This review contains spoilers for Unbreakable and Split, but not for Glass.
If there’s one thing you can’t accuse M. Night Shyamalan of, it is a lack of ambition. With his new film Glass, the writer/director attempts to bring to a close the trilogy of films he began some 19 years ago with Unbreakable and continued, unexpectedly, in 2016 with the funny and frightening Split. Along the way, he addresses the themes and concerns of both of those earlier pictures: how ordinary people can find themselves doing extraordinary things, what constitutes a hero and a villain, whether belief in ourselves is all we need to transcend our limitations, and if devotion to a fictional mythology like those found in comic books can warp our own sense of reality.
It’s a heady brew of ideas and it provides Glass with much of its early propulsion. But on the other hand, Shyamalan seemed so interested in exploring the concepts at hand, and knitting his two earlier stories together into one grand narrative, that he forgot to make us care about the characters–something he normally excels at. One could argue, and this theory was already in the air at last night’s press screening almost as soon as the film ended, that Shyamalan is playing a much more meta game, using his tale and characters to comment on comic book templates and archetypes rather than indulge in them fully. But that, unfortunately, can and does leave the viewer stranded.
As a recap for the uninitiated or foggy, Bruce Willis‘ middle class washout David Dunn became, essentially, a superhero at the end of Unbreakable, thanks to the machinations of would-be supervillain Elijah “Mr. Glass” Price (Samuel L. Jackson). David had great strength, durability and the ability to root out criminals simply by touching them, but Price–victim of a degenerative disease that left his bones as fragile as crystal–had orchestrated a series of calamities in order to find David and create the real-life yin/yang comic book. Meanwhile in Split, a man named Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), afflicted with dissociative identity disorder and exhibiting some 23 different personalities collectively known as the Horde, kidnapped three teenage girls with plans to sacrifice them to “the Beast,” the savage, almost superhuman 24th personality. But Crumb allowed one of his victims, a girl named Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), to escape after he realized she too has sufered abuse. Thus another villain was unleashed, prompting a cameoing David Dunn to track him down.
Which is exactly what Dunn does when Glass opens. Operating out of his own home security store with his now adult son (Spencer Treat Clark, returning from Unbreakable) as his partner, Dunn has fought crime as a vigilante around Philadelphia for 18 years, nicknamed both the Green Guard and the Overseer by the public. With the Horde kidnapping another four girls, Dunn pursues him even as the cops look for Dunn himself. But the inevitable confrontation leads to both of them being captured and transferred to Raven Hill Psychiatric Hospital under the supervision of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson).
Staple has a particular specialty: the study and rehabilitation of people who believe that they are superheroes. Working under the theory that her patients all suffer from highly intensified delusions of grandeur, Staple wants to “cure” both Dunn and Crumb–as well as her third patient, a heavily sedated Elijah Price, who has been in the hospital all these years.
We’ll leave what happens next for you (and yes, there is a patented Shyamalan twist or two), but suffice to say that one of the great cornerstones of comic book stories–the villains teaming up to enact their nefarious plans–does come to the fore in Glass. The problem is that we’re not given much reason to care about it. With all the exposition throughout the movie’s leisurely middle section about psychology and comic book tropes (“Have you ever been to a comic book convention?” Staple exasperatedly asks at one point), the movie feels like it’s just pushing the characters around on a board rather than truly exploring their psyches. Unlike both Split and Unbreakable, Glass lacks a main point of view character through whom we experience any of its trappings.
Of the main players, McAvoy is once again top notch. He lights up the screen with his eerie physicality every time he appears, and cascades crazily through the Horde’s personalities like a human radio with a dial that can’t stop spinning. He retains the freshness and novelty of his performance in Split by ramping up both the personalities and their distinctiveness. Jackson and Willis fit back into their older characters like well-worn gloves, both of them knowing what to do and how to move, although Willis gets less to do than the others; it almost seems like we should have seen another movie about David Dunn first. It’s nice to see Clark, the luminescent Taylor-Joy, and Charlayne Woodard (as Elijah’s mother) from the earlier films, but they’re limited here to being enablers/consciences instead of fully formed people.
The film’s other issue is money. Shyamalan has excelled in recent years by moving away from bigger budgets and returning to an indie style of filmmaking, with Blumhouse producer (and king of effective low-budget horror) Jason Blum acting as his perfect partner. But for all the build-up of the first two acts of Glass, the film’s final third falls short in terms of cohesiveness and payoff. While the other two movies benefited from their low-key intimacy, Glass needed a little more of a canvas and comes across a bit threadbare as a result. As for the expected twist–let’s just say pay close attention early and often.
I can’t, however, pan the movie outright. For one thing, it’s not a bad film. There are so many ideas at play here (perhaps too many) that one cannot help but wonder if Shyamalan is playing an elevated game of bait and switch. He also remains a consummate technical and visual filmmaker (save a wonky CG shot or two near the end). A scene in which Elijah placidly rolls down a hallway in his wheelchair while all-out carnage breaks out in the corridor behind him is just one of the many striking compositions that the director and DP Michael Gioulakis (once again operating in the bleak industrial environs of Philly) pulls off throughout the film.
It’s just too bad that Glass itself, like so many superhero sagas before it, doesn’t quite stick the landing in its third and concluding chapter. Or is the movie itself one giant comment on that curious trope of the genre? As with the wily Mr. Glass, you can never dismiss the notion that Shyamalan has more going on here than we’re readily able to grasp.
Glass opens in theaters on Jan. 18.