: Elijah, and by extension, Samuel L. Jackson to anyone familiar with his other movies and pop culture status. Hearing his tearfully triumphant delivery of his Motive Rant is a twist in itself.
  • Oh Crap!: Several. One of the most notable was when David realized that he'd fallen on the plastic cover for a swimming pool.
  • The Oner: At least half the shots in the film; during several conversations the camera will pan between closeups rather than cutting.
  • Playing the Heart Strings: During the flashback to the car accident.
  • Proto-Superhero: Discussed. Elijah expounds on the ways comic book superheroes have their roots in earlier forms and archetypes, and uses this fact to bolster his belief that they are ultimately based on real life.
  • Psychometry: David has a variant of this; he can see people's evil deeds when he touches them.
  • Religious and Mythological Theme Naming: David, Elijah, and Joseph all come from The Bible. There's possibly some symbolism implied: David was a warrior king, Elijah was a prophet, and Joseph was an idealistic dreamer.
  • Scary Black Man: Played with - any character played by Samuel L. Jackson is bound to have an intimidating presence, but his character has a bone disease that makes him extremely frail and infirm. He's also a terrorist.
  • Serial Killer: Elijah kills tons of people just to find his antithesis.
  • Serious Business: When Elijah is first seen as an adult, he is speaking about the artistic merit of a very valuable concept sketch for a comic character, and the customer says he'll take it. Elijah walks out while congratulating him on his purchase, but stops when the man remarks that "My kid's gonna go berserk." Elijah then tears into the man.
    Elijah: Once again, please?
    Customer: My son Jeb, it's a gift for him.
    Elijah: How old is "Jeb?"
    Customer: He's four.
    Elijah: No. No, no, no, no, NO. You need to go. Now.
    Customer: W-What did I say?
    Elijah: Do you see any Teletubbies here? Do you see a slender plastic tag clipped to my shirt with my name on it? Did you see a little Asian child with a blank expression sitting outside in a mechanical helicopter that shakes when you put quarters in it? No? Well, that's what you'd see at a toy store. And you must think you're in a toy store, because you're here shopping for an infant named Jeb. Now, one of us has made a gross error, and wasted the other person's valuable time. This is an art gallery, my friend, and this is a piece of art.
  • Shout-Out: Elijah's hairstyle is based on Frederick Douglass.
    • Given the movie's comic book themes, there is a subtle one that is Fridge Brilliance on later viewings. As has been mentioned, the color theme that goes with Elijah is purple, and his office has a large Egyptian pictoral behind his chair, both of which are references to Ozymandias from Watchmen. It's Fridge Brilliance after you've seen both movies, and know that both of them are actually secretly the villain of the work.
    • There is another in the scenes in the house when David is wearing his green raincoat with a hood pulled up, making him look like The Spectre. What do David and The Spectre have in common? They both punish the guilty.
      • Also the first Spectre drowned, like David almost did as a child.
  • Shown Their Work: Osteogenesis imperfecta is a real disease, and was classified into four types at the time the film was made. Today there are seven types.
    • The mutation of the LRP 5 gene can also result in ultra dense bones. Interestingly, this effect was only noticed by scientist Karl Insogna in 1994 after a man was found uninjured after what appeared to be a serious car accident. The only hint of the condition he had previously was his tendency to sink like a stone in water. People with the mutation also tend to have "unusually square jaws". Sounds familiar enough to be inspiration.
  • Sole Survivor: David, in a train wreck.
  • Staircase Tumble: Elijah while pursuing a man falls down a flight of stairs, putting himself in a wheelchair and inflicting damage that will require months of physiotherapy.
  • Starter Villain: The Janitor is the first real threat David faces, and proves almost too tough to defeat, exploiting David's Kryptonite Factor. Killing him and saving family is the first time he is hailed as a hero, and Elijah later points out that defeating him is just the first step in David's burgeoning career as a real life hero.
  • Superhero: Deconstructed. Unrealized sequels could have been intended as a Reconstruction.
  • Supervillain: Also deconstructed, in that the film explores what would drive a real person to become one, and what massive loss of life the scale of true supervillainy would entail. The hero-villain relation is also reversed; the villain isn't there to give the hero purpose in the plot, the villain created the hero to give himself purpose in the "plot" of life.
  • Super Drowning Skills: Played with. David has a phobia of water due to a childhood incident. It's shown that David may be invulnerable, but he still requires oxygen, so he can drown just like anyone else and due to his stronger density with his abilities he sinks like a rock.
  • Super Strength: Though it requires immense effort, helping explain why it wasn't realized before the call. The film never actually confirms the upper limits to David's strength: they run out of weights to put on the bar for him to lift and put several heavy objects on top of that. (A deleted scene shows the total in excess of 500lbs.) He's able to rip the door off a (crashed) car. With one hand. Leading one to believe he could be at least as strong as a hydraulic rescue tool (the Jaws of Life) which are capable of applying 10,000 PSI of pressure! David wasn't aware of this, as he never pushed himself beyond what he thought he could do. It's almost Strong as They Need to Be.
  • Super Toughness: David discovers that he has this power when he's involved in a train crash and came out unharmed with not a scratch on him when the only other survivor has a punctured chest and dies minutes after David is told of this. His durability certainly has some limits though. Although he sustained no serious harm from the train wreck, it did knock him out for a while, probably at least a few hours, since he woke up in the hospital. David himself also believes he wouldn't be able to survive being shot point-blank, which makes for a very tense scene when his son believes he can prove his father's indestructability by doing just that. At that point, he doesn't yet quite believe he's indestructible. He's still convincing himself that things like the train wreck were enormous coincidences, and isn't quite sure what to make of everything else he's learning. He's afraid of getting shot because normal people are afraid of getting shot and he still thinks he is one. Whether or not he could really survive it is left unconfirmed, since he successfully talks his son into giving up the gun.
  • Survivor's Guilt: David has a case of this due to being the lone survivor of the train crash. This is expanded in a couple of Deleted Scenes that show him taking a Shower of Angst after hearing reports about the crash, and being disturbed while talking to a priest who is having a Crisis of Faith due to losing his nephew in the crash.
  • This Is Reality: Elijah is obsessed with the idea that comics have exaggerated the concept of superheroes with the tights, laser eyes and flying to the point that it is silly to think that some people could be superheroes without all of that commercialism. David's powers are merely on the "unusual" spectrum and not the Physical God level. He survived a train crash unharmed but he was knocked unconscious, meaning there likely are limits to how "unbreakable" he is. His Touch Telepathy is portrayed more as an instinct with a very specific purpose and is not a complete mind reader. Just as the train station scene starts Elijah comments directly that life is a lot more complicated than a comic.
  • This Is the Part Where...: "I think this is where we shake hands."
  • Touch Telepathy: The film has David discovering that he has the ability to read evil intentions and/or actions in a person via physical contact, which he never gave much thought too as he never really followed up on it. Elijah eventually confirms that his intuition was extremely accurate, to the point of describing the look and design of a concealed gun.
  • Tragic Villain: Elijah Price is desperately looking for a purpose in life. He thinks that being a supervillain is better than being nothing, so he commits several acts of terrorism to find his antithesis, a real life superhero. He expresses deep remorse for what he has done to complete his life's work, but thinks he finally knows who he is.
  • Treacherous Advisor: Everything Elijah teaches David is so that he can be a great superhero and save people from other villains, but he has ulterior motives for guiding David on his journey. He wants David to be the hero so he has an enemy to fight and justify his role.
  • Unbuilt Trope: A deconstruction of the "Realistic Superhero" (sub)genre— before "realistic" superheroes even became a thing in motion pictures. It's older than Batman Begins, preceded only by actual comicbooks such as Watchmen. It also goes even further than later deconstructions - David is entirely human and only has some above-average abilities and no supergadgets, struggles with accepting his role because he thinks heroes are just the stuff of stories, and his mentor Elijah speculates that heroic characters are in fact inspired by real life heroes such as him. Elijah proves how dangerous applying tropes to real life can be; to force it into a narrative that makes sense to him he arranges the deaths of hundreds of people to cement himself as a supervillain and find his natural opposite, David's superhero.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Elijah's mother. By introducing him to his first comic book in an attempt to cheer him up, it ultimately led to Elijah becoming a real-life supervillain by causing hundreds of deaths as he attempted to find his antithesis in a real-life superhero.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: In-story, Elijah believes that the concept of the superhero, dating back to the epic heroes of the ancient world, was inspired by real-life people with superhuman qualities.
  • Villain Opening Scene: The film opens with the origin story and birth of the later supervillain and David's evil mentor Elijah, showing why his fragility devastated his mother and ultimately caused him to became a Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds, which is further fleshed out in a later scene between the two.
  • Walking Spoiler: More like Limping Spoiler, but going into anymore about Elijah's character will spoil a majority of the film.
  • Weaksauce Weakness: Shyamalan also used water as a weakness for the main superhero character. In this case though it wasn't that he was especially vulnerable to water, but rather he was just as susceptible to drowning as a normal person. If he drank something too quickly he would choke and if he was submerged he would succumb to drowning just like everyone else—though it was theorized that the dense bone and muscle that made him unbreakable also made him unfloatable (or the character simply couldn't swim). There was a complicating factor in the scene where he ends up almost drowning in a swimming pool. He's tangled up in a big piece of fabric, which would give anyone a bad time while in water. It was also a psychological weakness: he had almost drowned once as a child (probably due to the aforementioned bone density), an event so traumatic he blocked it from his memory. That would make anyone nervous around water, even if they couldn't remember why.
  • Wedding Ring Removal: In the opening scene, David removes his wedding ring before flirting with a girl on a train. After a while, she ends the conversation by telling him she's married.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Elijah is afflicted with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, which creates a brittleness in his bones that make them very susceptible to fracture. He can't do things other kids can do in his childhood, is constantly in casts, and only has comicbooks to bring him joy. Then he decides that his purpose in life is to be a supervillain...
  • Your Cheating Heart: David removes his wedding ring before flirting with a girl in a train. After a while, she ends the conversation remarking that she's married.