The 2000 M. Night Shyamalan film Unbreakable tells the story of David Dunne (Bruce Willis), an ordinary man who begins a journey of self-discovery after he learns that he is the sole, unharmed survivor of a devastating train crash. According to Joseph Campbell, the hero's journey, or monomyth, tells the same fundamental story: "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man" (Campbell. 23). This essay will outline how the plot structure of Unbreakable follows the hero's journey, David Dunne following the template of the monomyth.
David Dunne, as a hero, must start his journey as an ordinary man; in the film, he is a security guard, a very underwhelming job that does not necessarily require someone to be fantastic. The 'world of common day' is one of little promise for Dunne, as his marriage is falling apart, affecting his young son Joseph. David feels that something is missing from the experiences afforded to him by society - this mostly comes from the missed opportunities he had as a potential professional football player. He is then thrust into a 'region of supernatural wonder' after the inciting incident, a devastating train wreck that leaves him as the only survivor, with nary a scratch on him. This incident is known as the 'Call to Adventure,' the event or information that is received that starts him into a journey of the unknown.
The person to bring him into the 'region of supernatural wonder' is Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a comic book aficionado who takes the idea of the hero's journey to its literal conclusion in the real world. Elijah is the one to awaken David to his latent powers, and facilitates the call to adventure. Of course, David refuses the call, as many heroes who follow the monomyth do. David does this out of disbelief in his own abilities, and ignorance of his own powers.
Along the way, David still has to emotionally connect himself with the journey, and realize the stakes of what is involved. The moment when he realizes that he has to go through this trial without his family comes when his son Joseph points a gun at David, who states that the bullet would not kill him if he shot the gun. This forces David to finally confront his own powers and admit to himself that, indeed, he would not die. Instead, however, he tells Joseph that he would move to New York instead and lose him anyway, thus restoring the power to him and taking ownership of his abilities. Confronting death in this manner (unique because he cannot die) is the final push towards the beginning of his training (Sanchez-Escalonilla, 2005).
Elijah acts as the Supernatural Aid, the mentor figure who knows everything that David needs to know, and thus struggles to teach it to him despite David's own refusal. Elijah then begins to hone David's skills for extra-sensory perception, culminating in the scene in the train station where he detects a janitor with a pistol who is thinking about harming someone. This is the moment where David truly believes that he has these superpowers, and fully commits to the journey.
Following the discovery of the janitor in the train station, he follows the man back to the home of the family he has held hostage. This is his ultimate trial in the movie; his chance to fully embrace his status as a hero. Despite many pitfalls, including exposure to his one weakness (his supernatural weakness in water), he manages to defeat the villain. He takes this victory home to his wife and child, secretly celebrating his act of virtue, but knowing he cannot openly admit to it.
The interesting thing about Elijah Price is that he, as a character, is aware of the hero's journey, as well as his role in it. In the final scene, he confesses to David that he knew that he was destined to be a villain, just as David is destined to be a hero. Rather than run from the possibility of being a hero, Elijah embraced his villainhood, as it gave him a purpose in life. This is one interesting twist on the hero's journey archetype that Unbreakable presents to its audience. The hero's journey is also concluded in an unconventional way, as there is no real, final confrontation where David 'defeats' Elijah; David merely reports Elijah to the police, and the police do the job. For all of the training and supernatural powers that David has discovered, he does not use them to defeat the villain, instead relying on the normal, mundane constructs of society (i.e. the police) to stop the villainy from occurring.
In conclusion, Unbreakable follows many aspects of The Hero's Journey; David Dunne starts out the film as an ordinary man with few prospects, who is discovered to have secret, latent powers after a tragic accident. The mentor (Elijah) awakens these powers to him, and opens his eyes to a new world where superheroes and villains exist. David goes through many physical and emotional trials, but finally embraces his powers and defeats the villain, who is someone close to him. There are some twists to the journey, like the metafictional presence of the hero's journey as a plot point, and the mundane nature of the villain's defeat, which serve to make Unbreakable a fascinating example of the monomyth in film.
Campbell, J. (1949). The hero with a thousand faces (2nd ed.). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Sanchez-Escalonilla, A. (2005). The hero as a visitor in hell: The descent into death in films structure. Journal of Popular Film & Television, 1, 149.
Shyamalan, M. N. (Director). (2000). Unbreakable [Motion picture]. United States: Walt Disney Video.