Welcome to Framed, a column at Cinematical that runs every Thursday and celebrates the artistry of cinema -- one frame at a time.
Few people have had a rougher summer than director M. Night Shyamalan. The filmmaker watched his big-budget 3-D film 'The Last Airbender' get slaughtered by critics and his credit in 'Devil' became the target of laughter. It's hard to believe that the filmmaker, now so often the butt of cruel movie jokes, was once considered one of the rising stars of cinema. It's true, though -- the director's earliest works are far more compelling than his recent releases. 'The Sixth Sense' was a huge commercial success for the director -- putting him on the map with six Academy Award nominations. The film became the genesis for Shyamalan's famous twist endings -- a ploy that would eventually work against him. His next directorial venture, 'Unbreakable' (which celebrates its 10th anniversary this month) featured a similar twist, but it was the way Shyamalan injected an everyman realism into a unique superhero origin tale that won audiences over.
David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is a working-class man who's encountered his fair share of life's roadblocks -- a failed football career, a broken marriage, an estranged relationship with his son -- but finds a rejuvenated sense of self after he's involved in a tragic train crash. Dunn is the sole survivor of the wreck and soon realizes his true potential in life thanks to a mysterious note left on his car -- leading him to Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson). The theory Elijah presents is difficult for David to swallow, but eventually the articulate and mysterious stranger convinces Dunn that this isn't just his childhood obsession with comic books talking -- he's actually onto something. David is the man Elijah's been searching for his whole life -- the invincible quotient in his imperfect world.
Price has suffered from a rare disease since birth, which causes his bones to break easily -- earning him the nickname, "Mr. Glass." Though he spent most of his childhood in a hospital bed flipping the pages of comic books, he's grown to become an elegant, commanding man who has transformed his love of superheroes into a career as a gallery owner. His love for art doesn't end with illustrations, however, as Price is also gifted in the art of deception. After Elijah prompts Dunn to recall the events of his life that he's tried so hard to bury and convinces him to carry out his true mission, Price lets the mask drop. The subtle unfolding of Dunn and Elijah's true identities is absorbing and in many ways a yarn more effectively unraveled than 'Sixth Sense's' knock 'em over the head finale.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the way Shyamalan expertly fuses superhero mythology and comic book origin story structure with human emotions and their everyday existence. The director, along with cinematographer Eduardo Serra, plays up this angle by choosing camera movements and frames that mimic a comic book panel. 'Unbreakable' is also full of visual clues that reinforce this -- including complimentary character "color arcs" (David's is green -- cold to warm -- and Elijah's is purple -- changing from warm to cold. Opposites, just like their characters.), the use of mirrors/glass/reflections when Mr. Glass is on screen, the way Dunn's raincoat looks like a cape, various geek references to specific comic issues, and other allusions.
In a pivotal scene for Willis' character, we see another one of Serra's methodologies effectively at play -- stylized, dramatic lighting and dark silhouettes. Serra's use of light is an important part of the film, transforming throughout -- much in the same way as Shyamalan's characters. Dunn's features are lit like "a piece of marble sculpture" near the movie's end, when he becomes the superhero of Shyamalan's story. "[His appearance is] more abstract, silhouetted; I was playing with shadows [to convey the impression of physical strength in some shots]," Serra explains. In the scene pictured above, we see Dunn looking over the crowd of a train station -- putting his newfound powers to the test. It's the moment before he visualizes the exploits of one particularly unsavory character and sets out to right his wrongdoings. Serra describes in detail how the shot was achieved:
"Another very interesting location was a bank that we transformed into a train station. It was a wonderful old building with very high ceilings. Night wanted a nighttime shot that would reveal [the interior] from ceiling to floor, which was quite difficult to light. However, there were holes in the ornamented, cement ceiling [which the bank had used for sodium-vapor lights pointed down at the marble floor], so we replaced the [sodium-vapor lights] with 1.2K tungsten Molepars, which provided much of the light for that scene ... exactly what Night needed to produce the cathedral-like impression he was after. Also, quite unusually for me, I put in a little smoke, just a little atmosphere, so you feel those lights. An old-fashioned clock at one end of the station was lit from the inside by dimmer-controlled 100-watt household bulbs ... The general mood of the train station is very contrasty because it shows a dramatic moment when David makes important decisions. It became one of my favorite [scenes] in the film."
Serra and Shyamalan play with framing, light and symbolic imagery in a way that perfectly captures the friendship and struggle between Dunn and Elijah. The scene compositions are a perfect foil to the film's narrative, which juxtaposes two different individuals who need each other to validate their existence. The director and cinematographer's use of atmospheric visuals conveys not only these hidden deeper meanings of the film, but also pay tribute to the tale's comic book-inspired origins in a far more profound way than the current crop of superhero films could ever dream of. Shyamalan may not be heralded as a great filmmaker these days, but his work on 'Unbreakable" speaks of a time when it seemed like his potential was limitless.
**In other 'Frame' related news, be sure to check out Criterion's Framegrab contest on their official Facebook page (winners picked Friday, Nov. 5 at 5PM EST). Elijah told me it was my destiny to win this one!**