Cast: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Paulson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Running time: 2 hours 9 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
M. Night Shyamalan has always been a charlatan. Taking any of his films seriously (yes, even The Sixth Sense) is actually doing the writer-director a disservice, since he works firmly in the register of the B-movie. 2000’s Unbreakable was low-key and ponderous, but also undeniably goofy. The Village was a disastrous in-joke about his penchant for plot twists. Lady in the Water was a deconstruction of how a writer of kitsch campfire stories could actually be the savior of mankind (played, unsurprisingly, by Shyamalan himself). His 2016 hit Split, wherein James McAvoy portrayed a multiple personality serial killer, delayed its true intentions as a belated sequel (and villain origin story) for Unbreakable, where a grumpy Bruce Willis showed up in the final shot. Shyamalan’s latest project, Glass, is the climax of a trilogy; converging story threads from two films separated by some 16 years into one unwieldy genre clash. Whatever one ultimately thinks of Glass, you have to hand it to Shyamalan; the guy is doing whatever he wants with a mixture of ego, earnestness, and self-aware humor.
The films begins where Split left off, with Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) going through a variety of his personalities while terrified cheerleaders huddle chained together inside an abandoned warehouse. Enter David Dunn, aka “The Overseer” (Bruce Willis) who is still doing his under the radar crime-fighting thing throughout Philadelphia, except now under the guise of a security company, co-led by his son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark, reprising his Unbreakable role). Dunn sleepily (or is it just Willis’s somnolent acting?) locates McAvoy’s super villain (aka “The Horde” or “The Beast”) and has a pushing/punching mini fight with him while freeing the shell-shocked teen girls. Shortly thereafter, both are caught by the authorities and thrown into a mental institution run by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a gaslighting psychiatrist bent on convincing superheroes they are simply mentally unwell. Dunn’s locked chamber is fitted with water cannons (his kryptonite), while Crumb’s cell is padded with strobing lights which cause him to switch personalities whenever they flash. Obviously, this last bit is merely a ploy in order for McAvoy to launch into his acting exercise at a fever pitch, and a little of this thespian mugging goes a long way (especially when the other actors are so sedated), but the gimmick starts to wear thin by the film’s midpoint.
Dr. Staple’s aim is to pit rationalism against faith, and Shyamalan believes so strongly in the strength of his scattered ideas (it’s the power of cinema, get it?) that the middle portion of Glass plays like the kind of self-reflecting lesson about believing in the power of magic not seen since the days of Lady in the Water. Of course, there’s a third character in this insane asylum triangle; Samuel L. Jackson’s Elijah Price (aka “Mr. Glass”) the brittle bone disease comic-obsessive who was revealed as a master supervillain during the climax of Unbreakable. In a stroke of perversity, Shyamalan chooses to have the titular star of his movie remain heavily drugged, twitching, drooling, and not uttering a word for the first 70 minutes. Meanwhile, Dunn’s son is trying to convince Dr. Staple that his pops is just a curmudgeonly good samaritan, while Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), the captive set free by the Horde in Split, and Elijah’s mother (Charlayne Woodard) seek their own methods in trying to liberate the captives.
The way to read Glass in which it isn’t a complete misfire is the idea that disappointment is crucial to Shyamalan’s sense of misdirection. In setting up expectations for a certain kind of movie, he goads the audience into thinking they are getting a small-scale comic book retort to the MCU, when in actuality, there are two separate genres clashing together here; the superhero film and the B-movie psychological thriller. While the film doesn’t work in the traditional sense—with its clunky dialogue, uneven pacing, and laughable contrivances—when has a Shyamalan movie ever worked in the traditional sense? Some will see his observations about comics (complete with cringe-worthy meta dialogue and dated references) as being some 20 years behind the curve, but the world of Glass (like Split and Unbreakable before it) doesn’t take place in the real world. In a way, Elijah Price’s masterplan (involving a villain team-up, institution jail break, and showdown in a parking lot) is yet another misdirection practical joke. There’s even a wink towards a spectacular fight atop a skyscraper between Dunn and The Horde, but if one thinks that’s ever going to happen, one hasn’t been paying attention to Shyamalan’s career.
There are simple pleasures to be found in the film’s aesthetics—gliding camera work, odd angles, striking lighting choices—and Jackson in particular gives a neurotic, wounded performance during the film’s final third. However, if the whiff of a climax; complete with multiple rug pulls involving shamrock tattoos and a dangerous puddle of water makes one laugh in disbelief, then that also infers Shyamalan has ever been able (or willing) to let go of his dopey tendencies. The man has always been a charlatan. His films operate snugly in the realm of pulp. When, in trying to diagnose the problems plaguing our heroes and villains, Dr. Staple says, “My work concerns a particular type of delusion of grandeur”, she is, of course, talking about Shyamalan’s self-mythologizing ego. Having faith in yourself (despite personal failures like The Village, The Last Airbender, and The Happening) is the real superpower, and thinking the anti-superhero therapy session Glass would provide any other insights is like expecting a twist ending where none exists.