M. Night Shyamalan's Glass is the final entry in a trilogy that began with Unbreakable (2000), the story of a Philadelphia security guard named David Dunn (Bruce Willis) who discovers quite by accident that he has superhuman abilities-a superhero origin story disguised as a mystery-drama and an intriguing companion piece to his breakout horror blockbuster The Sixth Sense (1999), which similarly dramatizes an otherwise ordinary person coping with extraordinary abilities. Shyamalan followed Unbreakable 17 years later with Split, a harrowing thriller about a young man named Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) whose head harbors 24 distinct personalities, including a body-morphing monstrosity known as "The Beast." The fact that Split was a sequel to Unbreakable was not revealed until the very end of the film, making for a decidedly unexpected twist (the kind for which Shyamalan had become famous after The Sixth Sense).
There is no surprise, then, that Glass brings together the characters and storylines from those two films, merging them into a largely entertaining action thriller that doesn't go exactly where you expect it go and indulges in quite a bit of meta-commentary on the nature of comic book narratives. Shyamalan has long been fascinated by fantasy-horror stories, folk and fairy tales, and urban legends, and most of his films have been variations on well-worn genres (whether they be science fiction, ghost stories, revenge of nature, or found-footage horror) that live or die by how successfully they transcend and rework the familiar. The Sixth Sense was such a massive hit mainly because Shyamalan showed that you could make an often terrifying horror film that also works as a human drama of real sensitivity and depth. Lady in the Water (2006), his first genuine misfire, floundered on his inability to recalibrate the parameters of the fairy tale to a contemporary setting as well as his misguided fixation on making storytelling itself a central part of the narrative. He does something similar in Glass, but it works much better because the self-reflexivity feels organically integrated into the narrative flow and makes more sense. Shyamalan builds on the idea he seeded in Unbreakable that comic books are not just distracting flights of fancy, but thinly disguised histories of humankind's actual potential(s).
The title of Glass refers to Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), the hidden antagonist of Unbreakable. A man of incredible brilliance and a frightening willingness to bend morality to his own purpose (even if that purpose requires killing hundreds of people), Elijah is nicknamed "Mr. Glass" due to a genetic condition that renders his bones extremely brittle. Having been confined to a psychiatric institution since the events in Unbreakable and under heavy sedation, Price is the film's most fascinating enigma, a coiled snake we keep waiting to suddenly strike, especially once both Kevin Wendell Crumb and David Dunn end up at the same institution under the care of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist who specializes in treating mental disorders in which people think they are superhuman. Dr. Staple is determined to get Elijah, Kevin, and David to recognize that they are human, an effort we know is doomed to fail since we have seen their various abilities in action in the previous two films. Shyamalan brings back a number of familiar faces, including Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), the troubled teen who was spared by Dennis/The Beast in Split, and David's now-grown son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), who works behind the scenes as his superhero dad's eyes and ears.
While the film's narrative drive is focused largely on some kind of long-awaited smackdown among unbreakable David and Kevin's ravenous Beast with Mr. Glass somehow pulling the strings, Shyamalan is really most interested in spinning a grandiose myth about hidden human potential that is laced with conspiracies and secret societies and the idea that comic books give us insight into hidden histories. Much is made about a gleaming new high-rise building in downtown Philadelphia that would make a perfect Marvel-style apocalyptic showdown, which is why I, for one, appreciated that Shyamalan decided to stage the climax instead in a parking lot. In a world overrun with movies about superheroes that often look and feel interchangeable, it is nice to see Shyamalan go against expectations.
The film works in this regard, although it also feels like a bit of an unwieldly mash-up since Unbreakable and Split could both play as stand-alone stories with distinctly different styles. Glass doesn't so much merge the two as form a new stylistic and narrative synthesis that could also stand on its own if need be, but works much better if you've bought into the pre-spun mythology from the earlier films. McAvoy again delivers a bravura performance as two-dozen different characters living inside the same body and fighting for "the light," and Jackson works Mr. Glass's coiled rage and seething intellect with grand intensity. Willis, alas, has much less to do as the soft-spoken David Dunn, a man who tends to live in the shadows and not draw attention to himself. As the star of his own film, he created a sympathetic working-class everyman struggling to come to terms with his newfound abilities. Here, he is more weary than anything, his role as shadowy vigilante bordering on clich. Still, Glass delivers most of what it needs to, pulling together the various threads left dangling in the previous two films and going for something, if not quite audacious, at least admirably ambitious.
Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Universal Pictures
Overall Rating: (3)
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