M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass is the third entry in what is coming to be known as the ‘Eastrail 177 Trilogy’. So, first, a recap.
2000’s Unbreakable saw Security Guard David Dunn (Bruce Willis), as the sole survivor of the Eastrail 177 train crash, begin to discover, with the help of comic book art dealer Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), that he has enhanced strength and near invulnerability. Through the events of that film, we learn that David never gets sick, has never had any broken bones, and that he can sense wrongdoing in others, merely by touching them. Price, a sufferer of Osteogenesis Imperfecta (Brittle Bone Disease), encourages Dunn to develop these abilities. At the end of that film we learn that Price caused the derailment of the train, as well as other atrocities, in order to draw out someone with David’s abilities: his thesis being that comic book superheroes and villains were an extrapolation and exaggeration of the real World – that they exist in reality, albeit in a reduced and down-powered form Price ended that film committed to a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane.
In 2016’s Split, Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) kidnaps three teenage girls and imprisons them in what we later learn is a room under Philadelphia Zoo. Through the events of the film we learn that Kevin is suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder and is, in fact, host to 23 distinct personalities (we don’t see Kevin’s real personality until fairly late in the film). Several of these personalities, most notably Dennis (a taciturn OCD sufferer) and Patricia (a well-to-do-lady) are encouraging these abductions in order to provide sacrifices to a 24th personality – a super-strong, cannibalistic, almost invulnerable character, known as ‘The Beast’. Through the film, we learn that Kevin’s father died when he was very young, and he was left in the care of an abusive mother; with several of the personalities (known as ‘alters’) a reaction to this.
The film ends with one of the girls surviving, and, in fact, being released by The Beast, as she has been a victim of abuse – sufferers of pain being the only people The Beast considers ‘pure’. All of Kevin’s personalities develop distinct physiological traits: Jade, who we see only on a video clip, has type 1 diabetes, whilst The Beast is able to climb walls, and cannot be fully penetrated by knives or bullets. In the very last frame of the film we learn that this is taking place in the same universe as Unbreakable, as we see David Dunn in a diner watching news reports of The Beast.
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That we’ve just given so much space to recapping the previous two entries in this series speaks to an essential problem with Glass: it is hard to see anyone coming into this and managing without some knowledge of prior events. All pertinent facts are laid out in the film, but many of them very late in the running time. Mr Glass (the moniker by which Elijah now goes) says very little for the first hour of the running time; the physiological changes that Kevin undergoes are given virtually no time here, having been very well covered by his therapist in Split. David’s ability to sense through touch is not explained until right at the end of the film’s second act. This film just does not stand alone effectively. Even to understand a review of it, requires knowledge of two other films. That is far from a compliment.
For those with prior knowledge, at least of Unbreakable, Glass is possibly the most frustrating film of Shyamalan’s career, but one that encapsulates the man and his work completely. The film begins three weeks after the events of Split (the timeline in this film is best ignored, as it is problematic and inconsistent with what we know from Split) David Dunn has been widowed for five years. He and his son Joseph (a returning, and now fully grown, Spencer Treat Clark) run a store selling security goods. His vigilante ways have continued, with sightings of him unconfirmed and the press and bloggers dubbing his ‘The Overseer’. Joseph acts as Oracle to his father’s Batman, acting as a guide communicating through an earpiece. He is on the trail of The Beast; with Kevin having, by this time, abducted four cheerleaders as prey for the 24th alter. Once they finally clash, both men find themselves arrested and confined to the care of the same facility in which resides Mr Glass. Dr Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) is granted three days to work with the trio to see if she disabuse them of the notion that they are imbued with superpowers.
The exact point of M. Night Shyamalan’s decline in the 2000s has been long debated. Some will argue 2002’s Signs was the first bump in the road, some were still on-board for that but fell off with 2004’s The Village. In some ways, though, it is clear that 2006’s The Lady in the Water was the fork in the road. The previous two films had been recognisably the same man’s work, albeit with the whole twist ending thing becoming lazier and more internally-illogical. By 2006 we were seeing evidence of self-importance – the writer (played by M. Night Shyamalan himself) being humanity’s saviour in that film. By the time of 2013’s After Earth, his stock had fallen so far that his work was being promoted without any reference to his name. “From Visionary Director…” did no longer apply in marketing. Glass is a film that lives in the shadow of over a decade of Shyamalan’s reputation failing – scars that show in the whole conceit and execution of this film; yet the ego we saw writ so large in The Lady in the Water is still obnoxiously intact.
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For the first hour, Glass showcases some of the best work of this director’s career. The set-up is well told; we are reintroduced to our characters effectively – Crumb’s nine-year boy persona, Hedwig, being a perfect – and, to some degree, fun – way to reintroduce ‘The Horde’ (the combined term for Crumb’s alters). The film is graded to look very close to Unbreakable in palette (in fact there is a flashback at one point to a deleted scene from that film that it wasn’t clear – until a younger Joseph appeared – hadn’t been shot for this film and then tweaked with de-ageing software on Willis) – the removal of the sickly green filters from Split is very welcome. Paulson plays Staple ambiguously, and the three leads are repelled from, and attracted to each other like magnets. All of it scored a little playfully. Everyone is on top form, and Shyamalan assembles the chessboard exquisitely.
The third act sees the director bump up against the limits of his budget – and his talent – all the while letting that healthy ego we’ve been seeing since 2006 ruin this film entirely. As his reputation has become ever more toxic, he has been unable to command the types of budgets he could post-The Sixth Sense. Signs was made for $72 million: Glass – 17 years on – for $20 million, and it shows. The film hypes a potential location for its denouement, then just settles for a fight in the grounds of the hospital. The long-awaited rematch between our metahumans is a mess. Shyamalan cannot direct action. First, he has to shoot around the fact that one of the enhanced superbeings is being played by a 63-year-old man. So, he resorts to a lot of shaky cam, POV shots and quick cutaways; second, he has no idea how to represent what these people can do in action, so he has whole parts happen out of shot, out of focus, or hidden behind a stationary object, such as a police car.
In terms of ego, Shyamalan is sneering at the material. Comic book fans are all overweight, usually bearded, and bespectacled. It is every cliché The Simpsons punctured nearly 30 years ago. He casually misuses terminology (a ‘limited edition’ is not what he thinks it is) in a way that suggests that he is not knowledgeable enough for these clichés to be coming from a place of love or respect.
Finally, the ‘look how clever I am’ tendency Shyamalan has always had really backfires here. In some respects watching the second half of this film was reminiscent of watching Prometheus; in that the characters all have to make incredibly dumb, unbecoming decisions in order for the plot to work. For the plot of this film to work, the hospital would need to have only two staff working at any one time, one of whom literally just stands in a doorway at all times, and never checks on anything. There would have to be no checks of equipment or inventory ever taken. That the head doctor is brought in for only three days, yet given a budget to install over 100 CCTV cameras, and perform a dangerous medical procedure, all without due process, is equally mind blowing.
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M. Night remains very much an actor’s director, however. Bruce Willis is engaged, if still quiet in delivery. James McAvoy is simply outstanding, and able to segue between personas in an instant – one scene with an orderly triggering change after change in Crumb, in a condensed period of time, being an absolute tour de force. Jackson is as effective as ever, though the constant monologuing of ill-thought out and badly written nonsense over the climactic section of the film did invoke nostalgia for his virtually mute first 30 minutes or so.
Glass is the best and worst of M. Night Shyamalan smashing into each other, and the worst winning decisively. There is enough here to suggest that this is a filmmaker that still has things to say. Split was terrific, and Glass has sections that better anything he produced between, say, 2006 and 2015. The problem is the sensibility – the tendency to talk down to audiences, while reminding them of the great talent at work. That tendency ruins Glass, and is in danger of scuppering a career.