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Unbreakable: A Misunderstood Jewel (Movie Review)

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by Izzy Kalman

August, 2001

Unbreakable, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, has recently become available in video. It is a masterpiece. If you haven’t seen it yet, rent it. If you have, see it again. After you read this review, you’ll understand the ending this time around.

This great movie was a flop with the reviewers. Why? Because they couldn’t understand the ending. Even the reviewers who liked the movie were baffled by the ending.

When I first saw this film, the ending hit me so hard and personally that it convinced me that there is a higher power at work in the Universe. While it probably won’t have the same mystical effect on you, see it anyway. Forgive me if I “ruin” it for you by explaining the ending, but you’re not likely to understand it otherwise. If you’ve already seen Unbreakable, watch it again after reading this review. This time around it will make sense.

M. Night Shamalyan earned world acclaim in 1999 with his surprise hit, The Sixth Sense. Perhaps the most outstanding feature of The Sixth Sense is the way he zaps you with an ending that instantaneously changes your comprehension of the entire story. Shyamalan performs the same kind of trick in Unbreakable, except that the surprise ending comes even more suddenly and in the very last seconds, so neither the hero nor the viewer have time to digest it as in The Sixth Sense. In fact, Shyamalan performs a double-whammy. One surprise is quickly followed by another. However, when I saw the ending, I couldn’t believe that anyone other than myself was in a position to understand it.

Taking the first opportunity to get on the Internet, I read dozens of reviews of Unbreakable. My hunch turned out to be right. Not a single one of the reviewers understood the ending. Most considered the entire film a big disappointment. Some liked the story and the filmmaking, but called the ending confusing or unsatisfying. And the rare ones that actually liked the ending apparently understood only the first of the double-whammies.

Unbreakable is the story about how a comic-book dealer, Elijah Price (Samuel Jackson), born with a rare genetic disease that makes his bones brittle, helps an underachieving security guard, David Dunn (Bruce Willis), realize that he is a true comic-book-type superhero. Elijah sought out David because he was the only survivor of a massive train wreck. Elijah believes that just as there are brittle people at one end of the spectrum, there must be unbreakable ones at the other end. At the end of the movie, the fledgling super-hero discovers that Elijah actually was the one who caused the train wreck, as well as two other major catastrophes that killed hundreds of innocent people and had no survivors, in order to find an “unbreakable” person. That is Whammy Number One. Elijah calls out to the stunned David as he is walking away, “I did it because of the children.” This is followed by a printed epilogue (that many reviewers thought was too cheesy a touch for a director of Shyamalan’s stature) stating that Elijah ended up in a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane. Then Shyamalan pulls another trick. Thinking that the epilogue ends the movie, the viewer is hit with one more utterance as Elijah adds, “They called me Mr. Glass.”

“Huh? What kind of an ending is that?” the viewers, and reviewers, are left wondering. First of all, why the documentary-type epilogue in a fantasy film, and secondly, what’s the big deal about being called Mr. Glass! If anything, the movie should have ended as soon as Elijah was revealed to be the arch-villain.

But the ending was perfect. It was magnificent. The problem is that only a handful of people in the world are in a position to understand it. Even the most intelligent of viewers believes he is watching a masterful film about the genesis of a real-life super-hero. But this is only the vehicle of the film. It is not the message of the film. What Shyamalan tries to teach us is the reason behind the most perplexing social phenomenon facing the civilized world: random mass violence. What drives some people to become mass murders or serial killers? Why are there Columbines and Oklahoma Cities? Why are there people who make it their hobby to torture, kill, and dismember total strangers?

Shayamalan knows the answer. He hits us with it at the very end of the movie. Right after we discover that Elijah is not only a mass-murderer, but a serial mass murderer, and is jailed in an institution for the criminally insane, he tells us why he (representing the inmates of these institutions) carried out his evil deeds: “I did it because of the kids. They called me Mr. Glass.”

Yes, there is a simple reason that people, whether they are still kids or are already adults, randomly kill others. They do it because they were victims of teasing in childhood. Though the real-life murderers themselves repeatedly tell us this, the experts are having a very hard time accepting it. How can mere teasing be the reason? It must be something else, they wonder; this is too simple. But it isn’t too simple. The pain of ridicule and rejection by peers in childhood is so powerful that it can easily ruin a person’s life, as well as the lives of others. They all fantasize about getting terrible revenge against the society that caused them unending and intolerable pain. And some of them carry out their fantasies. The victims become the villains.

Having worked intensively with victims of teasing for over a decade, this simple truth is crystal clear to me. And that is why I created a website, TeasingVictims.com, following the shooting at Columbine. In my essay, “Columbine Made Simple,” I made the case that being teased is the only reason for the series of random school shootings. I also said that without the school massacres, society would never have become aware of the suffering of victims of teasing.

And this is precisely the message of Unbreakable. A series of tragedies had to occur in order to let us know that they happened “because of the kids. They called me Mr. Glass.” This ending is so powerful because it tells us what our mental health experts have been so reluctant to accept. They blinded to the truth by their own basic assumptions about human behavior, such as, “There are no simple explanations,” and “Violence is a learned behavior.” The school shootings following Columbine have been breaking down the experts’ resistance to seeing the significance of being teased. When you take into account that Shyamalan had to have written the script before the Columbine massacre, it makes the film that much more ahead of its time.

M. Night Shyamalan has a great sensitivity for the suffering of teasing victims. After seeing Unbreakable the first time, I went out and rented The Sixth Sense and watched it a second time. I saw what (I am ashamed to admit) escaped me the first time. Both the deranged patient who kills the Bruce Willis character and the disturbed boy he treats were called “freak” by their peers! My educated guess is that M. Night Shyamalan himself was a victim of teasing as a child and knows the pain it brings. (If he wasn’t, I hope he can forgive me for this suggestion).

I have discussed little more than the meaning of the ending of Unbreakable. However, I could easily write a book about the film. Shyamalan expertly weaves into this film a broad number of issues and questions regarding the nature of violence: the comfort that comic books give to victims of teasing; the lack of heroes in our “mediocre times”; that comic books are the modern mythology reflecting our subconscious personalities; that good and evil, hero and villain are interdependent; that tragedy is necessary for growth; the conflict between society’s love of violent sports and it’s abhorrence of violence; the relationship between male heroism and romantic love; the difference between male and female attitudes towards aggression; the importance of courage and physical strength for the father-son bond; the role of emotional pain in distorting a person’s judgment of good and evil; that those who use their minds for evil are more dangerous than those who use their bodies; that evil fiends can be raised by loving and devoted parents; and that both villains and heroes can be found behind the masks of ordinary people.

Shyamalan, a genuine artistic and spiritual genius, apparently made the erroneous assumption that the general public is as knowledgeable as he is about the psychological relationship between teasing victims and violence. But why should they be when even the psychologists aren’t? Unfortunately, the result is that this magnificent film is considered a flop.

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