“Do you know what the scariest thing is? To not know your place in this world, to not know why you’re here.” - Elijah Price
How do you isolate a character in a crowd of people? How do you film an entire train scene with only three actors? M. Night Shyamalan managed to pull this off in his second collaboration with Bruce Willis, the superhero / drama film Unbreakable.
If you haven’t watched the film yet, this is your warning that THERE BE SPOILERS HERE.
There is a plethora of well composed and interesting shot sequences in Unbreakable, but the one which sticks out in my mind is the train sequence.
We first meet David Dunn (Willis) returning from a job interview in New York City. We know virtually nothing about him at this point, and the footage of the film we’ve seen before this point has been expositional footage of Elijah Price’s birth. The beginning of this sequence takes place while credits are still being displayed on the screen, and we start out with an isolated shot of Dunn, blocked off from the rest of the car, and viewed from the front. The world outside is bright and garish, but the inside of the train car is drab, much like his clothes. Dunn is staring wistfully out the window, observing a life which he can see, but not have.
We move over to our left – Dunn’s right – and the seat in front of him blocks him almost entirely from our vantage point. We don’t know whose eyes we’re seeing this shot through.
And we’re back to Dunn. He’s sandwiched in a claustrophobic space in the negative spacial area between the two seats. We can now see that he has a slightly different wardrobe scheme than the train seats, but not by very much. He looks haggard.
Reverse shot. We get our first glimpse of our observer’s face, and it immediately makes sense that the child would be peeking around the seat behind her – or does it? She’s upside down, and the earlier shot indicates that Dunn didn’t see her. Are we looking at an observer, or just another piece of scenery? She is garishly colored – far more so than Dunn is. He is still to us completely ordinary.
Flip back to the original shot, and we see a little bit of humanity in Dunn as he smiles at the little girl ahead of him. In whatever cramped, tight space he finds himself, we know that this is a good person – right?
We “dolly” back over to our a similar framing to the original one we had for Dunn. This move serves three purposes: to show that the train is now moving, to show his isolation (he moves again after he makes brief contact with the girl), and to open up space on the right side of the frame …
… so that this woman can show up.
Our vantage point moves down to what is ostensibly Dunn’s point of focus – aren’t we viewing from the little girl’s viewpoint? Apparently not.
We follow the line of sight from the woman’s bare midriff back to Dunn’s lecherous gaze.
He glances up to see if she’s returning his look.
Tilt down to show Dunn removing his wedding ring. We now know that he’s both married and potentially unfaithful to his wife.
Tilt up and pan over so that the woman he’s talking to is visible in the negative which has been our viewing portal to see Dunn. She’s also garishly colored, in stark contrast to Dunn’s fairly boring color scheme. The framing is very claustrophobic, even though we’re in a completely open train car.
There’s a series of interchanges between Dunn and the woman, but we end up back on him, looking out the window at the rest of the world – a world he can see, but not have, trapped in his seemingly mundane life.
The vast majority of that scene – everything that took place after the cut of the child in the seat ahead of Dunn – takes place as part of a single, unbroken take, framing Dunn and every other character as being isolated and alone, even though they are less than a foot away from other people. We don’t see the other people on the train, although we know from the news coverage of the accident that there were others there.
Shyamalan isolates Dunn visually with seats and sparing amounts of negative space between them as well as a glass window between him and the outside world, but additionally provides a color separation from the blues and blacks palette which defines the train. This is echoed by the use of greens to indicate Dunn throughout the rest of the film. Dunn is supposedly ordinary, and if we are to believe what we see, he’s even more ordinary than every other person we see on this train. But he is the opposite of that, as we learn from the train wreck – he is extraordinary, hiding in plain sight.
(All images are presented under fair use guidelines – all frame grabs are property of Touchstone Pictures, Blinding Edge Productions, Barry Mendel Productions, or any other entities who hold copyright on this film. They are presented for exclusively educational purposes.)