Film Review: Glass
What happened to M. Night Shyamalan?
The third and final film in M. Night Shyamalan’s so-called Eastrail 177 trilogy, Glass is a frustrating and joyless conclusion to an original deconstruction of the superhero genre. A more modest and quiet film than its epic trailers would lead you to believe, Glass is smart and stylish...until it isn’t. James McAvoy and Samuel L. Jackson carry the film nicely along with franchise newcomer Sarah Paulson and a sharp script from Shyamalan himself, but a misguided and disastrous third act sinks not only Glass, but the entire trilogy. Mild spoilers ahead...
19 years ago, I fell in love with a little movie called Unbreakable. Director M. Night Shyamalan’s second feature film, Unbreakable was an understated gem of superhero deconstruction that not only continued the budding filmmaker’s penchant for twists and turns, but also his knack for telling surprisingly human stories. People tend to generalize Shyamalan as “the plot twist” guy, but they also tend to neglect his more insightful observations of the human psyche in his early filmography - an ability to mix big ideas with small emotional moments to create a powerful narrative. For example, The Sixth Sense is a horror thriller that gave us “I see dead people” memes and an iconic twist ending, but it’s also a film that gave us this scene, the very best of the film with the powerhouses that are Haley Joel Osment and Toni Collette; through the lens of a little boy’s chilling ability to see ghosts, Shyamalan tells a profoundly human story of a working class mom struggling to connect with her child. Unbreakable is no different. While the overarching story can be seen as the Pyrrhic awakening of the dormant superman, it is an equally powerful treatise on the easily relatable themes of trust, isolation, and guilt. Unbreakable is an epic turned on its head, where a broken and ordinary man finds out that he is anything but - using his newfound power not to save the world, but to save himself. Big idea, intimate execution.
“Unnecessarily cruel and ugly, Glass is the exact antithesis of what made M. Night Shyamalan’s earlier work so great.”
So when it became apparent that 2016’s Split was a stealth sequel to Unbreakable, I was beyond excited. Here was a talented director in the midst of a second career renaissance, continuing one of his best stories with a thrilling showcase for James McAvoy as The Horde, teasing a final showdown between his three great creations. However, looking back, it seems that the red flags for disappointment were already planted as soon as the word “comeback” was uttered. You see, it’s impossible for a filmmaker to endure the brutal gauntlet that is Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth and come out the other side the same filmmaker. When Shyamalan re-emerged in 2015 with The Visit, critics and audiences alike hailed it as a “return to form,” with Split further solidifying his comeback soon after. But upon revisiting these two films, it was apparent that something was missing: the human side of Shyamalan. Don’t get me wrong, both The Visit and Split are perfectly fine films - one is a breezy found-footage thriller, and the other is a nail-biting abduction saga aided by the wonderful James McAvoy - but I couldn’t help but feel the loss of a spark, a spark replaced by a jaded emptiness. It’s easy to overlook this missing element with The Visit and Split, as they’re both buoyed as lighter popcorn fare (especially with Split’s surprise reintroduction of Bruce Willis’ David Dunn), but Glass is the irrefutable terminus of this absent connection: unnecessarily cruel and ugly, Glass is the exact antithesis of what made M. Night Shyamalan’s earlier work so great.
Picking up almost directly after the end of Split, Glass throws us right into the action as David Dunn (a sleepy Bruce Willis almost relegated to a glorified cameo), now dubbed The Overseer by his internet fans, hunts the mentally ill serial killer Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy). Since the end of Split, all of Crumb’s multiple personalities have fallen in line with The Beast, his most dominant and murderous incarnation that also grants him superhuman strength and speed. Shyamalan proves to be an able action director as much as McAvoy is a physical force, pitting Dunn against The Beast in a thrilling battle over a group of cheerleaders taken hostage. The fight quickly spills onto the streets and is over as quickly as it began, ending with both men in the custody of a mental institution, the same facility that now houses Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), the villainous mastermind of Unbreakable. While trailers teased the film as a bloody-knuckled brawl-fest between hero and villain, Glass is in truth a quieter bottle-episode affair, precisely the type of story that Shyamalan excels at delivering. And for a good amount of the running time, deliver he does, with a taut and claustrophobic game of oneupmanship among Elijah, David, Kevin, and newcomer Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson). Staple, a psychiatrist set on proving that superhuman abilities are just delusions of grandeur, effectively complicates the mythology of the film while bringing all of our disparate threads together. Aided by director of photography Mike Gioulakis (It Follows), Glass also has plenty of visual tricks up its sleeve, with dutch angles and color-palette cinematography adding to the claustrophobia and disorientation of Raven Hill Memorial. However, by the halfway point, the film’s chatty nature begins to grate: one can only listen to a gaslighting psychiatrist for so long before begging to move on to bigger things.
And when the film finally does move onto its climax, you’ll wish it hadn’t. The last act of Glass is a cruel and tone-deaf exercise that spits in the face of fans of Unbreakable and logic alike. Without getting into spoiler territory, it’s easy to see and understand M. Night Shyamalan’s end goal for his superhero saga, but the execution is shoddy and insulting: an ending that aims for bittersweet, but instead lands in depressing ambivalence. Apologists may call me out as “missing the point,” but when the point is so empty of emotion and so dismissive of its prequels in service of never-before-seen elements, it’s hard to muster a thoughtful defense. Glass is one of the rare films that not only botches its ending, but also leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
With some tweaks and a human touch, Glass could have been the end of the Unbreakable saga we were hoping for, but it instead lands with a dull thud. There are glimmers of a respectable ambition and the filmmaker that M. Night Shyamalan used to be in Glass, it’s just a shame that such an unceremonious ending hangs like a dark cloud over the film. Where Unbreakable is a careful deconstruction of the superhero story, Glass is a defiant middle finger, which would have been just fine if weren’t so joyless in its execution.