'Unbreakable' (2000)/Written, Produced & Directed by M. Night Shyamalan/Grade: A+
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
Now this is a really special one for me. I've always had a fondness for the superhero genre, as well as M. Night Shyamalan's movies. Even when he makes a so-bad-it's-good catastrophe like The Happening (2008), he always crafts something that is undeniably compelling. This, however, remains his great masterpiece in my eyes, and one that has special resonance for my own 'hero's journey', so to speak.
The premise follows a businessman named David Dunn (Bruce Willis, in the performance of his career), who miraculously is the only survivor of a horrific train wreck whilst coming home from a work trip. To make things even stranger, David doesn't have a single scratch on him. Soon after, he is approached by the enigmatic Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson, in one of his own best performances), who leads David to discover things about himself he couldn't have anticipated.
Why this is so personal to me is that, when I first saw this movie as a teenager, I had a deeply tough time figuring out who I was. I was struggling to come to terms with the reality that I was bisexual, I strained to find a place to belong due to the social difficulties affected by my autism. Like David, I was still very much in the process of figuring out who I was, and who I wanted to be. Just the subtlest nuances of Bruce Willis' eyes, or the almost zombie-like state in which he carries himself throughout, mirrored my own inner turmoil. It's still one of my favorite performances for that reason.
I also appreciated the fact that Shyamalan had Elijah turn out to be the villain in the end, but still put so much into developing his mentorship of David, but also the genuine friendship that slowly blossomed between the two. As the movie went on, and more about the man's past was doled out, Elijah becomes more than just a mentor who's also a villain. He both legitimately cared about David, but also seems him as the key to Elijah finding his place in the world. It was quite an interesting relationship, executed in a brilliantly subtle performance by Samuel L. Jackson.
This was also the first superhero movie I'd seen that A) was a totally original story, and B) focused much more on building up the characters than delivering a bunch of elaborate action sequences. While it had a slightly fantastical angle to it, Unbreakable was mainly a character study. Instead of focusing solely on David discovering his power, what made him special, it let me actually really get to know him as a person. When I watched the dynamic he had with his estranged wife (Robin Wright) and son (Spencer Treat Clark), their performances made it feel genuine and heartbreaking to watch, which made me so incredibly excited once David discovered his true purpose, and everything started to improve for him.
Part of that personal and grounded feeling also owed credit, weirdly, to the cinematography by Eduardo Serra. I say weird because he often framed his shots like they were panels in a comic book, yet that deliberate stylistic choice didn't take away from allowing me to feel the intended emotions. If anything, it actually had the opposite effect; it made me feel like I was experiencing just that much more intimate of a look into these characters' lives.
If I had to sum up why this movie is one of my favorites, I'd say it's because it's a grounded and human story that I relate to given my own experience, whilst also having an exciting and fantastical layer to it. If you're a fan of some of Shyamalan's other works, i.e. The Sixth Sense (1999), Split (2017), The Visit (2015), definitely check this one out. It's his overlooked masterpiece.