Review: 'Glass'

Thursday, January 17, 2019
A still from 'Glass'.

Half Empty

2019 / USA / 129 min. / Dir. by M. Night Shyamalan / Opens in wide release on Jan. 18, 2019

by:
Andrew Wyatt

There is no pleasure in reporting that writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass is the low point in the filmmaker’s three-feature “realistic superheroes” cycle. The first film in this chronologically lopsided trilogy, 2000’s Unbreakable, remains Shyamalan’s best feature to date: a gorgeous, quietly marvelous rendition of superhero archetypes and narrative arcs within a small-bore, grounded context. (Compared to that film, Christopher Nolan’s Batman features look as bloated and outlandish as the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.) Pivoting off the renewed success he found with his found-footage Grimm brothers riff The Visit (2015), Shyamalan pulled off an impressive fake-out with Split (2016), revealing at the literal last second that his horror tale about a serial killer with 23 warring personalities was also a stealth sequel to Unbreakable. Two years later, Glass re-unites the previous films’ extraordinary characters – invulnerable strongman David Dunn (Bruce Willis), post-human cannibal Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy), and diabolical mastermind Elijah “Mr. Glass” Price (Samuel L. Jackson) – for an ambitious swan song.

The result is a bit of a hot mess, a confounding jumble of euphoria, ingenuity, tedium, kitsch, and inanity that has become something of Shyamalan’s calling card – more so than the twist endings the director was known for once upon on a time. It’s exactly the sort of film that is likely to inspire scathing indictments in most quarters, but also a small, passionate cadre of cult admirers. Perhaps inevitably for the climactic chapter in a nominal superhero series, the filmmaker goes all-in on the pulpy silliness that was Split’s least appealing aspect, and similarly embraces Unbreakable’s cutesy meta-awareness of comic-book logic, to an irritating extent. And yet Glass, for all its stumbles, still illustrates why Shyamalan is an intriguing genre filmmaker: His stories might be replete with supernatural and science-fiction weirdness, but they are always earnest, human-centered stories with an almost quaint belief in the power of hope and connectedness. Occasionally that impulse leads to an unqualified gem (Unbreakable), sometimes to an unsettling vision (The Village, Split), and sometimes to a baffling cinematic train wreck (Lady in the Water, The Happening). Glass is more of a mixed bag: compelling when it’s good, but numbing and absurd when it’s bad.

The film picks up, somewhat unexpectedly, just three weeks after the events of Split: Kevin Crumb, a monstrous but pitiable man with dissociative identity disorder (DID) is still at large and has been subjecting Philadelphia to a reign of terror. He has abducted not one but two additional groups of teenage girls since viewers last saw him, murdering and devouring the first set and presently prepping the second set – four high-school cheerleaders, pleated skirts and all – for the same fate. Or, to be perfectly accurate, the “Horde” has committed these crimes, not Kevin Crumb. As seen in Split, three of Kevin’s personalities (or alters) have joined forces and seized control of his body, all to glorify the hidden 24th alter that has recently emerged: the Beast, a bloodthirsty entity blessed with superhuman strength, agility, and toughness. Disturbingly, the Horde – supercilious Miss Patricia, OCD-afflicted creep Dennis, and guileless 9-year-old Hedwig – has begun to win over other, previously recalcitrant alters to their twisted views. (One of Glass’ more successful and unsettling touches is the queasy spectacle of the alters gradually falling one by one to the zealotry of this doomsday cult that exists entirely in Kevin’s head.)

Fortunately for the good people of Philadelphia, David Dunn is on the case. Now in his 60s, but evidently still as strong and unbreakable as ever, David owns a small home-security business with his adult son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark, reprising his role from 19 years prior). This endeavor is largely just a front for David’s ongoing superheroics, which apparently involve delivering vigilante beatdowns to any violent criminals he stumbles across in his nocturnal “rounds” of the city. The recent appearance of the Horde has freshly focused David’s attention, and with remote, digital-savvy support from Joseph – who acts something like the Oracle to David’s Batman – he is zeroing in on Kevin’s lair, concealed somewhere in a decaying industrial district.

This is plainly the stuff of a standard hero-vs.-villain comic-book story, filtered – as in Unbreakable and Split – through the lens of a quasi-realistic setting. (All of Shyamalan’s features take place in what might be called “Weird Pennsylvania,” which is not so much a cinematic universe as a shared strain of pulpy uncanniness combined with a native’s detail-oriented affection for the Keystone State.) Glass upends the expectations engendered by this setup relatively quickly, however: Both David and Kevin are captured by the authorities during their first face-to-face confrontation and swiftly committed to a state psychiatric hospital under the care of an outside consultant, Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson). She specializes in the treatment of superhero delusions, and – besides designing the custom cells that control David and Kevin by exploiting their weaknesses – she makes it her mission to cure them of their mental disorders or at least abandon the belief that they possess supernatural abilities.

That same hospital, not incidentally, also houses Elijah Price, the brittle-boned, comics-obsessed terrorist mastermind who “discovered” David by crashing airplanes, burning down hotels, and derailing trains until he found a singular individual who could not be physically harmed. Confined to a wheelchair and semi-catatonic thanks to perpetual sedation, Elijah doesn’t seem like much of a threat anymore, but, of course, there’s always been more to him than meets the eye. What’s less clear is why Dr. Staple has insisted on housing all three of these dangerous individuals in adjacent rooms at the same hospital. Or, for that matter, why her treatment technique involves group-therapy sessions wherein she badgers David and Kevin with mundane explanations for their abilities while Elijah just sits there, drooling.

Some of this makes more sense as the film’s revelations gradually come to light, and some of it doesn’t. As is often the case with Shyamalan’s films, the director at times seems to stage scenes primarily for their visual impact, story and logic be damned. In what is arguably the most successful expression of this compulsion, the therapy sessions take place in an enormous, abandoned ward that has been painted pink from floor to ceiling, with Dr. Staple and her patients seated (for some reason) at the far end of the room and rows of orderlies standing at attention along the walls. It’s utterly preposterous, but also wonderfully, memorably weird in the way that genre films should be. Overall, Glass could use a lot more of this weirdness, as it helps distract from the film’s clunky screenplay, narrative shagginess, and maddening insistence on spelling out every thematic beat, just in case the viewers in the nosebleed seats didn’t catch it.

The foremost problem here is one that previously reared its head in Unbreakable whenever Elijah started monologuing about the mythic resonance of superhero comics. (Yes, yes, the modern successor to Greek myths; it’s no longer a radical thesis.) Or in Split whenever Kevin’s late psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), waxed poetically and pseudo-scientifically about the latent, evolutionary potential of DID-afflicted individuals. Namely, Shyamalan’s screenplay gets less compelling – and, frankly, dumber – when his characters start proclaiming themes or when the subtext becomes text. The occult and sci-fi concepts that undergird his stories can be quite potent when left to simmer, but they just sound ridiculous when flesh-and-blood people start articulating them.

Glass commits this sin over and over, and never more annoyingly than when Elijah actually starts narrating the film’s action with purple comic-book prose. It’s a gesture whose insufferableness lies somewhere between Scream’s smug self-awareness of slasher tropes and a Reddit post listing 19 reasons why the Sonic the Hedgehog games are totally structured according to the Hero’s Journey. This is one reason that the series’ most fascinating cranny is the bizarre inter-alter “society” that resides in Kevin’s brain: Shyamalan’s writing underplays it, never calling attention to how peculiar and mind-boggling it truly is and never visualizing it with special-effects gimmicks.

Glass’ other conspicuous flaw is one of sheer directorial indulgence: There is absolutely no reason this film needed to be 129 minutes long. Unlike some features with unnecessarily swollen running times, this has less to do with superfluous scenes than with scenes dragging on for far too long. Characters repeat themselves, obvious facts are pronounced aloud, and thriller set-pieces grind away while bystanders gawk emphatically in endless reaction shots. Shyamalan rarely manages to capture the sense of wonder and terror that characterized Unbreakable and Split (respectively), and much of that failure is entwined with his unwillingness or inability to tighten the whole damn thing up. Once David and Kevin are locked away under Dr. Staple’s watchful eye, the film loses much of its momentum. Glass struggles to find it again, even as the clock ticks towards a three-day deadline that’s never adequately explained and West Dylan Thordson’s jittery score insists that something is at stake.

These problems drag down what is otherwise a serviceable and at times genuinely startling conclusion to the story that began with Unbreakable. There remains a strong streak of humanism in the feature’s core, even when the director’s undisciplined inclinations are otherwise getting the better of him. Pointedly, each of the nascent superheroes/villains has a corresponding “normal” person who is concerned for their well-being. David has Joseph; Kevin has Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), the girl who escaped the Beast and is convinced she can reach the man’s original, sublimated identity; and Elijah has his elderly mother (Charlayne Woodard), who can’t deny that she still loves her boy, his mass-murdering ways notwithstanding. (Shades of We Need to Talk About Kevin there.) Of course, Shyamalan often doesn’t know what to do with these characters, other than have them show up at the hospital now and then to half-heartedly push back against Dr. Staple’s rationalist theories. Casey spends a curious amount of time paging through superhero comics, as if there were some solution to Kevin’s tribulations hidden somewhere in this esoteric medium that she has just discovered. (Glass is weirdly inconsistent on the matter of comic books themselves: They are either an arcane, niche subculture that is completely unfamiliar to most people or a cynical corporate product that is ubiquitous in our late-stage capitalist reality.)

For much of the film, Elijah is more of a prop than a character. He simply stares out at the world blankly through a pharmaceutical haze, his head lolling to the side. (Thereby imparting a Dutch tilt to his point-of-view shots; a touch that harmonizes with Unbreakable’s assertion that comic villains see the world through a slightly skewed perspective.) It’s a strange way to treat the film’s titular character, but that title is, of course, the tell that Mr. Glass is not to be underestimated. Elijah is Up to Something, although the full extent of his scheme is not apparent until several plot swerves have revealed themselves. One of those twists – a hackneyed attempt to retroactively connect the events of the preceding two films – invites eye-rolling. What's more, Shyamalan succumbs to a disheartening world-building impulse late in the third act, tacking on the sort of ridiculous shadow history that’s a better fit for the John Wick films. There are, however, some authentic narrative surprises, most of them involving the filmmaker’s gratifyingly subversive fondness for setting up expectations and then yanking them away at the last minute.

Ultimately, Glass lives and dies by the viewer’s interest in seeing how the story of Unbreakable and Split concludes. Those who were already lukewarm on the previous two films have little reason to endure the new feature’s missteps. For filmgoers who were swept up in the stirring spirit of David Dunn’s origin story or who trembled at Kevin Crumb’s B-movie madness and mutations, the new film’s earnest pathos and sheer conceptual novelty are likely worth the toll of some middling-to-bad Shyamalan dialogue and pacing. For all of Glass’ pitfalls, it’s still an intriguing experiment, a sincere effort to think lucidly about the parameters of a genre that – in the nearly two decades since Unbreakable – has been subsumed by slick blockbuster breeziness. Shyamalan’s triptych is not a faintly contemptuous deconstruction of superhero conventions in the manner of, say, Watchmen. However, it shares with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ revolutionary comic an interest in how such Olympians individuals might function in the real world, where heroes die every day and stay dead, forever.

Rating: C