Obviously, major spoilers ahead. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, knowing the twist beforehand will lessen its impact. For those who have, here’s a refresher:
You know what the scariest thing is? To not know your place in this world. To not know why you’re here… That’s… That’s just an awful feeling.
A lot of critics have dismissed Unbreakable’s big reveal, thinking it hackneyed and trite in the vein of M. Night Shyamalan’s other movies. It’s not. For one thing, it didn’t come out of nowhere; it was foreshadowed in Elijah’s creepy fixation on David’s superpower. Wasn’t it unsettling the way he talked so casually about hundreds of people dying in the train accident, or his obsession with disasters in general?
More crucially, how you interpret the ending depends on whose perspective you’re seeing it from. Sure, by itself, the mentor really being evil isn’t a particularly original trope. But that’s the thing about tropes; it’s how you use it that counts, and here, it’s all about the characters. From David’s perspective, up until the events the movie, he was living a hollow, satisfaction-less life, and throughout the movie, he learns of his desire to help people and his newfound potential to do so. And then, in one fell swoop, the rug gets yanked under his feet. It turns out he as a hero was, in a sense, created from the lives of hundreds, and it was all just one sick game played by the person he thought was his friend and mentor. The ending shot of him simply walking away reflects how the audience feels: horrified, guilty, disgusted, conflicted, trapped.
But what’s truly brilliant (and often overlooked) about the movie is Elijah’s side of the story. And this is where the title of this entry comes in, because while the movie never once directly talks about his race, it’s no accident that he’s black to contrast the white David, and the unspoken commentary on race relations only makes his final speech all the more powerful.
Elijah is the first character we are introduced to. The opening scenes show the limitations imposed on him by his brittle bones; unable to participate in physical pursuits, he instead turns to more intellectual activities by becoming a comic book nerd and interpreting the world from that metafictional perspective. The perspective then shifting to David, he is seemingly relegated to becoming a supporting character: the magically disabled negro archetype. Throughout the movie, he acts like your typical stoic Samuel L. Jackson character; despite being bullied as a child, he seems to take it remarkably well, sparing little a thought to his disability.
But as it turns out, he was bottling up all that sadness and resentment all along, and the ending finally gives him the opportunity to let it all out. Like comic villains, at no point did he ever have to reveal his grand scheme to the hero, but he did so as a matter of pride. He’s not the magically disabled negro, and in fact, his tearful, heartfelt speech accompanied by bittersweetly triumphant music spits in the face of that burdensome expectation. He’s something greater: the true instigator of the plot’s events. And though the audience was led to believe they were following David’s story, it was really Elijah’s story all along, and he’s going to relish that fact, consequences be damned. The fact that it’s Samuel L. Jackson playing the character only adds to the shock of seeing his emotionless demeanour break apart; we’re so used to seeing him as a badass that it’s incredibly moving to see him cry.
From a minority perspective, Unbreakable’s ending especially resonates to my heart. We’re so used to being neglected in favour of the white lead characters, especially in nerd media and its fandom. Most of the time, like Elijah, we can only expect to aspire towards the sidekick role (though Marvel is starting to change that; still wish original minority superheroes would get more focus though). And fandom is so white-dominated that even a minor character being black, like Blaise Zabini from Harry Potter, is enough to start a ruckus. I instinctively get attached to Chinese or Asian characters with a prominent role, because despite the fact that we make up about half of Vancouver and 30% of Seattle and San Francisco, it’s not easy to find such characters to relate to outside of anime. When I see the ending of Unbreakable, I see a man defying his fate; becoming a greater character than the role he was given. Sure, he does it in the most horrible way possible, but that’s makes him such a great tragic villain.
Because we all want to be told we aren’t a mistake, that our life has meaning.
I should’ve known way back when, you know why, David? Because of the kids!
They called me Mr. Glass.