[IN THEATERS NOW!] GLASS (2019)

 

 

The M. Night Shyamalan comeback tour was never going to stay a modest affair. Sure, it started innocuously and auspiciously enough with THE VISIT, a film that feels like a burned-out rock star looking to reclaim former glory with a stripped down, back-to-basics album. Likewise, SPLIT is akin to that same artist crafting an even sturdier album that’s careful not to dive too far off into the deep end, even though it features a surprise hidden track reprising an earlier hit. Both of these films feel exceedingly careful, almost as if Shyamalan knew he couldn’t squander a second chance; however, you could also sense him scratching his weirdo itch with idiosyncratic flourishes, like extended rap sequences and the musings of a Hooters connoisseur.

Like a giddy child fidgeting in a chair, Shyamalan coiled up a lot of nervous, excitable energy in these two films, and you just felt like he couldn’t contain it forever, especially when he revealed SPLIT to be a stealth sequel to UNBREAKABLE.  Depending on your persuasion, you were either aghast, eager, or morbidly curious about how he’d tangle up two wildly disparate threads into one crossover event.

No matter where you fall on that spectrum, I think all will come to the same inevitable conclusion with GLASS: friends, M. Night Shyamalan is back on his bullshit. That unassuming little comeback tour has ballooned back out into a grandiose arena show again here, as Shyamalan is ready to reconquer the world with that distinct profundity that marked his earlier work, even if it’s not completely earned.  GLASS is Serious Business™, and Shyamalan won’t hear your objection that this is just the stuff of comic books.  Just as he did 19 years ago, he insists that this stuff matters as a cultural cornerstone. It’s still real to him, damnit.

It’s quite a leap to make from SPLIT, an unabashed, unrepentant burst of schlock that’s at odds with UNBREAKABLE’s grounded, thoughtful approach. Shyamalan isn’t hesitant to smash them together almost immediately, though: GLASS opens with superhero vigilante David Dunn (Bruce Willis) conducting daily searches for Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy), the mentally-ill man whose fractured psyche hosts an assortment of personalities.  His more sinister identities have formed “The Horde,” a  group working on behalf of “The Beast,” an animalistic manifestation that represents Kevin’s most advanced state of being.

Still at large after the events of SPLIT, he’s kidnapped a quartet of high-school cheerleaders, much to the frustration of Dunn and local authorities who have failed to capture him. Within the first ten minutes, however, Dunn — now dubbed “The Overseer” by the world at large — discovers Kevin’s lair and rescues the girls.  The Beast, however, is not amused to be denied his sacrifice and begins to brawl with Dunn through the grungy industrial complex.

Their battle comes to an abrupt halt when a swat team arrives with Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) in tow. Armed with weaponry and the means to subdue The Beast, Staple takes both men into custody and commits them to a local mental institute. She’s very much aware of their abilities — or what they believe about their abilities. A specialist in the field of delusions, she’s out to prove that Dunn, Kevin, and the long-institutionalized Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) are, in fact, just ordinary men.  What she doesn’t realize is that she’s gifted Price the perfect opportunity to exploit The Beast and mastermind an escape and continue his deranged quest to prove that superheroes do exist.

Despite that fairly streamlined narrative, it takes a solid hour come around to it. Shyamalan definitely defaults back to UNBREAKABLE’s shaggy, deliberate pacing by leaning on ponderous dialogue and protracted conversations to slowly advance the meager plot. Over half of the film finds the three principle characters confined in the institution, where Staples retraces and perhaps needlessly relitigates concerns from the previous films: it’s an odd, almost inert choice considering we’ve, you know, actually seen what this bunch is capable of doing. Her attempts to discredit their feats with logical explanations fall flat but weirdly build anticipation towards the moment where she realizes that. I would argue this stretch could use some trimming, yet it’s crucial in aligning the audience’s sympathies with all three men — even if two of them are complete psychopaths.

You start to grow restless during this slow crawl towards the inevitable moment when GLASS and The Beast hatch their escape plan. Only a few terrific outbursts from McAvoy cycling through Kevin’s personalities recapture the intense, manic energy that drove SPLIT, whose DNA is practically subsumed by its predecessor here. Perhaps the biggest question heading into this crossover surrounded the splicing together a couple of tonally incongruent movies, and Shyamalan leaves no doubt: this is mostly an UNBREAKABLE sequel featuring the dangling threads from SPLIT, meaning you’re left watching it simmer without much incident until it finally boils over during the climax.

Despite the relative lack of incident, this stretch of the film is absorbing, largely because these personalities and performances command the screen. McAvoy is once again magnetic as hell, adopting different voices and physical tics as the various personalities in Kevin’s psyche battle for control of his body. One of the most captivating characters in recent memory (and well on his way to achieving iconic status), Kevin Crumb continues to be a puzzling, contradictory presence, inspiring pity, fear, and disgust in equal measure. Shyamalan rightfully assumes you’d watch McAvoy go nuts for hours and allows him to take center stage during the exceptionally chatty second act, where he stands in stark contrast to a (deliberately) catatonic Sam Jackson and a (properly, for once) sleepy Bruce Willis. With the benefit of two previous films, Shyamalan has enough space to just let these characters lounge about until they’re pressed to actually do something.

Supporting characters from those previous films appear but are largely in the margins: Spencer Treat Clark is back as Dunn’s son, still fully committed to his dad’s cause and doing his best to free him from the clutches of the institution. Casey (Anya Taylor Joy) has become “the girl the beast let get away” but refuses to move on from the experience, even when Kevin is captured; rather, she identifies with him as a fellow broken spirit and looks to free him from this deranged horde of personalities. Price’s mother (Charlayne Woodard) also reemerges to dote on her troubled son, effectively rounding out a trio of supporting characters who all want to believe in the lead characters in some form or another to resolve their own internal struggles.

Belief — particularly a very desperate strain of belief — is the foundation for UNBREAKABLE that’s also refortified here. Elijah Price’s entire life once revolved around his faith that someone like him existed, and that he wasn’t a mistake of nature. Two decades of institutionalization have dulled his fervor and reduced him to a lobotomized husk of his former self: This film’s title might bear his name, but he spends a good chunk of it twitching lifelessly at the camera in an effort to lull his captors into complacency. The film truly sparks to life when he finally springs into action to herald a delirious final act loaded with twists, turns, reveals, and something arriving at a method behind GLASS’s madness.

 

 

With this, Shyamalan dispenses with any of the lo-fi, schlock movie pretenses that guided his previous two films.  Which is to say GLASS features a different type of pretense, one that feels like a familiar (and perhaps even welcome depending on your devotion) callback to the director’s earlier, definitive works. Suddenly, this intimate, small scale comic book picture about madmen and supermen begins to pontificate on the necessity of such strange and fantastic tales. In UNBREAKABLE, Price’s zealotry is treated as such: as the ravings of a lunatic who’s rightfully put on trial and institutionalized for his heinous crimes; in GLASS, we’re meant to be swept up in his fervor and share it. The film doesn’t make the case that he’s suddenly a good guy, but Shyamalan certainly seems aware that the devoted sometimes gravitate towards complex, misguided villains.  Look no further than the “Magneto Was Right” meme for proof.

Here, Price is also right, at least to an extent: all this time, his belief in the uncanny has been justified, and the cascade of third act twists here turns GLASS into a different film altogether. It threatens to become just another superhero film, with a big, climactic showdown atop a huge building, only to dissipate to a brawl in a parking lot. Shyamalan practically punctures his own balloon here, undercutting the potential theatrics in favor of bleak, existential musings about how humanity might really confront such strange, miraculous beings. Like UNBREAKABLE before it, GLASS is content to remain grounded and focused on how comic book mythos and reality might collide, and that answer is as complex as it was nineteen years ago.

GLASS is weirdly dour and triumphant all at once in its insistence that varying factions of mankind would be both aghast and inspired by actual monsters and madmen walking in its midst. Shyamalan brings new meaning to the notion of killing your darlings during a shocking, almost confrontational climax that leaves you wondering about his headspace during the past couple of decades, when pure, unabashed comic book movies emerged in the wake of UNBREAKABLE to claim the pop culture spotlight. He’s seemingly resurrected this franchise only to insist that maybe it can’t work after all: for all the marvel and awe these characters might inspire, they’ll also inspire fear and hatred. In many ways, GLASS is also a spiritual successor to LADY IN THE WATERin its metafictional musings on the power of myth and legends on the cultural consciousness, particularly in the way Shyamalan eventually confirms the necessity of these tales (and their inherent suffering) with a final, playful turn of events.

The way GLASS just keeps going for it threatens to undermine its grounded approach. For a film that’s content to slog along for its 100 minutes or so, it nearly loses its goddamn mind towards the end, when Shyamalan can’t resist unspooling his thread with one new twist after another. The actual scope and scale of  the climax might not match its comic book ambitions, but the unhinged, delirious spirit guiding it certainly does: GLASS is ultimately unabashed pulp, stuffed with mind-boggling reveals and a refusal to simply go quietly to its final credits. Its already magnetic cast of personalities meets a match in Paulson’s cagey performance, whose shiftiness swells into full-on, diabolical mania by the end, and its resolution essentially begs you to play along with its comic book logic. “Classic Shyamalan,” you might say through gritted teeth or a full-blown smile — either way, I doubt GLASS will inspire many shrugs.

What’s undeniable is that Shyamalan — for better or worse — isn’t shy about embracing (or re-embracing) his identity as a filmmaker with GLASS.  Yes, this is a wildly ambitious crossover event with janky pacing, supporting characters that come and go as the plot recalls their existence, and a messy through-line; however, it’s also a completely sincere, daring follow-up by an artist with a genuine, vested interest in the material. Oftentimes, it’s tempting to see something like this as a safe retreat for a battered filmmaker looking to recapture his former glory, but Shyamalan doesn’t treat GLASS in this manner. It’s not simply UNBREAKABLE 2 (much less SPLIT 2) but rather a logical extension of it which bears its creators warts-and-all sensibilities — and he’s certainly not afraid to shake it around and even break his precious creation.

In a film that’s ultimately about the universe learning the truth about hidden identities, it’s fitting that Shyamalan sees GLASS as a platform to let the world know this is who he is: the wunderkind artist that still has a lot to say as he grounds ponderous existentialism within pulp fiction trappings. It turns out we were wrong all those years ago when we anointed Shyamalan as the “next Spielberg” — in reality, he is the first and only M. Night Shyamalan, a filmmaker with an eye trained towards Big Ideas but who is unafraid to script tangents about Salt Bae and even to sketch a character arc for his own cameo appearances across these films.

Had he remained content to simply return to grungy, lo-fi genre exercises like THE VISIT and SPLIT for the rest of his career, it would have been fine.  This, however, feels more authentic and true to his spirit: While those films were certainly successful, GLASS feels like his official return. After all, is it really an M. Night Shyamalan movie if you’re not hit with that indelible mix of dreadful anticipation and excitement when his film nearly careens right off the rails at least once?

 

 

 

 

Brett Gallman

Video store brat still easily suckered in by box art featuring severed heads. Writes about movies at @efilmcritic & @horror_reviews. @OFCS member.

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