There are certain expectations associated with a M. Night Shyamalan film: soft-spoken characters (usually male); larger than life fable-based narratives set in grounded, real world environments; meditations on divorce, power and miscommunications; and, of course, a twist ending.
With Glass, the unlikely defacto sequel to both 2016’s Split and 2000’s Unbreakable, Shyamalan casts aside several of his trademarks to deliver exactly what audiences are expecting and, at the same time, something entirely different.
Building principally on the events of Split, Glass opens three weeks after Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) faced off with Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) and his 23 personalities, including the nefarious “Beast”. In the interceding weeks, the superpowered serial killer has murdered one group of girls and kidnapped another – a troupe of cheerleaders – which has garnered significant police and media attention. It has also attracted the attention of one David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the unlikely hero who runs a security store with his son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) by day and patrols the city in a green slicker at night.
The opening of Glass is a scattershot reintroduction to both films. Scenes of Crumb’s multiple competing identities – including nine year old Hedwig and prim and proper Patricia – terrorizing the new girls in a Philadelphia clay factory are intercut with Dunn’s vigilante activities, which have earned him the nickname The Overseer (a step up from The Tip Toe Man, which sounds like a bad horror film starring Jessica Biel). The two adversaries come together when David brushes off Joseph’s concerns to lay low; he happens upon the Beast’s lair and a violent confrontation ensues that reinforces the powers of each opponent. Before a winner is declared, however, the pair are surrounded by police and SWAT and ordered to stand down by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist who specializes in treating patients who believe they have superpowers.
From here the action moves to the psychiatric hospital glimpsed in both the poster and trailers. Each patient is outfitted in their own colour scheme in a special room that hampers their unique abilities (a room attached to a water tank for David; a room with strobe lights that prompt a different personality to take over “the light” for Kevin).
At this point Glass morphs into a very different kind of film: Staple clarifies that she has three days to convince each patient, including Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) that their so-called powers are actually scientifically plausible. The film proceeds to dedicate approximately the next hour to her therapeutic attempts while secondary characters Joseph, Casey and Elijah’s mother (Charlayne Woodard) circle the periphery.
Early reactions to Glass (like so many of Shyamalan’s other films) have focused on the perceived success of its ending. Glass actually has two potential pain points: its ending, which will undoubtedly be divisive, and this talky, saggy middle section, where the action grounds to a halt and the dialogue focuses primarily on introducing self-doubt into each patient about the plausibility of the existence of their superpowers. It is an interesting narrative exercise that doesn’t quite work, principally because this is a sequel to two films where audiences have already seen these superpowers explicitly at work. Credit Paulson’s even-tempered, warm performance for making these scenes work; with her neutral colour vintage costuming and perfectly coiffed strawberry blond hair, Paulson looks and acts like an angelic saviour come to save these confused men.
Of the three supers, McAvoy fares best – not only because he has the most versatility among his many distinct personalities (there are more on display here than in Split), but also because he gets more screen time. Willis’ Dunn remains a withdrawn mystery, with only his close relationship to his adult son working to humanize him. Jackson, meanwhile, doesn’t appear until well into the hospital scenes and even then he is medically comatose, offering Jackson limited opportunities to make an impression as the criminal mastermind. Treat Clark, Woodard and Taylor-Joy are all suitably good, but none are given much to do.
Audiences salivating at the prospect of watching the unbreakable man take on the beast will be pleased with the third act, which pays off their brief encounter earlier in the film. Unsurprisingly the facility proves to be no match for the three supers and a massive battle breaks out on the front lawn with all of the major players in the mix. Shyamalan employs some creative shooting decisions for the action, using video footage from the hospital’s many cameras and filming close up point-of-view shots from police cruiser windshields, as well as when David and the Beast are locked in combat. This is a smart creative choice that maintains the film (and the trilogy)’s distance from the conventional depictions of superheroes in DC and Marvel films; the action is fantastic, but it is still firmly grounded in the real world.
There is little doubt that Glass’ biggest talking point will center around how Shyamalan plays with expectations for the film. This is not a clash of the titans nineteen years in the making; more often than not Glass is a slow meditation on the role of heroes and villains, whether humans can evolve to reach their full potential or if this is merely mental illness and delusion. Shyamalan (and his onscreen proxy Dr. Staple) is more interested in these cerebral discussions, though even he seemingly can’t resist the pull of watching strongmen battle each other in a public display of brute force and ingenuity.
As a result, Glass is a polarizing film that combines the strengths and the weaknesses of its two predecessors in a not-altogether-successful hybrid. And yet…there’s something fascinating and complex about it nonetheless. Shyamalan’s latest won’t be for everyone, but it is easy to see this film becoming a much-talked-about, celebrated entry in his filmography.
It just may take another few years.