*** out of ****
(for violence including some bloody images, thematic elements, and language)
Released: January 18, 2019
Runtime: 119 minutes
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, Sarah Paulson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Spencer Treat Clark
I love Unbreakable. I’m grateful to Split for bringing us back into that world, so deceptively and effectively. And now, I respect Glass. It concludes an unexpected trilogy, one that fans had given up hope on of ever actually getting.
As one of those fans, I have to confess: Glass didn’t give me everything I wanted from it. Yet I still admire it, I value it, and not begrudgingly or in spite of itself. Certain aspects (particularly in the finale) I’m still wrestling with and feel conflicted over. But I respect Glass, not because it stuck the landing for me but because writer / director M. Night Shyamalan stuck the landing for himself.
In an age of toxic fandom where fans lack the patience to consider what an artist is attempting, ready to turn on the object of their obsession (and its creator) the moment it doesn’t match an expectation, Shyamalan confidently sheds the self-conscious demons of his past that sent his career into a tailspin. He does so without sacrificing his giddy, genuine, open-hearted earnestness that cynical types are all-too-ready to snub their noses at.
Shyamalan’s fidelity to vision and soul, without giving a damn about what other people might think, is a bit of a personal breakthrough. This is, after all, a man who infamously made Lady In The Water, a fairy tale that was essentially an allegory about his underappreciated world-changing brilliance.
But with The Visit (which marked the start of his continuing collaboration with horror producer guru Jason Blum) and then Split, M. Night returned to what he did best: exploring genre and character through modestly budgeted high concepts, and having clever fun while doing it.
Now by returning to the Unbreakable-verse (dubbed the “Eastrail #177 Trilogy” by fans, for the crashed train that connects these characters), he comes back to asking questions about who we are, and how we each come to such compromised versions of ourselves.
A plot summary is best avoided, other than to say that Glass brings Bruce Willis’s “Overseer” superhero David Dunn, James McAvoy’s multi-personality “Beast/Horde” villain Kevin Wendell Crumb, and Samuel L. Jackson’s deeply-scarred mastermind Elijah Price – a.k.a. “Mr. Glass” – all together for one final chapter.
In some respects it delivers the goods that fans have been longing to see, from how Dunn’s “Overseer” vigilante fights crime (his “Alfred” is perfectly chosen) to actual fights between him and the Horde that Elijah (and us) have dreamed of.
In other respects, Glass doesn’t give us nearly as much of those comic book exploits as we would like, yet it speaks to how well-drawn these characters and performances are that we feel left wanting.
Rather than unleashing his trio, Shyamalan locks them into an insane asylum for the heart of the film’s run time. Psychatrist Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who specializes in superhero delusions, tries to cure them of their supposed distorted grandeurs. The result is a movie that’s more talk than action.
Suffice it to say, if you’re expecting Glass to be Shyamalan’s grittier twist on the MCU, you’re in for a big disappointment (although the appeal of a superhero showdowns devoid of CGI overkill , few though they may be, can’t be overstated).
Instead, the relatively sparse spectacle seems as constrained by budget as it does intent (Shyamalan put up his own money for the $20 million bill), with certain choices – like the finale being shot in a more affordable daylight than a moody night – feeling like concessions.
And yet this also feels like the story that Night wanted to tell, with the things he wanted to say (at times overstating), and with actors (McAvoy especially, who’s an absolute powerhouse) that make it compelling. That includes Anya Taylor-Joy who returns as Casey, Kevin’s Split victim, who maintains an emotional connection with her former captor that she cannot shake.
Yes, Shyamalan’s indulgences are there, particularly in exposition overload and meta genre commentary that can border on obnoxious. The centerpiece therapy session between Dr. Staple and the super trio, for example, goes on for too long. A sharper, tighter edit could’ve mitigated these stretches, and yet it all unfolds with a passion that’s undeniable and infectious. Even in excess, Glass is consistently entertaining.
It’s also an assured narrative. Glass is not an example of a filmmaker who’s doesn’t know what to do with the mythos he’s been given the chance to conclude. This story isn’t marred by slipshod desperation; it’s reasoned and thought out. Mileage will vary on how you feel about its conclusions, especially as Shyamalan plays to expectations before subverting them, but it’s always to a purpose.
It’s clear that Shyamalan has asked himself the important questions, like what the existence of “super” people might mean to the world, and what sort of response their existence might spark. Once having come to credible answers, he stays true to them rather than tailoring those inevitabilities to what he (and we) may have wanted.
There’s an integrity in that, and it’s going to piss some people off.
Some M. Night scoffers will still contend that Glass is just another vanity project, a final comic book deconstruction that Shyamalan uses to look past the Hero and Villain to ultimately deify The Mastermind (a.k.a. an archetypal metaphor for himself).
I know this is all subjective, but I just don’t feel that.
Glass is not a paean to the Creator; it’s a fable about a fallen creation. With providential, intimate empathy, Night examines their mix of weaknesses, doubts, moral flaws, and sins, the inhumanity that triggers them, and the humanity that still exists underneath even the ugliest parts. That humanity is rooted in our unique strengths, our powers, the things that give us identity, dignity, and purpose. The things that the world conspires to sedate, squelch, and eradicate.
Aspects of this movie will frustrate and polarize, even disappoint. When payoffs come, they take unexpected forms. But in them Shyamalan isn’t trying to justify himself or the choices he makes, let alone pander to his audience or strategically position a corporate franchise. He’s simply trying to do right by his characters while staying true to the world they live in. And he does.
In the end, Shyamalan strikes a coda that’s unexpectedly poignant, one where the final twist does more than elicit gasps. It provides a bittersweet validation and elegiac redemption.