Love him or hate him, M. Night Shyamalan is certainly among the interesting breed of directors out there. His movies have a unique flavor, a flair for the unexpected, a style that feels his own instead of the derivative template that most screenplays tend to follow. That affinity towards the unexpected often leads him to pull some surprising twists, a trait that he’s strived to move away from but clearly failed to. His latest endeavor Glass, is both simultaneously better for it as well as better off without it.
The continuation of what’s been dubbed as the Eastrail 177 Trilogy (and fittingly so, as you learn in this movie), Glass crosses over the worlds of Unbreakable and Split bringing their characters together into a mental institute for a supposed epic showdown. What you instantly realize however, is that Glass is more akin to a slow-burn than a showcase of superhero brawls. It’s the more talkative stuff, character interactions that take centerstage and while you are witness to a few fights between the only two characters in the movie who possibly can square-off against each other, that’s not what the movie is about. So it’s understandable if you walked in expecting a comicbook movie and left disappointed that it doesn’t adhere to your expectations from the genre.
The central premise over which Shyamalan builds his narrative is intriguing enough to offer plenty of psychological conflicts. Dr. Ellie Staple (played with suitable restraint by Sarah Paulson) treats people who believe they possess superhuman strength and tries to convince them otherwise. There’s a brilliant interrogation sequence, heavily glimpsed in the trailers, where our characters assemble and Dr. Staple dishes out explanations to account for the heroic and villanous behaviors of both David Dunn and Kevin Wendell Crumb. Both David and Kevin begin viewing themselves with doubt and Shayamalan perfectly plays with audience expectations, the veracity of both his prior movies at stake.
All of this promises a riveting final act that could shake the very foundation upon which the characters are built. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you look at it, Shyamalan doesn’t go that route and turns Glass into an actual superhero movie by unveiling a giant conspiracy theory as his secret sauce. I’ve probably said more than I should now and anything more only risks spoiling the ending. Suffice to say though, Shyamalan was right when he said the movie is not what you expect. Only Glass builds a certain expectation out of you and then pulls the rug from under you but you’re not that blown away because it’s one of the only few possible outcomes that could’ve been expected out of it.
An additional gripe I have with Glass, its technical achievements not withstanding, is how little it grows its world beyond what is set up in Unbreakable and Split. Whatever knowledge we have about David Dunn, Kevin Crumb or Elijah Price a.k.a. Mr. Glass is from the prior movies, with very new information being revealed. While it’s true that future installments in superhero movies don’t necessarily tend to add a lot more to a character’s legacy, considering how light Glass is on its plot and how less-dense it feels, it would’ve helped if we came to know some backstories about any of its principal characters. That doesn’t arrive though and it appears most of its cast is squandered in their appearances as they do not have a lot to do, a baffling trait borrowed from actual superhero movies.
I suspect these are a few reasons why critics are hating on Glass. But is it that bad though? Is it actually an unwatchable mess, a movie so boring that its director’s career deserves to be finished? Far from it. In fact, for the most part, not only is Glass a watchable movie, it’s also an entertaining one. The opening moments where you see the worlds collide are an absolute thrill. Seeing Bruce Willis fight James McAvoy kind of reminds you why those Marvel movie crossovers work, and work big time. I would’ve loved to see them interact more besides just fight but Shyamalan locks them up in separate rooms for the better part of the movie.
And McAvoy is just, outstanding. Not only is he able to get into all his characters from Split, he’s able to infuse some humanity into them with a genuine hard work infused performance, that seamlessly transitions from one character to the next, and the next, and the next, all in one long elongated take. In fact, Shyamalan’s style of filming his cast through close-ups further accentuates McAvoy’s performance as he has to convince you he’s playing different characters merely through a shift in facial expressions and voice. And he does that and does that big time and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for some award nominations to drop his way next year.
Glass doesn’t have a dense story to build upon which gives Shyamalan enough breathing room to proceed at a leisurely pace and play around with the camera. He takes full advantage of that by letting shots linger on for a tad bit longer, amping up that sense of tension as the background score gradually builds up. There are plenty of up-front shots of characters occupying the entire screen, quite a few unusual shots (one such sequence shows all the major supporting characters arriving up on the same frame but you’re left to witness the moment from a distance behind glass windows). And in a stroke of genius, he nicely uses some deleted footage from Unbreakable to flashback into David and Joseph Dunn’s father-son relationship, resulting in one of the most convincing on-screen de-aging effects of all time (kidding on that last part). All of this does translate into the movie meandering around a bit in the middle section, before it picks up towards a pulsating climax.
Jackson is in his element as Mr. Glass and even though he doesn’t get a single line of dialogue for half the movie, the man makes an impression with his paralyzed stillness. It wouldn’t be wrong to state that Unbreakable was about Bruce Willis’ David Dunn, Split was about James McAvoy’s Kevin Crumb and Glass is about Samuel Jackson’s Elijah Price. Sarah Paulson leaves a mark as well and becomes a key player to the proceedings as the film progresses, channeling expressions that lead us to believe she’ll explode any second. The supporting cast including Spencer John (Joseph), Anya-Taylor Joy (Casey) and Charlayne Woodard (Elijah’s mother) are competent even though none of them get any moments to shine strong in particular.
On the whole then, Glass is a good watch. It’s definitely not the mind blowing ending you all had hyped it up to be within your thoughts all these years. But it’s definitely no slouch of a film either, with offbeat direction and smart camera angles further enhancing its already excellent-for-the-budget production values. Shyamalan takes an unusual route through the movie but kind of chickens out in the end on going all in with the laid out conceit and gives us a movie that will at least leave you pleased, if not pondering or pensive even. For a director to be able to make the movie they want in today’s times is a remarkable achievement and while many directors are indeed able to do just that, Shyamalan certainly belongs on that list as someone who gave his own sweet spin to the cinema he presents.