M. Night Shyamalan lays himself bare in the messy but fascinating Glass

Samuel L. Jackson, James McAvoy, and Bruce Willis | Universal Pictures

Samuel L. Jackson, James McAvoy, and Bruce Willis | Universal Pictures

There has never been, and never will be again, a filmmaker quite like M. Night Shyamalan. There’s no one in the business more dedicated to their aesthetic values, no one more resolute in their quest to elevate genre filmmaking into something more. That’s not to say this is necessarily a good thing; Shyamalan’s insistence on sticking to his style without any room for growth or improvement sent his career into a tailspin, with the writer-director who was once hailed as the next Spielberg delivering misfire after misfire until he become more known as a laughing stock than an auteur. Though his career is on an upswing as of late, his years of failure have surrounded his recent “return to form” with a heavy dose of skepticism. It’s likely that Shyamalan’s latest effort, Glass, will galvanize those who dismissed his comeback as a fluke into full-blown hatred and enchant those who have come to defend him. It will stand the test of time as the film most emblematic of who he is as a filmmaker, laying bare all his strengths and flaws over the course of two messy but fascinating hours.

The finale in a saga fans have dubbed the “Eastrail 177 Trilogy”, the film serves as a sequel to both the solemn superhero origin story Unbreakable and 2017’s surprise horror hit Split. Picking up almost immediately where the latter film left off, we find Unbreakable protagonist David Dunn (Bruce Willis, Die Hard) hot on the trail of Split’s Kevin Wendall Crumb (James McAvoy, Wanted), a man with 23 different personalities who has succumb to the wills of The Horde, a small alliance of these personalities who worship a physically powerful and murderous 24th personality called they call The Beast. After a brief fight between Dunn and The Beast, they are captured by the authorities and sent to a psychiatric hospital under the control of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, American Horror Story), a psychologist who claims her specialty is “curing” those who believe they are superhuman. They learn Staple has locked them up alongside Dunn’s brittle-boned nemesis from Unbreakable, Elijah Glass (Samuel L. Jackson, Pulp Fiction) , and the resulting battles of wills between the trio and their captor turns the movie into less of a action-packed superhero film and more of a psychological thriller teasing with you the threat of violence for most of its runtime before exploding into a dizzying and what will surely be polarizing climax.

The performers are in fine form here, the standout of course being McAvoy, who takes the knockout work he did in Split and extends the effectiveness into this film. It continues to be a career role for him, one that shows off his versatility and is too good to dismiss the silliness and implausibility of his character’s condition. It’s certainly fun to see Jackson plotting as Glass again, even if he isn’t really unleashed until the back half of the film, and he plays the character from all these years ago as if he never left it. Willis has a fairly quiet role here, playing the elder Dunn more like a Ryan Gosling character than the wise-cracking heroes who made him a household name. But like Jackson, he too seems keenly aware of the ideology and identity behind his hooded crusader, with his performance here feeling like a natural progression from his character in Unbreakable. Paulson is put in the odd position of being given everything and nothing to do, playing a very large and showy role that largely exists to provide exposition and create tension between the three leads. it doesn’t quite work, but really it doesn’t have to; this is all about Shyamalan’s collection of super freaks.

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

It’s lucky for Shyamalan that he has such a solid ensemble assembled here, because this is not the off-the-chain thriller the marketing or the roadmap set out by other superhero franchises would have you believe it is. It really is a “talking” picture, deliberate in its pacing and dedicated to exchanges of dialogue rather than fists. There is of course some large moments of action, but they are leagues away from the fireworks shows of the Marvel and DC adaptations, finding thrills in smart and inventive camera angles and moments of restraint rather than in big-budget chaos. If nothing else, Shyamalan does show he really is a great director here, shooting fist fights and arguments alike with the same precision he showed off in his early days. He has an eye for making grounded moments of action feel impactful in a way few other directors can.

Script-wise, this is perhaps the most Shyamalan that Shyamalan has ever been, with exposition dumps a mile long and more twists than a bag of pretzels. But it’s hard to deny the allure of the sheer bravura of it all, a comic book film so disinterested in meeting your expectations and so eager to deconstruct the genre that its ambition is every bit as admirable as it is messy. While it never reaches the depths of the quiet contemplation of Unbreakable or attains the sheer entertainment value of Split, it is the entry in this director’s canon that is perhaps the most confident in what it’s trying to do. Shyamalan is clearly deeply invested in the philosophical dilemma of what would happen if comic books were real, taking ideas tentpole superhero films have about the morality of being superhuman and stretching them to the extreme. It’s unashamedly silly and deadly serious all at the same time, a wobbly balance of tones that never quite lands with full impact but does bring up more interesting questions about the genre our society is so obsessed with than most works even dream of. He doesn’t seem to quite land on any solid reason as to why superpowers capture our imagination in the way that they do, but he has a hell of time trying to get at that answer.

Of course, his writing is also where the problems come in. The film is certainly thoughtful and original in many ways, and it get points for that, but by and large the script is hampered a bit by the rambling that has plagued his lesser works. Jackson spits out plot theories over fights as if a basement nerd possessed. Paulson monologues on the balance of power in a way that would draw only the applause of first-year philosophy majors. It’s ultimately kind of a mess, but for the first time in his career, the messiness might be a positive. Had Shyamalan restrained his narrative in the way Split had, it would have been a tighter, more streamlined work. But what would have been lost? Would we have missed out on the thought-provoking moments of pop culture dissection, or the fascinating liens the film draws between trauma and the roles we perform? This is the first film in ages that I can recall jumping the shark but leaving me wondering if that’s for the best, if the wackiness Shyamalan can’t resist buying into has inadvertently produced something more intelligent than it lets on. It’s a weird artist at his weirdest, an attempt to free himself form expectation and enter into a new stage of his creative life. Glass may not always work, and it’s not going to land Shyamalan any new admirers, but it’s a fascinating and personal fantasy that may just hold the key to understanding one of the most curious blockbuster filmmakers we’ll ever know.

B

Can’t get enough of Glass? We’ve got even more to discuss on the very first episode of The Reel Nine Podcast:

Ryan Ninesling