By Isaac Feldberg
M. Night Shyamalan turns the trilogy topper he needed to make after Unbreakable and Split into a preposterous group therapy session.
Glass, directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Screening at AMC Boston Common 19.
It may seem a mean-spirited observation to make, given that he’s just spent the better part of 19 years bringing Glass to the big screen, but I’m not convinced M. Night Shyamalan actually believes in any superhero mythos, save his own (that is, the hero’s journey he’s projected across his rise, fall, and ostensible resurgence in Hollywood).
Completing the trilogy of films he first begun with 2000’s Unbreakable — a downbeat superhero origin story that 13 years later was abruptly Frankensteined onto the back of his comparatively limber horror-thriller Split — the director’s new film strongly suggests we’ve been watching his story all along. And, to be fair, Glass is more interesting when seen as an paean to the self, the redemption narrative of a disgraced auteur rising from the collected rubble, armed only with his bulletproof self-belief, to once and for all assert his filmmaking genius.
In this reading of the movie (and, truthfully, most of Shyamalan’s), faith in oneself is a real-life superpower. All you need to be extraordinary is to believe you can be. Just look at Shyamalan’s cast of characters. There’s stoic David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the unbreakable man who keeps getting up. Consistently underestimated Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) is a mastermind who doesn’t let physical fragility reign in his intellect-driven ego. Then there’s the volatile Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a socially marginalized nutcase who contains multitudes and may even represent the next stage in human evolution. It’s obvious Shyamalan sees something of himself in each of these unlikely beings; unfortunately, in Glass, he stresses the comparison until it’s his entire point.
In this sequel to both Unbreakable and Split, Shyamalan doesn’t replicate the former’s grim solemnity and the latter’s rattling tension. Instead , he commits to one of the biggest miscalculations of his career by making his finale more or less a feature-length villain monologue. (It’s capped off by a ridiculously bad actual villain monologue where he speaks directly through Mr. Glass, crowing that after 19 years of labor and self-sacrifice, he’s found his ultimate purpose: “I… Create… Superheroes!”)
Sure, there’s a far-too-quick prologue wherein David and Kevin come face to face in an abandoned warehouse where Kevin’s holding a group of nameless cheerleaders hostage. But something’s immediately off; the choreography is flat, the action uninvolving, and it carries the unmistakable stench of a director who’s just rushing through it. The pair’s showdown is disrupted by the arrival of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who corners them and whisks them off to nearby Raven Hill Memorial Psychiatric Hospital. Her aim? To convince the two — along with Mr. Glass, who’s been incarcerated there since the end of Unbreakable — that they’re not superhuman so much as mentally ill, suffering from a grand delusion.
Most of the film, or at the least its very bloated midsection, takes place at Raven Hill. The trio sits in cells where they are hammered with assertions that their systems of self-belief (especially Kevin’s, which feels more primordial) are built on lies. (Staple eye-rollingly refers to one personality as “the high priestess.”) Shyamalan turns the trilogy topper he needed to make after Unbreakable and Split into a preposterous group therapy session, bookended by two lifeless action sequences that contradict all that takes place between them. It’s a bananas-weird way to make a movie. Maybe his characters just need to talk this out, he seems to be saying. And, because you disagree with him, Glass ends up feeling more like a metatextual examination of Shyamalan’s own insecurities as a superhero storyteller.
It’s impossible to over-emphasize what a colossal misstep this frame turns out to be for Shyamalan; it completely sinks his movie and betrays the two that came before it. Unbreakable and Split were both superhero origin stories; they hinged on the audience’s earned acceptance of what David and Kevin could be capable of, what set them apart. David’s a fully fledged, cloak-clad, super-strong vigilante with extrasensory perception. His film’s finale literally was his use of those powers: a mere touch exposes the sadism of his innocuous-seeming arch-nemesis. And the entire twist of Split, what audiences didn’t know to see coming, was that Kevin’s powers were genuine, not just exaggerated DID symptoms. That was actually one of Shyamalan’s (weak) defenses for why Split shouldn’t have been critiqued by mental health advocates because of perceived negative portrayals of the disorder; Kevin, he said, was only dismissed as mentally ill because the world wasn’t ready to see him as a legitimate vessel for a monstrous being that could scale walls and absorb bullets.
If Split had a central mystery, it was this: superhuman or sicko? Shyamalan has already answered that. So why does he spend his next film featuring the same character asking the exact same question, expecting us to anticipate a different result? That’s (definably) insanity To follow Split with a movie about an anonymous shrink gaslighting these three superhumans into believing they’re nothing special isn’t just wrongheaded; it suggests we as audience members recall more about the movies that preceded this one than Shyamalan does.
Maybe it’s because the director has nowhere else to take these characters. Glass wildly misses the mark in terms of comic-book mythology, which is why I opened this review by questioning Shyamalan’s interest in these kinds of stories. It’s possible to psychoanalyze any hero — to view Batman as a PTSD-afflicted billionaire with anger management issues, or even more traditionally superpowered characters like Captain America as ‘roided-up soldiers — but what use is there in discrediting what they accomplish, regardless of where their powers came from? There’s not really a there there, and in Shyamalan’s hands the ultimate, patronizing reveal is narcissistic as well as mind-numbing. Who is this movie for? It, I believe, is destined to mean more to Shyamalan than any of his remaining fans.
Its conceptual failures aside, Glass is also an ugly film — all mottled pinks, jaundiced yellows, and metallic grays — and an incoherent one, lugging around a script that traffics primarily in exposition-dump monologues. Watching it is wearisome, particularly when Mr. Glass wheels forward to inform us that comic-books tell us who we are and how we interface with the world through the stories we tell ourselves. You can sense that Shyamalan thinks he’s blowing our minds (which possibly is the worst thing one can feel while watching a movie). When it comes time for the requisite “big third-act twist,” which is upending without being involving or particularly meaningful, you realize Shyamalan’s self-perceived cleverness — his core belief that he’s smarter than not only than his doubters but any audience member and really anyone else making movies about the myth of the superhero right now — is the only power that could easily be dispatched given a few therapy sessions.
In no sense is Shyamalan a “bad” filmmaker — the few scenes from Unbreakable spliced into Glass, like classical music sampled in a Chainsmokers track, remind us of the atmosphere and suspense he can conjure at his best. But his strength is clearly not in this kind of big-picture storytelling. As a cinematic rug-puller he’s unparalleled; Glass, unfortunately, is one of his clumsiest tricks.
Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Boston. Though often preoccupied by his on-going quest to prove that Baby Driver is a Drive prequel, he always finds time to appreciate the finer things in life, like Liam Neeson.