A few weeks ago the movie Split was released, for those who are unaware it’s the one about the man with multiple personalities. What caught my eye was that this was an M. Night Shyamalan movie.
In the early 2000s Shyamalan had been my favorite figure in the movie industry. Starting in the mid-2000s, however, the quality of his movies started to decline, reaching a low point (in my opinion) with The Last Airbender in 2010, though After Earth is honestly pretty bad. Since then, however, he has helmed The Visit in 2015 which was his best film in years, so in looking at Split I wanted to give a brief look back at Shyamalan’s early work. Many would name either The Sixth Sense or Signs as their favorite of his earlier movies, but for me that distinction has always belonged to his 2000 film Unbreakable.
Unbreakable is about security guard David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and his realization of his special abilities following a train accident. This attracts the attention of comics enthusiast Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) who uses his knowledge to guide David along this journey. Both turn in excellent performances in this movie, with Jackson’s in particular standing out. He is an actor who seems to do best with more emotional roles, but this is a more reserved role where I could still feel his character’s pain and difficult life without shouting. David is also a fascinating character and uniquely shows how a problem that most viewers wouldn’t associate with superheroes would affect relationships with friends and family.
There are 2 main aspects which make this movie stand out: 1) it’s a GOOD pre-MCU superhero movie which takes its subject matter seriously, and 2) it’s not an adaptation of a pre-existing superhero (though influence from comics is pointed out throughout the film). Given the number of comic book franchises seen in movies today these points make the movie even better for me now than when I first saw it. Shyamalan was reportedly dissatisfied with the original marketing for this movie, and after rewatching the original trailer I could see why. The trailer made this movie look like The Sixth Sense 2.0 instead of the original superhero movie it was.
The story is very well paced and takes advantage of film as a visual medium, particularly with the color schemes for the main characters. David is constantly surrounded by the color green while Elijah is surrounded by purple, with one notable exception. During the scene where Elijah is explaining his theory about comics to David some green hieroglyphs that Elijah owns are in the background. Taking this into account while listening to Elijah’s explanation adds another layer to this scene. There are long periods of this movie where there is little to no dialogue, information is given instead with the musical score and visuals. Speaking of the music, the score for this film by James Newton Howard is amazing and I still can’t believe that it didn’t win an award. Needless to say this is a film where the viewer should pay attention.
Of course you can’t talk about a Shyamalan movie without wondering what the twist will be. I’m not going to spoil it here, but I will say that it’s likely my favorite of his and even without it the rest of the movie still holds up. I’ve never understood how this movie only has a 68% on Rotten Tomatoes with the twist being described as less satisfying than the one from The Sixth Sense. My fiance had heard enough about this movie from me before seeing it to guess part of it but was still surprised.
In all honesty, this is not a perfect movie. Most of the characters have a roundabout way of speaking and there are a few lines that seem rehearsed; in particular there’s a physical therapy scene which always stuck out to me. Despite that this still remains my favorite Shyamalan movie and I’d strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to see the quality of his earlier work.
Rating: 5 ★★★★★