Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Starring Samuel L. Jackson, James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy
Running time 2 hours and 9 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence including some bloody images, thematic elements, and language.
by Hunter Bush
M. Night Shyamalan's latest, Glass, is the culmination of somewhere between two and 19 years of collective work, depending on how cynical a viewpoint you take. Regardless of how you ultimately feel about Glass, this Glass-verse Trilogy (trademark pending) will go down as one of the most unusual and unique trilogies in film.
In 2000, Shyamalan gave us Unbreakable, the origin story of David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a seemingly average man who must come to grips with the realization that he is, for lack of a better term, a superhero and is meant for something greater than his "normal" life. The man who helped him realize this is Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) whose genetic predisposition to fragile bones earned him the schoolyard nickname Mr. Glass. It also brought him to the realization that if someone as fragile as he could exist, perhaps someone of contrasting toughness could as well. Broad strokes: Elijah goes to dangerous extremes to find this person and ends up institutionalized.
Unbreakable also introduced audiences to Shyamalan's concept of super humanity. Unbreakable and the character of Elijah Price owe much to comic books; specifically to the analysis and recontextualization of their cliches and tropes. Price, genetically destined to be an indoor kid, is intimately familiar with the language of comics and believes that hidden in their traditional structures is a lost history of documenting mankind's brief steps beyond what is naturally possible; literally the supernatural. Shyamalan would return to that concept, that locked somewhere within all humanity is the possibility to be more, in 2016's Split.
Split is a remarkable movie. More of a horror movie than anything else (the genre in which Shyamalan does his best work), but also a character study of the film's villain and a statement piece speaking to the old adage that "what doesn't kill us makes us stronger". The story of Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a young man whose dissociative identity disorder (DID) makes him host to almost two dozen distinct alters with a myriad of different backgrounds, ages, races, and (importantly) abilities. After having been in a well-maintained balance for some time, a few of Crumb's more manipulative and / or unsavory personalities have taken control and kidnapped three young women as a means of ushering in the coming of a new, frightening, powerful alter.
This twenty-fourth identity, called "The Beast", is viewed by some of the others as almost a messianic character, coming to usher them into a new era and to introduce them to the world. He is said to have animal-like abilities and attributes, like climbing, strength and exceptionally thick skin. He also demands a sacrificial meal, which the kidnapped girls are meant to be. Only Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) survives, partially because The Beast recognizes her as a fellow survivor of abuse. In the end, Crumb and his alters (collectively known as The Horde) escape and are on the loose, intending to continue with their mission.
In Split's final scene, a news report on The Horde is playing in a diner and sitting at the end of the counter is none other than Unbreakable's David Dunn. This is another example of why I find Split remarkable: it is a completely entertaining and solid film that stands on its own despite, secretly, being the second part of a trilogy. That choice, the sheer boldness of it, made me more excited to see what would eventually become Glass than if it was a garden variety sequel. Split gave the impression of Shyamalan as a kind of mastermind, pulling the strings from behind the scenes; a man with a plan (a canal, Panama) (sorry).
So, did Glass deliver? Yes and no. Or maybe I guess and no? M. Night Shyamalan certainly had a vision, and (I can only presume) he fulfilled what he set out to do. Personally, I don't like the film as a whole. I don't hate it, but I wouldn't strongly recommend it. Shyamalan is an inconsistent creator and he's just not bringing his A-game in Glass.
It almost feels unfair to focus on Glass as part of a trilogy, but it’s impossible to talk about it wholly on its own because it’s so heavily indebted to the films that came before it. This is why I spent so much time above laying all that track. It's important to know that, when viewed as a trilogy, the first two installments both have a similar underlying message: humanity is capable of more than we have come to think we are. That is literally David Dunn's hero's journey in Unbreakable and in Split, even Crumb's therapist (Betty Buckley), who does the lion's share of convincing the audience of Shyamalan's central conceit, doesn't really believe in The Beast's abilities. (She learns, though.)
For some reason, Glass is all about questioning that. In my most recent Everything Old is New Again I said it was refreshing to see Shyamalan "kicking the tires of his concepts". Well he spends the entire second act kicking them sumbitches and, much as I would feel seeing a person get kicked for 40 minutes, I just wanted it to stop. Please, sweet Satan, make it stop. I understand the necessity for some form of this ideological opposition, but for it to become the overarching theme of the final film in your trilogy shows a disregard for traditional story structure.
The first act of Glass is almost what we want: David Dunn, with the assistance of his son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark, who originated the role in Unbreakable) is actively searching for The Horde, who has taken four cheerleaders hostage somewhere in the city. Not to sound entitled, but this is the movie we were promised at the end of Split. Unbreakable gave us our hero and Split gave us a villain he could throw hands with. Since this film is called Glass, we could only assume that Elijah would be the mastermind pulling the strings (Shyamalan-like) from behind the scenes, with some greater goal in mind. The fact that we are getting this payoff in the opening act should tip you off that it's not the movie we're going to get.
And, honestly, I would respect the decision if what we got was in any way better than that. Instead, the rest of the film is about obstruction. Dunn (now known as The Overseer) and The Horde are taken to the same institution where Mr. Glass is being held and the three, together and separately, are subjected to the mindgames of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson). Staple believes that all three are suffering from a new species of delusion, that their "super heroics" are nothing beyond the abilities of "normal" people. She has some spurious "evidence" to support her theory, but for the most part it amounts to her just saying "Are you sure, though?". And that's the entire middle of the movie.
When viewing it as a trilogy, we've spent two whole previous movies getting used to the idea that these people are something special; miracles even. Now, in their story's penultimate moments we just have a smug character appear and say "that's just silly, don't you think?" over and over. The obstruction isn't just thematic either. Visually, Shyamalan repeatedly depicts characters backlit, or in heavy shadow when speaking and any physical action is either only briefly glimpsed or completely blocked by something in the foreground (at one point, Elijah's hair partially obscures Crumb fighting with some of the institute's orderlies for instance).
All of this, all of it, would be forgivable, or even possibly recontextualized into something intellectually enjoyable if the third act delivered anything worth delivering. For the first half of the film, Elijah is near-catatonic (one of his orderlies is played by Luke Kirby; Lenny Bruce from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, if there are any other Maisel-heads reading), finally waking up to tell everyone what his master plan is. Having been denied the slobberknocker I expected in the first act, and subjected to the major momentum slow down of act 2, I was extremely invested in what I figured would be the film's turning point. To my chagrin, Mr. Glass' was essentially the slobberknocker, but with an audience. He wants to let David and Kevin fight it out in public where the world will see so that everyone will know what they are.
Without going into details, we never really get that payoff. We keep almost getting it, only for something else to come along and obstruct it again. Tertiary characters show up to spout clunky info-dump dialogue, main characters spend endless moments in between actions just looking around at each other and then a pair of major twists are dropped on the audience.
There are good things in Glass. James McAvoy's performance is phenomenal. I think he's great in Split, but he's only gotten better here. The different personalities are more distinct, more physical and he really seems to be channeling them more naturally. Honestly, truly fantastic. Samuel L. Jackson (once he's awake) is also great. He borders on stealing the back end of the movie from McAvoy but (for my taste) leans a bit too far into a kind of cartoonish supervillainy that is at odds with the grounded reality Shyamalan is going for. Anya Taylor-Joy, Spencer Treat Clark, and Charlayne Woodard (returning from Unbreakable as Elijah's mother) all do well, but are underserved by the script. The bits of character development we get for any of them are intriguing but the movie stops caring about them as characters and they become plot devices.
Glass is trying really desperately to be a "thinking man's superhero movie", a phrase I found written on an old David Letterman Top Ten Silliest Oxymorons List right in between "jumbo shrimp" and "old news". What's worse is that the emotional beat the movie ends on is the same as in both Unbreakable and Split: that humanity is capable of so much more and that this is only the beginning of something. I left the theater feeling like I'd been spinning my wheels all this time. When I was sitting in the theater, waiting for the movie to begin, I overheard someone say "We've all been waiting so long for this" which if nothing else is a testament to just how long the years 2017 and 2018 felt. But was it worth the wait?
I want to love M. Night’s films. He obviously loves Philly as much as anyone, and that endears him to me, but Glass feels incomplete. It took him 16 years to craft a (brilliant) follow-up to Unbreakable, which made me think there was a grand design somewhere. Unfortunately Glass doesn’t feel like a final step, but more like another first step; more pyramid scheme than master plan.