In 2000, before superhero movies became the most dominant genre. Writer, producer and director M. Night Shyamalan followed up his breakout hit “The Sixth Sense” with “Unbreakable”, starring Bruce Willis as a security guard who survives a train derailment and discovers he is a superhero who possesses supernatural powers. It earned a cult following and garnered respect over the last decade and a half. After Shyamalan spent many years in a less than stellar filmmaking slump. His career was revitalized with the 2016 thriller “Split”, that like his breakout hit “The Sixth Sense”, he provided us with an exhilarating twist.
What an incredible moment it was at the end of “Split”, when the twist was delivered to “Unbreakable” fans the delayed gratification they always wanted and didn’t even know was coming. Shyamalan’s unfulfilled “Eastrail 177” trilogy was actually unfolding before our eyes, and revealed that “Split” was a supervillain origin in the same way “Unbreakable” was an origin story. Now 19 years since “Unbreakable” and 2 years after “Split”, Shyamalan spends his “Split” earnings to cap off his superhero “Eastrail 177” trilogy to an end. Shyamalan cuts himself no slack and tries to give the audience an ambitious effort. He tries to deconstruct the superhero mythology while rebuilding a two decade old storyline and tries to deliver an exciting comic book movie. “Glass” is nowhere near as brilliantly constructed as “Unbreakable” and yet still better than “Split” (I wasn’t the biggest fan). While i won’t deny it certainly has it’s cracks, “Glass” does not completely shatter (For me at least).
Much has changed in the two decades since the writer-director set out to prove his villain’s thesis, to make his own crime fighter opus. Superheroes are now the dominant force of Hollywood entertainment and Shyamalan thinks he is game enough, to cash in on his original film and create his own shared “cinematic universe”. Beyond the franchise uniting, no one would confuse this often goofy, sometimes clever take on the cape and cowl myths that features only stray flashes of action, few special effects, and even fewer locations. “Glass” is unmistakably a Shyamalan movie, featuring all the clunky plotting and robust, idiosyncratic staging that generally implies.
As a writer Shyamalan can still be remarkably clumsy. Inelegantly tying together the plots and mythologies of the two previous films, his script for “Glass” struggles to balance its cast of characters, including adding teenage “Split” survivor Casey (Anya Taylor Joy) and David’s now grown son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark, reprising the role he played 20 years ago). “Glass” isn’t really all that eventful, quickly settling into life at the mental institution, with David (Willis) and Kevin (James McAvoy) subjected to lengthy therapy sessions as Dr. Ellie (Sarah Paulson) tries to talk them down from the comic book ledge. Their is some outside business that is tended to concerning Joseph’s research, Claire’s “Beauty and the Beast” mission, and concern from Mrs. Price (Charlayne Woodard), Mr. Glass’s mother, but the majority of the screenplay remains with the three central characters and their feelings of confusion and defeat, keeping them literally seated for most of the movie.
Bruce Willis returns as David Dunn, the unbreakable hero now known to the public as The Overseer, still playing vigilante hero with the aid of his son Joseph. Upon learning of the multi-personality serial killer Kevin Wendell Crumb and his superhuman persona The Beast, David sets out to stop his latest murder spree. In true comic book fashion, this leads to a physical clash in which David’s invulnerability is put to the test against The Beast’s might, but before a true victor can be decided they are both taken into custody and thrown into a mental institution. There, they are joined by the previously-captured Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) aka Mr. Glass, who has been there for years under sedation but is no less a schemer than he was before. Shymalan’s voice as the comic book skeptic is echoed through Dr. Ellie, who tells the trio they are suffering from delusions of grandeur, and she has three days to cure them otherwise they’ll be imprisoned forever.
In Shyamalan fashion, there is a lot of explaining and expository dialogue that needs to be plowed through before he gets the story to really get going. There’s a lot of catching up that needs to be done here, and watching the two previous films is recommended. The path Shyamalan takes getting there is long and winding, with glimpses of real brilliance throughout. The stories of David, Kevin, and Elijah as they struggle and begin to question, their own identities are fascinating and helps raise the stakes for each character. But rarely does “Glass” ever reach the heights it should be, nor does it say nearly as much as Shyamalan seems to think it does. Shyamalan also can’t help himself, simultaneously pumping out too much information while dropping one too many reveals of diminishing impact.
“Unbreakable” was never about flashy superhuman powers, world threatening plots or action sequences. It was a simple character study about ordinary men and what they would do if given extraordinary gifts. Shyamalan tries to present “Glass” as more like “Unbreakable” than “Split”, rolling out details about his characters in a slow burn that some might find infuriating. While the continued relationship between David and Joseph has its plucky charms, it’s the “villains” who Shyamalan seems to connect with most. Anya Taylor-Joy’s character Casey, who forged an unlikely connection with Kevin during “Split”. Through her we see Kevin as someone so damaged by tragedy and abuse that he had to create The Horde, the collective name for his many personalities, just to escape from reality. Elijah Price’s mother finds herself in the middle, has apparently become a big-time comic book aficionado since her son was hauled off for committing mass murder in multiple acts of terrorism.
What I like that Shyamalan does is something we don’t typically get from the comic book movies by the big studios, which is dig into the loneliness and sadness that come with these incredible powers. Shyamalan appears to be in love with the work that McAvoy gave in “Split”, giving the actor enormous amounts of screentime to reheat leftovers from his performance. Except Shyamalan adds nothing but a little background flashbacks to Kevin’s mother and a full display of bulging CG neck veins on the beast.
Not to mention Shyamalan can’t seem to figure out what to do with our hero played by Bruce Willis. The grizzled Willis gives a better effort than he has in recent years but he still looks like he is suffering from sleepiness, seeing him sleep walk through scenes only serves to highlight the nuanced understatement of his work in the first film. Shyamalan includes a few deleted scenes from “Unbreakable” to refresh memories and use them as flashbacks, it showcases just how disengaged a performer Willis has become over the years. Jackson brings snap to “Glass,” but his participation only comes alive in the second half of the film, which is too long of a wait for the saga’s most interesting character to appear and start being interactive.
New character Dr. Ellie Staple played by Sarah Paulson, puts David, Kevin and Elijah in one of those movie institutions where we never see any other patients, the walls are painted in colors ranging from Pepto-Bismol pink to deadly gray, no staff and no guards except for the main entrance of the building and whatever sparse staff there is includes a few real idiots who have little chance of getting out of the movie alive. Dr. Staple tells David, Kevin and Elijah that she specializes in studying the disorder that has regular people believing they’re comic book characters. Ooh boy where do you get a degree for that? She thinks it’s a grand idea to put her three subjects in the same room and wants to conduct some sort of vaguely explained surgery on their frontal lobes to free them from their delusions.
It all builds to a twisty and bizarre, almost abstract climax when Shyamalan finally delivers a little conventional bam-pow spectacle, only to undercut it with what feels like a parody of “Unbreakable’s” explicit commentary on comic-book narrative. Everyone seems to have picked up Elijah’s annoying habit of explaining the mechanics of superhero stories aloud. “Split’s” little surprise played like a Hail Mary pass from Shyamalan, presenting a treat to his fanbase after they’ve spent years wishing for a proper continuation to his unusual take on the iconic comic book formula. But this is M Night’s worst “twist ending” yet, as the filmmaker throws away everything he’s built within the trilogy. His ending is a bit of a stretch and I found myself groaning with “Ugh. Really your going in that direction?”.
Shyamalan once earned comparisons to Spielberg and Hitchcock. Like those storyboarding wizards of film craft, he makes every shot an event. It’s funny because “Glass” has so many problems and deep down it’s not a good movie at all but yet I found myself really enjoying it. I guess in a way it’s one of my new guilty pleasures. If your a true fan of both “Unbreakable” and “Split”, all “Glass” is likely to do is leave you disappointed that such a long wait amounted to such a numbing conclusion.
GRADE: ★★★ OUT OF ★★★★★
•Unbreakable: ★★★★★ OUT OF ★★★★★
•Split: ★★1/2 OUT OF ★★★★★