Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson, Samuel L. Jackson
Runtime: 129 Minutes
The most significant statement to make about Glass, the long-awaited follow-up to Unbreakable and 2017’s Split, is that is a film almost determinedly set on disappointing the audience. That doesn’t just speak for the quality or subjective taking from the film itself, but the nature of a film constructed by a filmmaker with a very specific vision, using this culmination of his long ruminating superhero genre deconstruction as something that stands as a stark condemnation and contradictory corroboration of those same audience sentiments toward the most accessible and popular genre in recent Hollywood history.
For a film marketed as the climactic confrontation between the hero and villain of Unbreakable, David Dunn’s “The Overseer” (Bruce Willis) and Elijah Price’s “Mr. Glass” (Samuel L. Jackson), and James McAvoy’s multiple personality disorder antagonist from Split, the film we actually get is one as supposedly grounded and depressingly mundane by design as the original film, but with a considerable amount more of the portentous pondering that writer/director M. Night Shyamalan pours over proceedings until things either nullify or finally come into place – depending on your point of view.
This is what makes it such a difficult film to discern in terms of parsing out what by design is something intentionally unsatisfactory on an expectational level, but might make sense for the story that it’s crafting.
What we get here is very much a follow-up to those films, so far as it’s themes of suffering and grief are concerned, and channelled through the presentation of a film that is very much about the mythology of superheroes in the modern world, but one that feels the need to constantly belittle the audience for thinking so little of it when it baits the more traditional values and clashing spectacle and narrative trappings only to pull the rug at every turn in an effort to appear that it is, in fact, transcending these very virtues. The problem isn't that it doesn't fulfill these expectiations, but that it never finds anything more substantial to fill in it's place other than novel navel-gazing.
This all comes hand in hand with a Shyamalan production, the once celebrated visionary ‘auteur’ filmmaker, who besides his admittedly clever visual manners of framing, colour coding and blocking all being on point (if admittedly exhibitionist), simply can't handle themes as well as in his earlier work without resorting to patronising expositional dialogue that spells out everything that is happening on screen regardless of context. Where characters constantly talk about their own parallels to superhero comics out loud in any given situation.
To that end, once dispensing with a very entertaining opening sprint in the film’s blunt first act wherein we get caught up with the actions of Dunn and McAvoy’s "The Horde", the former of which has in the interim dedicated his life to vigilante work with the help of his son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), we are torn from the fabric of the predicted narrative confrontation in favour of an initially intriguing plot, in which the two are locked away in an asylum with Price under the study of Sarah Paulson as Dr Ellie Staple, who wishes to study their “disorders” in order to dispel their delusions of super heroics and hopefully cure them.
This is where the problems really begin to manifest. Not only does the majority of the baggy second act devolve into nothing but constant, languorous dialogues in which the same idea that this is all just in their own heads repeated time and again, it’s undercut by the fact that we’ve already seen them in action over not just the intro but two separate entire films. The illusion doesn’t take, and as such makes you question the intentions of the thinly written Staple and immediately discern that something else must be really going on.
Beyond the trudge that it becomes to watch, even with McAvoy turning things up to 11 as much as possible, ends up drawing attention to the fact that beyond a dazzling colour pallet the film is surprisingly shoddily put together – which becomes more apparent when scenes from Unbreakable are incorporated into flashbacks.
Its editing is all over the place. Characters are introduced and then side-lined for massive stretches, with some shots clearly taking place in different scenes and visual inconsistencies that bleed into narrative inconsistencies and logical leaps. That is made worse and more distracting by that lack of engagement.
It’s not so much self-assured as it is desperately trying to be taken seriously, even as the third act storms along and suddenly bonkers revelations, costumes, twists and poorly handled exposition are being dumped in such rapid succession that it feels like it’s turning into a parody of a hypothetically serious take on the superhero genre.
What keeps a lot of it together are the performances. McAvoy is still fun to watch here, wheeling out the old favourite characters while briefly running through a few new ones, and his character scenes reuniting with Anya Taylor-Joy’s Casey Cooke are electric. Jackson seems like he’s enjoying himself, with a long drawn out reveal that gives way to a barmy turn in the final movement.
Paulson is doing what she can with a role that is largely a premeditated takedown of Shyamalan’s own critics (yet again, why can’t you just recognise that he’s special, guys?) and the build-up two a final reveal that feels kind of half explained and a little unearned given the build-up.
The weak link is Willis as the returning David Dunn. He’s fine enough in the role, although looking about as disengaged as he has with many of his recent productions, but his role feels short-changed with very little character growth and less reason to actually be there other than to help facilitate the grand unifying conclusion that Shyamalan has come too.
Glass is a deeply frustrating and yet deliberately underwhelming conclusion. By intent, its goals are somewhat achieved even if they feel rather inflated in function. When working at it’s best, the character beats, performances and some of the payoffs work, but it has considerably less on its mind than it thinks it does by the point that its divergent final scene and summation finally comes around.