For better or for worse, but certainly by his design, M. Night Shyamalan’s films are largely defined by their “twist,” that moment late in the movie where the story is suddenly turned on its ear, forcing the audience to reassess everything that has come before it. With something like “The Sixth Sense,” it’s a brilliant, shocking, turn, causing people to instantly want to rewatch the movie with this newfound knowledge. With a movie like “The Village,” it is laughable and completely undercuts what was already not a great work.
Sadly for both the audience and Shyamalan, his latest film, “Glass,” falls more squarely into the latter category than the former. Billed as a sequel to 2000’s “Unbreakable” and 2017’s “Split,” the movie pairs the two stars of the former, Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, with the two stars of the latter, James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy. Charlayne Walker and Spencer Treat Clark also return from “Unbreakable,” although they have less to do here than they did there.
“Glass” does not only have more cast members from “Unbreakable,” it also finds itself much more firmly attached to that mold. Although “Split” may take place in the same world as “Unbreakable,” we only know this because the reveal that it does is the sole twist in “Split.”
As for the stories of those earlier films, “Unbreakable” centers on the notion of comic books having grounding reality and Jackson’s Elijah Price (known as “Mr. Glass”) convinces Willis’s David Dunn that the latter has superpowers, and that story continues here. “Split” is about what is going on inside Kevin (McAvoy), the possibility that this man with Dissociative Identity Disorder may be able to turn into a superhuman villain known as The Beast, and the question of what will happen to the girls (including Taylor-Joy) he has kidnapped. There is no question this time as to whether The Beast exists. We all know he does, we saw him in the last film and while we may know that David has superpowers, the world at large most definitely does not.
While these ideas are compelling, they are not the only reason that both of the first two movies are successful. Some of the best moments of “Split” and “Unbreakable” are where those films expand past the immediate issues and into the larger lives of the characters. Much of “Unbreakable” deals with David’s relationship with his wife (played by Robin Wright, who does not return here) and their crumbling marriage. It is about the way they both interact with their son, Joseph (Clark), and each other. Grounding the story there is one of the things that makes “Unbreakable” so compelling. If it is just Elijah testing David, it’s not as good. In “Split,” we are treated to Casey’s history through repeated flashbacks. It tells us who she is, and how she came to this point, and what about her allows her to survive being kidnapped by Kevin.
Shyamalan jettisons nearly everything that does not involve the immediate story of putting these three together to see what happens. Casey is an afterthought in this tale and there is little reason to think the character from “Split” would behave as she does here. The people played by Walker and Clark seem much more like their original iterations, but they, too, have nothing to do with what is going on. Their presence may add a nice sense of continuity for a sequel taking place so many years later, but are worth little beyond that.
Instead we get Sarah Paulson appearing as Dr. Ellie Staple, a psychiatrist who has Elijah, David, and Kevin all held in a secluded ward of a psychiatric hospital because she wants to study them for three days. It is all such an odd idea that the audience instantly questions not just whom Staple might work for, but how she possibly gets the money for the equipment she has.
Those are answers “Glass” is reticent to give, instead offering up a nearly comatose Elijah for its first half. When Elijah does finally start his machinations, they are no different than they were 18 years ago. It is just a matter of convincing people of the truth of comic books, and rather than the whole thing being intriguing as it was in “Unbreakable,” it is all delivered in such an over the top fashion as to become laughable.
When the good guy finally squares off against the bad, the fight is offered up in such a mundane scenario that one can hardly believe they bothered. The goal seems to be to set the battle in the our world, to acknowledge that superpowered comics characters have their origins in reality. The result of that is a fight with some of the trappings of comic book, but an overarching feeling of silliness at the crossover between the two. A CGI moment during the fight is particularly poor, further hurting the proceedings.
Although we gain little new insight into the character, McAvoy and his portrayal of Kevin and Kevin’s various personalities are the unquestioned highlight of the film. He slips from one identity to the next with such ease and fluidity that it is utterly mesmerizing to watch. Elijah is pure evil and David is pure good and this gives Jackson and Willis so much less to do than McAvoy, it makes their characters so much less interesting than his, and McAvoy doesn’t squander his opportunity.
And so, as we reach the end of this review we must, like a Shyamalan film, get to the twisty bits. Said bits are, in brief, a major disappointment. They offer up the knowledge that there is something far more interesting going on during the movie to which the audience is never privy; there is an interesting story to be told, it just isn’t the one Shyamalan gives. Perhaps, as with the twist ending of “Split,” it offers the idea that there is another movie to be made. Maybe that one will be worth it, but the good will Shyamalan earned with “Unbreakable” and “Split” may have already been squandered with “Glass.”
What we have been given here is a movie with little sense of purpose, little story worth telling, and one of Shyamalan’s worst twists. In the end, too much of the film feels built in order to be able to reveal the twist and that only makes everything which precedes it all the more disappointing.
photo credit: Universal Pictures