‘Glass’ Review: The Split Personalities of M. Night Shyamalan

     January 9, 2019

glass-cast-sliceM. Night Shyamalan is fascinating. A director once hailed as the second coming of Spielberg, a master of tension and twists brought back down to Earth with a series of messy clunkers and box office bombs, only to ascend once again by eschewing the system on a micro-budget and then debuting his own damn superhero universe with the Unbreakable sequel Split without telling a soul beforehand. Much like James McAvoy‘s Kevin Wendell Crumb, there exists in Shyamalan a host of quirks and personalities—bad twists, good twists, stilted dialogue, masterful framing, homicidal trees—all competing for the light at any given time. The director’s latest, Glass, the 19-years-in-the-making trilogy-capper on his secretly built universe, is M. Night Shyamalan’s Horde, and over its two-and-change hours every personality is on display. The good. The bad. The Village. Glass is inarguably the result of a singular vision, but that vision is not just a comic book panel but a whole-ass splash page, filled with thought bubbles and dialogue boxes obscuring what is truly a captivating image underneath.

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Image via Universal Pictures

Glass picks up about 15 years after Unbreakable‘s Eastrail 177 train crash. Super-strong empath David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is now a full-blown vigilante named The Overseer, going on regular patrols, beating the absolute shit out of troublemakers on the Philadelphia streets, and hunting the violent public menace that is The Horde (McAvoy) with the help of his son, Joseph Dunn (Spencer Treat-Clark). When Team Dunn finally manages to track down Kevin Crumb, an Earth-shaking showdown with The Beast personality is interrupted by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who subdues both Overseer and Beast and brings them to her psychiatric facility with one goal on her mind: Convince these real-life superhumans that their extraordinary abilities are all in their heads. Lurking in the padded cell next door is Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson)—first name Mistah, last name Glass—who has been catatonic since the end of Unbreakable. In classic Shyamalan-ian fashion, to say literally anything else plot-wise would be verging on spoiler territory. This one will not start, or go, or end like you think.

Much like Unbreakable, Glass is less concerned with the leaping of a tall building in a single bound and more with the innate traits and traumas inside a person that would make them try that leap in the first place. That’s where Shyamalan excels here; what makes Glass such a wholly unique comic book movie experience is how deftly the filmmaker can ground those very real, occasionally absurd comic book tropes—the Origin Story, the Convergence Of Main Characters, the Big Showdown, the Change Of Allegiances—in a real-world context. Glass is still a spectacle, but in a singularly un-Marvel manner. It’s not gods dropping from the sky, it’s gods toiling in the Earth. Think The Flash getting caught in a traffic jam or The Hulk filing a W-2.

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Image via Universal Pictures

But one of Shyamalan’s worst tendencies is to not let a clever idea just be clever. Glass‘s overall schtick, a cerebral thriller that follows the beats of a comic book, is a smart one, but Shyamalan falls a bit too in love with his own form. He’s not just showing you a cool thing, he needs you to know why it’s cool in context and needs to explain every layer of subtext. By the end of Glass, every single main player has transformed into Jamie Kennedy‘s character in Scream, a cacophony of know-it-all experts shouting at each other—and the audience—about The Rules of comic book storytelling. This is especially grating in 2019, when your six-year-old nephew could probably write a treatise on how this stuff works.

That’s partly intentional; Glass takes itself about one-thousand times less serious than you’d expect, and Shyamalan is clearly having the time of his life with the material. The over-the-top explanatory dialogue isn’t always a failing, it’s an intentional nod to the alliteration-filled bang, boom, pow monologues of world creators like Stan Lee. But that, again, goes back to the fractured intentions of Glass; are we subverting comic book tropes here or leaning so hard into them that they shatter?

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Image via Universal Pictures

Speaking of shattering: This is not Mr. Glass’s movie, despite what the title and billing might tell you. The title Split 2 wouldn’t make for as flashy a Blu-ray collection box, but this movie belongs to McAvoy. One of the most impressive aspects of the script is the way it gives entire character arcs to several of the personalities that dwell inside Kevin Crumb’s head, and McAvoy plays them out fully across his face and body. Shyamalan loves a good, striking close-up on an actor’s face, which gives the audience prime opportunity here to watch McAvoy cycle through personalities in a single take. I suggest paying attention to the actor’s eyes; it’s astounding to note the ways they change with each alt. They exude innocence when the 9-year-old Hedwig is in control, grow primal when The Beast is unleashed, sharpen when Ms. Patricia takes the floor.

When the director does widen up out of those close-ups, his action is sublime. The road from set-piece to set-piece is a bumpy one in Glass, but woo boy every clash between David Dunn and The Beast is bone-crunchingly satisfying. It’s not even because the scenes themselves are unique; these are, after all, the same brand of superhuman showdowns that Hollywood pumps out by the dozen these days. But Shyamalan shoots action in a decidedly un-blockbusterly fashion, often withholding the act of violence itself in favor of the bruising aftermath. A body whipped from off-screen into a wall. The dents in a steel door from the superhuman clash happening on the other side. The director is helped a ton in this regard by the film’s pounding sound design. When two superhuman bodies meet in Glass, it’s with a sickening thud, not an epic ka-boom.

Which is a bit how the ending arrives, too, with a thud both jarring and painful. For a film so claustrophobically focused, the ending widens this world up to a shocking scope, making key characters out of Joseph Dunn, Anya Taylor-Joy‘s Casey Cooke, and Sharlayne Woodard‘s Mrs. Price. I can also confidently predict that the ending is going to piss more than a few people off. In the moment, a good portion of it pissed me off. But I’ve come around to, at least, admire the hell out of it. In a comic book-stuffed landscape, one the boldest things a storyteller can do is insist that there’s very little difference between humanity and super-humanity. Without details, that is what Shyamalan is aiming for, and it’s a vision that is, if nothing else, unbreakable.

Rating: B

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