As far as I can remember, about three decades now, I have never been able to admire the Hellenic deities that continue to induce countless writers into unremitting adulation. Perhaps it is the distance on the long beam of time; perhaps, and more likely, the immortality of these beings who were said to have made us, walked among us, played with us like the toys we give our children, and left us in the end to our own miserable devices. The Hellenic gods, a subject I know enough about but not plenty, were always superior to the mere mortal, always ahead, always unconcerned with the daily traffic of worries and conundra because they knew their days were not numbered. But how then do we relate to something that cannot die? With every letter I write, I gain upon my end, and my end is what makes what I do have any significance. Being immortal or immoral (a difference, to paraphrase this author, as narrow as that between "cosmic" and "comic") results in a similar quandary, that of the meaninglessness of existence, either because it will never end or because it never really began. Revisionists pursuing this argument would claim that Christianity is based specifically on a refutation of the Hellenic tradition, of a god who dies only to return to live forever. Now I am all for eternal redemption, and I believe in it as much as I believe in art – and every atom of my body believes in art – but immortality bestowed and immortality inherited are two different states of perpetuity. The latter is the empty gift of the unknowing; the former is our alpha and our omega. Still, conventional wisdom suggests that we do not have latter-day gods, Hellenic or otherwise, but we do have a fantastic collection of children's heroes that have had a profound impact on the American cultural landscape. Their stories are published for children and young adults, with the macabre and cruel themes that only adults know to be part of this world, and they are, for sure, stories with a certain ease of expression that could not possibly be art. Yet they have one redeeming function: they have replaced the figures worshiped centuries ago and, for the most part, improved on them because they have been fashioned in our own image – mortal and flawed. Which brings us to this remarkable film.
In the beginning we are seated on a Metroliner near David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a nice-looking, middle-aged fellow who thinks he still has enough charm and muscle tone to woo a much younger female passenger. Our first impression of him as he stealthily hides his wedding band is one of deception, an impression obliterated when David's train proceeds to crash headlong into another Metroliner. We awake in the hospital. David revives and is informed that he is the sole survivor of one of the most horrific rail accidents in U.S. history. The kicker is, he not only survived, he was not even hurt. The amazing scene as he proceeds past the legions of bereaved relatives, very much as if he didn't belong there in the first place, should tell you what we are dealing with. As should, as it were, his initials. Super heroes tend to have alliterative names, perhaps because they're catchier, or perhaps because destiny sometimes has a way of making sure that we know its whims. Whatever the case, David, a part-time security guard at a stadium in Philadelphia comes home to his wife Audrey (Robin Wright Penn) and ten-year-old son Joseph, yet it is a happy homecoming only because of his survival of the crash. For years now David and Audrey have had their issues, mostly stemming from the fact that David allegedly gave up a promising football career after a car accident involving the high school sweethearts. What is most interesting about this premise is that, at the time, Audrey accepted David's sacrifice regardless of whether her husband was telling the truth. In fact, there are hints interspersed throughout the film that she knows the car accident did him no harm whatsoever. That means that David gave up football for her and her alone, which might explain why she has stuck with him through some lean and difficult times. It also means that David's lies become the lifeblood of their relationship, reducing their trust in the future while strengthening their faith in the past. A fine point to introduce another character, a certain Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson).
While also boasting a Biblical name, Elijah could not be more different than David. While David is white, thickly muscled, and a longtime family man, Elijah is African-American, gaunt, frail, and, apart from his mother, very much alone in the world. David is impecunious and plugged into the banality of working class everydayness; Elijah is well-off and, of all things, a comic book retailer, one of the relentless dreams of every ten-year-old boy. Elijah approaches David after the train crash and asks him a bizarre question: "How many days have you been sick in your life?" Puzzled, David repeats the question to his boss, who interprets it as a backhanded ploy to get a raise, which he grants. No, David has never missed a day of work, never even had so much as a cold. But why should this be problematic? And why should a man like Price, a man so brittle that he spent his childhood breaking his bones from the slightest concussive force, take an interest in an underachieving security guard? If you are familiar with stories of this ilk, you will see where things lead but may not guess what revelations take place at the end. What is most astounding about this film is the simplicity of its plot: the discovery of a greater purpose. Literati like to talk about the Bildungsroman, a pretentious term for a coming-of-age story of a person of artistic merit – but we will not venture into those treacherous waters. Suffice it to say that Elijah, like David, has a secret, and maybe David and Elijah have some kind of contrapuntal need for one another. When do opposites need another? To define their own abilities and interests? Or perhaps to justify their conflict? Not that you will really see more than verbal sparring between David and Elijah throughout the film. After all, what could someone nicknamed "Mr. Glass" as a child possibly do to a man who survived a train wreck unscathed? And that's where most youngsters would flip to the end of the comic book. But, one would hope, we adults are more patient than that.