I’m not going to go through the career peaks and valleys of writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, but I will say that I’ve long held that his 2000 film Unbreakable is among his best and my personal favorite for the way it pays tribute to the mythology of comic books. A lot of people mistakenly refer to it as a superhero movie before superhero movies were a thing, but the truth is that it’s a film that honors the world and storytelling arcs that comic book fans know quite well. It’s a dissection of the hero’s journey (or a version of it), and is capped by an abrupt reveal and ending that feels like a second film would be close on its heels.
Not so much.
Then Shyamalan stunned us with 2016’s Split, the tale of a serial killer with multiple personalities, including one that displayed borderline super-human strength and abilities, and by the end of the piece, we discover that this is another chapter in the story begun in Unbreakable, making it clear that the long-held wish to trilogize this tale was about to happen.
So now we have Glass, named after Samuel L. Jackson’s character from the first film (real name Elijah Price; bad-guy name Mr. Glass), who was born with a condition that makes his bones highly breakable. The way the story goes is that Elijah spent the better part of his life in hospital beds with nothing to do but read comics, and he developed a theory that the stories contained within were, in fact, based on things that actually happened and people who actually existed, or at least that some writers sensed existed. Shyamalan is playing with the idea that there are certain people in the real world who desperately want to be special to the point where they think they have powers, and this is an easy concept to buy into.
One of the reasons Unbreakable worked so well is because the person in the story who actually did have powers, David Dunn (Bruce Willis) was so reluctant to believe he did. He’d never felt special, even though he’d never been sick or injured in his entire life, a truth that comes to a head when he becomes the lone survivor after a horrific train crash. In the 19 years since that first movie, Dunn and his son Joseph (still played by a now fully adult Spencer Treat Clark) have become a crime fighting team. Not only is David super strong and seemingly can’t be killed, he can also see the evil that people do simply by bumping into them and getting a glimpse into their most recent bad deeds. The media have dubbed him several things over the years, but “The Overseer” seems to have stuck. Running a home security company as a cover, David and Joseph seem happy working together, likely making David’s late wife proud. David walks around looking for trouble, while Joseph is in his ear with advice, directions, and eventually to call the cops when needed.
It doesn’t take long for David to start seeking out Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), whose collective of 24 personalities is known as The Horde. Among them is the particularly nasty one called The Beast, who has continued to capture and kill groups of people, including four high school cheerleaders who are currently missing in Philadelphia. In any actual superhero movie, a confrontation between David and The Horde would be held until much deeper into the film, but as I mentioned, Shyamalan isn’t telling a superhero story. He’s still stripping away at the layers of a certain brand of storytelling, and the result feels more deliberate, less focused on fight sequences and special effects, and more about mind games that identify elements of comic book stories (often in annoying and unnecessary detail).
The result of this brief fight scene is that both David and Kevin are caught and taken to a mental hospital that is temporarily run by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who specializes in the mental disorders of people who think they are superheroes, which seems stupidly niche, unless this is a rampant problem. It just so happens that Elijah is also in this hospital (probably since the events of Unbreakable), although in a sedated state to keep him from using his highly intelligent brain against the dummies who work there.
Dr. Staple spends an insane amount of time trying to convince her three patients that all of their so-called powers are well within the realm of human abilities, and she even begins to sway their thinking. But the question becomes, why does she feel the need to do this? And more importantly, why is there a three-day time limit placed on her to make David buy into her theory? The film adds restrictions, rules and obstacles that seem placed on screen just to keep the plot moving forward, although most of the time it barely keeps things from stalling out. Shyamalan uses a couple outtakes from Unbreakable to give some insight into David and Elijah’s pasts, which is a nice touch, but I’m not sure he quite makes it work. And while certain characters from the other films make sense and fit in nicely to Glass, bringing back Elijah’s elderly mother (Charlayne Woodard) and the inclusion of Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) from Split seem forced, bordering on ridiculous.
Glass is one of those films with a story that only works if certain characters act the way they always do in movies. For example, the two orderlies we see the most in the hospital (Luke Kirby and Adam David Thompson) really only fit here if they act either sadistic or dim witted. You’d think that at a facility this locked down and specialized, they might be able to afford a better class of employee. The movie’s bigger problem is that it all feels like it’s building to something; we’re expecting a climax that will likely surprise us or turn in an unexpected way, an expectation that immediately made me suspicious of everything and everyone that I didn’t know enough about. And by the time we get where we’re going, I had a pretty good idea what we were going to discover. It’s not even that exciting a reveal.
The performances are solid across the board, but it feels like a gift to watch McAvoy run through his legion of Horde characterizations, from the changes in body language to the distinct voices he pages through. Willis basically vanishes for good stretches of the movie, but delivers more often than not for a director who has always done him right. And Jackson is impossible not to love, especially when Elijah feels like he’s on top. Paulson is saddled with the unenviable task of delivering far too much exposition, but she does it so well that you hang on her words, even if she’s forced to repeat herself about the nature of her expertise to the point of fatigue (ours, not hers). Comic books have always been about exposition, so I don’t fault that aspect of the film, but the film goes from good to terrible in the final act, and Shyamalan stumbles badly across the finish line.
Glass (or more specifically, a follow-up the Unbreakable that maybe isn’t this movie) is something I’ve genuinely wanted to see for 19 years. So it pains me to see certain elements of the movie work so well (the opening third is actually great), while others are irredeemable. Some have said that this film actually makes Unbreakable something less than, and that is literally impossible and asinine. I’m guessing that for those of you who loved that original work (and Split as well), curiosity will get the best of you and you’ll check this out.
As always, be open minded but also brace yourself: things are going to get rough out there.
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