M. Night Shyamalan so desperately wants to be remembered as a cinema legend. He is a trope, he is a punchline, and he is belabored by such tremendous expectations that he’s immobile. He’ll write himself into his own movies as a world-changing, future-defining author—almost a dour fantasy by contrast—but he’ll always be saddled with an entire population that distills his career into a single word: twist.
This chip on his shoulder shows in Glass, his latest film and the capper to his apparent superhero trilogy that started 19 years ago with Unbreakable. It not only brings together the two disparate stories told then with impenetrable David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and genius orchestrator Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) and Split‘s singular legion in Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) but wraps them up. Everyone is brought under a single roof and then blown back apart in a nigh biblical conflict.
Or so it would seem. The biggest problem with Glass is that it doesn’t know what kind of story it wants to tell or what kind of movie it wants to be, which then in turns diminishes Shyamalan’s otherwise terrific work in Unbreakable and Split. Unbreakable, after all, has long been considered one of the best comic book movies (despite not being based on any particular property) and at least partially kicking off modern Hollywood’s acceptance/fetish for capes and tights.
And Split revived Shyamalan’s reputation after a decade of flailing around with the mediocre (The Visit), the bad (The Happening), and the abysmally, legendarily awful (The Last Airbender). It was good enough, in fact, to almost immediately get production going for the third act of this then-unknown Eastrail 177 Trilogy, though Shyamalan has expressed interest in continuing the universe if he finds inspiration (he goes so far as to tease a wider world than these three supernatural characters at the end of Glass).
To that end, it’s almost admirable that such a seasoned writer/director would only ever swing for the fences. But as a consequence, he has a habit of spreading himself thin. At various points of Glass, it abandons and adopts entirely new theses. On some level, that might be intentional as he attempts to visually code segments of the film for each character, but in watching it, there is no rhyme or reason to the undulating philosophies.
In the beginning, he mirrors a bit of Unbreakable by detailing the origins once more of Dunn as a local vigilante hero, though his real reasons for his working with his now-grown son Joe (a returning Spencer Treat Clark) is to track Crumb’s monstrous collection of superpowered and dangerous alter egos nicknamed The Horde. It’s the kind of ominous, roiling burn that Shyamalan has mastered over the years.
But as it focuses more on The Horde and their leader The Beast, it becomes a bit of a horror flick as we endure the captivity of several teen cheerleaders. And then there’s some action, I guess? It’s so decidedly flavorless that it’s actually hard to tell. But for reasons I won’t spoil, everyone ends up in a mental health facility where psychiatrist Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) has three days to make them understand that they are operating under a shared delusion and aren’t supernatural at all.
At certain points, it works. We the audience begin to share doubts as they are presented to us; she is, after all, making a lot of sense. Could the experience of these three characters simply be extraordinary circumstances of ordinary people? Have we been misled this entire time? (Certainly knowing Shyamalan’s reputation aides in his belief.) But almost without exception, as soon as we feel that doubt, our experiences are reaffirmed through cinematography, editing, and writing and given no reason to believe her again.
And other times, there’s a great push towards being a psychological horror. McAvoy’s performance as every personality of The Horde sells it wonderfully as we see people caught in the blast radius of this story simply try to understand the proceedings. The overlapping and returning consequences from Split‘s Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Elijah’s mother (Charlayne Woodard) help ground us in feeling what it means to live amongst these stories.
That, however, is usually the extent of it. It feels as if Shyamalan believed so strongly in this admittedly incredible premise—who doesn’t want to see this explosive combination of powers and deficiencies be forced together—that he could just point a camera at it and it would speak for itself. This swirling labyrinth of motivations melts into an inert puddle of inaction and dialogue as essentially nothing happens for the interceding 90 minutes.
Much of it seems to hinge on Price’s observations on and machinations surrounding self-aware superhero tropes and clichés, a set of actions that, as the landscape around such concepts have evolved, have become bland and themselves rote. We know them better than he does, it seems, and the fourth wall they attempt to stare down offer less bite than Epic Movie does of the summer blockbuster. And his eventual conclusion to the movie is laughably nonsensical. It just sort of…happens as we listen to him effectively narrate it to no one in particular.
It definitely doesn’t help that a lot of mechanics of the film are nearly as distracting as The Revenant‘s cloying plea for Oscar nominations. The amount of one-take scenes with Michael Baysian camera movement, Dutch angles of little to no subtext, and manic adherence to theory (there’s a Chekhov’s pothole that gets more screentime than some subplots) can only make you want to scream at the screen for Shyamalan to just stop trying to hard.
There’s a tremendous amount of problematic messaging that might be excused based on one of the twists, but the way it is presented is inexcusable. As if love is the cure-all for mental health and all women can come to care for and fix their abusers with affection. Come freaking on.
Glass is not a good movie. There are fine parts to it, sure, and in passing, you might even think on it with a genial shrug and dismissal. But there is such an unbelievable amount of context and potential and web of intersecting, inscrutable desires that it demands much more dissection than that. It’s just unfortunate that it’ll never turn up anything good.
Final Score: 4 out of 10
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