Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

F I L M   R E V I E W
Welcome to the Real World?
a   b i l d u n g s r o m a n   f o r   a   c o m i c   b o o k   h e r o


2000, rated PG-13
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
106 minutes

THE TRAILERS give the impression that Unbreakable is a taut thriller, with a little bit of supernatural mystery thrown in. Don't be fooled by the hype. This is a filmic bildungsroman, and main character David Dunn's development is the centre of the story, though it has been cunningly enframed by the emerging selfhood of Dunn's personal prophet, Elijah Price.

The film is unmistakably fantastical, but as with many instances of magical realism, the magical elements of the film somewhat resemble Hitchcock's notion of the MacGuffin: while they are essential to the motivations of the main characters, they are also nearly irrelevant to the central theme of the story. In this case, the fantastical elements have to do with the emergence of a comic book hero in the "real world." The process of Dunn's gradual recognition and acceptance of his particular abilities means that these powers are centralized and showcased. But, the film is really about the wonders and horrors of self-discovery. A modern fable, it is a metaphor that eloquently portrays the challenges of identity in terms that are a little more black-and-white than those that we usually face in our realities.

The film is set in one of the mysterious realms that lie between the popular notions of "reality" and "fantasy." Our flawed hero grapples with morality, relationships and discontent. Moments after we are introduced to him, as he waits for his train to depart, an attractive woman sits beside him. We see him slip the wedding ring off his finger and begin flirting with her. Although nothing comes of it, the initial sense is of an opportunistic, philandering character. We later learn that his marriage is actually over and he and his wife are already living what are essentially separate lives.

Dunn reluctantly embarks upon a journey of self-discovery that was initiated by a train crash and abetted by his acquaintance with Elijah Price. Price has a physical disorder that makes his bones brittle and easy to break. The film has flashed through his years growing up with the challenge of this condition. As an adult, his tenacity has brought him material prosperity, but he also drives a padded car and must take all manner of precautions to avoid harm. In one scene, he is confronted by a flight of steps and for a moment, we are provided with a true sense of his frailty as we see the intensity of his fear of tripping. Knowing his history, we are also aware that even a short fall will cause multiple breaks and injuries. As a result of his ongoing challenges, he has formulated the belief that, just as some people are injury prone, others must be exceptionally resistant to them. And so, he leaves a note on Dunn's car, asking if Dunn has ever been sick in his life.

As the film progresses, Price becomes an oracle of sorts, asking the right questions and presenting theories that Dunn slowly comes to accept. But Price is not a flawless prophet, and his messianic certainty is beset by doubts that serve to remind us that this is not a just comic book world, but rather a "re"presentation of reality itself.

Unbreakable is M. Night Shyamalan's latest film. His previous blockbuster, The Sixth Sense, provided creepy moments, but was also a story of personal development rather than empty chills and thrills. Shyamalan seems to have a firm grasp of the notion that the process of self-discovery is not all joy and exhilaration -- it is also beset by moments of horror and fear. He takes this principle and encapsulates it in stories that are appealing because underneath the alternate realities is this metaphor, which many of us can understand and identify with at a deeper level.

I saw Unbreakable several days ago, and I must confess that I'm surprised by the amount of time I've spent thinking about it: often as not, I consider wide-release films pleasures to be enjoyed and then forgotten. Instead, I found myself returning to thoughts about Unbreakable. I turned over the different themes, characters and motivations in my mind, examined them from various angles and pondered the range of interpretations that can be derived from the film's ambivalence.

And finally, I considered that perhaps Unbreakable's most fantastical premise is the idea that one can ever truly come to terms with one's identity.

For more information about this movie, please visit The Internet Movie Database

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Rev'd 2003/03/27