Unbreakable ★★★★½

Unbreakable made a quarter-billion dollars at the box office, but has, in subsequent years, seemingly receded from public consciousness in the wake of the emergence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the subsequent legion of superhero movies. Even now, when the listless origin story has become ubiquitous, Unbreakable feels unique, at once modern yet timeless. It’s a brooding film, one that doesn't glamorize the life of a superhero. David’s family becomes cursory, his whole life relegated to the periphery once he is forced to reconcile with the reality of his powers, with his true identity. There’s a sense of the Sisyphean here, that to be a superhero, to be special, is to be doomed and alone. The film’s aesthetic—its austerity, pathos, and crestfallen, reluctant hero garbed in a common raincoat—is incongruous with the house style of the Marvel movies, and the incommodious self-seriousness of the DC movies. Shyamalan finds the sublimity skulking in the quotidian. The color scheme is sapped of vibrancy, except for violent intrusions of orange and, notably, purple: Whereas David’s “costume” is doleful and drab, the man who tries dauntlessly to make David accept his fate, Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), a supremely intelligent comic book connoisseur whose bones are precariously fragile, predominantly wears fabulously tailored suits of purple, a color often associated with power. In the final scene, Mr. Glass is revealed to be David’s nemesis; it was Mr. Glass who, in search of his rival, a moral and somatic antipode to his maniacal, brittle self, derailed the train. Without a hero to oppose you, what is the point of being a villain? There’s an ontological ennui to Mr. Glass’s sinister stratagem; only he can truly understand David’s loneliness.

The languorous long takes that comprise the majority of Unbreakable are integral to the film’s pervasive mood. Shyamalan has always had an exquisite eye for cinematographers. Even with his most reviled films (The Last Airbender, which was shot by the Lord of the Rings photographer Andrew Lesnie, and After Earth, shot by The Empire Strikes Back photographer and Cronenberg consort Peter Suschitzky), his choice of DPs is unassailable. (Shyamalan’s roulette of cinematographers brings to mind Jimmy Page's rotating roster of producers; Page chose to have each Led Zeppelin album produced by someone different so that people would realize the cohesive sound binding all of the albums together belonged to Paige, not the producers. Similarly, Shyamalan’s impeccable visual sense is obvious in all of his films.) For Unbreakable, the filmmaker tapped Eduardo Serra, who had recently earned accolades for The Wings of the Dove and What Dreams May Come. Serra’s patience, his pensivity, his assiduously-composed shots, reflect the film’s sepulchral tone, its somber and ruminative approach to the fabulous. (At least nine shots in Unbreakable last over two minutes.) Consider the scene when David, having finally accepted his role as a hero, saves a family that is being held hostage by a lunatic in an orange jumpsuit; consider how the camera remains obfuscated by the undulating curtains caught in an unsound wind as he prowls the house; how the orange of the lunatic’s outfit seems to burn against a backdrop of neutrals; how the camera, almost obstinately still until now, tumbles suddenly towards the pool below. The serenity gives way to chaos as David writhes and thrashes in the pool (water being his kryptonite), slivers of light piercing the water; then, the handle of a pool skimmer pierces the murk, pulling David to the surface, where the camera slowly pulls back to reveal that his saviors are the children. It’s a moment of quiet triumph. The subsequent fight between David and the man in orange is done in one long take, rather than the vacillating frenzy of unstable close-ups preferred by the Marvel films, or the manufactured machismo of Zac Snyder’s films, with their calamitous fisticuffs and all that computer-generated mayhem. This fight, this film, are suffused with an air of melancholy; there’s something sad, even tragic, about David, about the fact that the world needs someone like him.