DIR/WRI: M. Night Shyamalan • PRO: Marc Bienstock, Jason Blum, Ashwin Rajan, Steven Schneider, M. Night Shyamalan • DOP: Mike Gioulakis • ED: Luke Ciarrocchi, Blu Murray • DES: Chris Trujillo • MUSIC: West Dylan Thordson • CAST: Bruce Willis, Luke Kirby, Anya Taylor-Joy
The latest film from fallen wunderkind M. Night Shyamalan serves to unite two phases of his career. Characters from his early hit Unbreakable – a relic from the time when Shyamalan was being heralded as the next Spielberg – cross paths with the stars of Split, his low-budget return to form which took many by surprise. Unfortunately, Glass more closely resembles the period between Unbreakable and Split, wherein Shyamalan’s films were marked by thematic incoherence, leaps of logic and unintentional comedy.
We pick up weeks after the events of Split, with Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) and his multiple personalities having kidnapped another crop of teenage girls. Unbreakable’s hooded vigilante David Dunn (Bruce Willis) tracks Kevin down, resulting in a thrilling fight scene that ends in flood lights, sirens and police intervention. The two are arrested and sent to a Psychiatric Hospital.
The bulk of the film is spent treading water in the facility housing Crumb, Dunn and the titular Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson).
This coalescence of separate films resembles The Avengers and other Marvel team-ups, in that it mostly results in tedious plate-spinning without any narrative drive or central protagonist. In uniting all these iconic characters, their individual personalities are diluted, leaving us with a sprawling mess of half-baked twists and turns.
It begs the question of whether the merging of these two cinematic worlds was a good idea in the first place. The horror of Split comes off as less creepy and more pantomime here. Anya Taylor-Joy returns as Casey Cooke, one of Crumb’s victims. Their faux-romantic relationship in the original film contained multitudes – she was largely humouring his sentimental side for her own survival, while ultimately empathising with his abusive upbringing. This nuanced look at the reverberations of abuse is traded in for Glass’s take – that Cooke’s loyalty to Crumb resembles that of a stubborn dog, occasionally tipping over into a full-on Stockholm-style romance. Her undying affection for Crumb, her attacker, is borderline pathological, and ultimately absurd.
Connections with Unbreakable only serve to underline the stylistic regression as a filmmaker Shyamalan has made since. Clips from the 2000 film flash intermittently throughout and the keen eye for blocking and composition is striking. One recalls the opening shot of Dunn on a train, fluidly shot in a kind of dance with the row of seating in front of him. That kind of daring, intelligent filmmaking is notable for its absence in Glass.
It may only be a side effect of a once-A-lister dwindling far into the half-life of stardom, but Bruce Willis’ performance is mostly droning and frustrated, lacking the wonder and nuance of Dunn’s prior outing.
Perhaps the biggest tragedy of Glass is how short it falls of its own potential. Samuel L. Jackson, despite performing mostly through torpid stares, has an enchanting presence. He steals entire scenes with a twitch of the eye and a crane of the neck. James McAvoy is also a treat, showing dynamic range between a myriad of personalities. The problem is that they are dropped into a context where their characters seem woefully out-of-place. When the actors are going for gasps, the film around them is going for laughs.
The script appears to be constructed with care. Connective threads are constantly being drawn between the two films preceding it, tying their worlds ever closer together. The bulk of these are superficial and irrelevant, though. One wishes that the same attempt at streamlining was made in the film’s third act, which careens hopelessly out of control to a laughable degree.
In a climax as frustrating and convoluted as it is boring, a flaccid meta-commentary on superhero tropes serves to suffocate any actual coherence. A master plan is enacted which makes no logical sense, and the longer one thinks about it, the more elusive and obfuscated it becomes.
There are attempts throughout to give superheroes and superpowers a political dimension. Is it wrong to believe one can simply be genetically superior to others? Or is it instead wrong to stand in the way of those with superior ability? The film fumbles these problematic ideas in a finale that seeks to lionise superheroes – without having them do anything worth lionising. In what is passionately declared as “an origin story” for superhero acceptance in society, all we see is terrorism, violence and brutality.
Such moral deception was present in Unbreakable, too. As the final twist of that film, it is revealed that Mr. Glass had orchestrated terror attacks around the world in hopes of finding superhumans that would survive them. That iconic twist was one of horror – unsheathing an ugliness to Glass that Dunn, and the audience, recognised as such. The film Glass contains that same ugliness, but intercuts it with people holding hands and smiling.