Coming off the back of an apparent return to form, M. Night Shyamalan brings us the third entry into his surprise superhero trilogy of Unbreakable (2000), Split (2016) and now, Glass. Following shortly after the events of Split, we find David Dunn/The Overseer (Bruce Willis) operating as a vigilante, as he attempts to track down Kevin Wendell Crumb/The Horde (James McAvoy), a man with 24 different personalities, the most dangerous of which is known as “The Beast”, a superhumanly strong cannibal. Before long, both Dunn and Crumb (hey, they rhyme!) wind up in a mental hospital alongside Dunn’s archenemy, Elijah Price/Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson). Here, they must contend with psychiatrist Dr Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who is determined to convince the trio that they do not possess superhuman abilities, but are actually suffering from delusions of grandeur.
M.Night Shyamalan is a director with a filmography that can be politely described as…turbulent; with his films’ critical reputation having fallen quite spectacularly in the public eye since the success of The Sixth Sense (1999), Split offered a thriller that, for the most part, didn’t disappoint. Having only seen it once though, I’ve been wondering lately if my enjoyment of it is entirely because of what the film achieves, or because of how much of it is actually to do with the tie-in to Unbreakable. As my flatmate will gleefully confirm, I stormed around the living room shouting “goddammit, he got me!” after this revelation, having foolishly thought I’d dodged Shyamalan’s infamous penchant for twists.
I do, however, have a fundamental problem with Split, and by extension Glass, which I will get into later; for now, I want to attempt to start on a positive note. Generally speaking, Shyamalan’s direction was solid whenever he wanted to build suspense, creating an uncomfortably claustrophobic environment in Raven Hill (the mental hospital). Furthermore, DP Mike Gioulakis’s interesting camerawork and the effective use of bolder colours for each of the trilogy’s protagonists – green for David, yellow for Kevin and purple for Elijah – help prevent the film from becoming visually bland, even if it is occasionally on the nose. A standout moment for me was a longer take set in a tunnel, which I won’t elaborate on to avoid potential spoilers. However, the cinematography seemed to buckle almost immediately whenever the film tried to shift gear into an action sequence. The supposedly superhuman battles between the Beast and David Dunn are, at best, awkward, and at worst, uncomfortable, shifting between wide shots and close-ups in all the wrong ways. To me, the action was often exacerbated by the “everyman” nature of the choreography; instead of high-tuned feats of martial arts, we are treated to David and Kevin essentially tossing each other around and pinning each other against whatever surface happens to be nearby. However, the worst aspect of these was the uncomfortable use of POV shots, which were featured prominently during these sequences. Although I presume this was primarily due to budgetary constraints (Shyamalan fronted $20 million of his own money for the budget), I still feel that for someone of Shyamalan’s experience, he could have done more with what he had, limited though it may have been.
In regards to the cast, this really is the protagonists’ show; Samuel L. Jackson seems to enjoy any opportunity to lean into the cheesiness of the film’s script which is, more often than not, during more dramatic moments. Played off as being super-intelligent, Jackson certainly does pull some rabbits out of his proverbial hat but, unfortunately, he is often relegated to the role of exposition machine. In particular, he’s used on several occasions to explain comic book tropes which, while somewhat interesting in Unbreakable, has been made more or less redundant since the rapid rise of comic book films in mainstream media. Furthermore, despite what the title implies, the film doesn’t explore his character to the same extent that Unbreakable and Split did for David and Kevin, respectively. Meanwhile, his opposite, Bruce Willis’ David Dunn, is truly that, with Dunn getting largely side-lined in the story, after the first act. Willis seems to at least attempt emoting, but I find it rather telling when an actor does a better job in repurposed footage from a previous film than in the present day. A highlight for me goes to the uncomfortable interaction between David, his now-grown-up son and M. Night Shyamalan in an extended cameo that comes second only to Tarantino’s in Django Unchained.
This brings me to James McAvoy. Arguably, he gives the best performance of the film, both in terms of quality and quantity (apologies, terrible joke), the problem lies in what his character represents in a wider context. As was the case with Split, and as I’m sure will be with Glass, there has been controversy over the portrayal of mental illness in these films. The concern is that although Kevin is portrayed as being largely sympathetic, he is ultimately a villain. This continues the Hollywood tradition of demonising those who struggle with mental illness, especially through the portrayal (and to my knowledge, gross misinterpretation) of dissociative identity disorder (DID), otherwise known as split personality, or multiple personality disorder, and frequently mislabelled as schizophrenia. The bottom line of the portrayal of patients with DID as killers in films such as these, is that it perpetuates a damaging label and will undoubtedly affect how the public views them. I’ve included a link below for an interesting article from The Guardian that looks at the portrayal of DID in Split and other films, which I would recommend looking at.
Getting back on track again, aside from the three aforementioned characters, the only one with anything significant to do is Sarah Paulson’s Dr Staple. Her questioning of David, Kevin and Elijah is, narratively speaking, one of Glass’ best offerings, considering how these films pride themselves on their (relative) grounding in reality. Dr Staple calling out the three characters and interrogating their beliefs should have been a fascinating exploration of the wider superhero genre, and could have provided a solid counterpoint to the overarching idea of this series, namely, that people can discover extraordinary abilities seemingly through belief and willpower alone. Unfortunately, the execution of this is clunky, leading to repetition and the film’s pace slowing down significantly. While watching these scenes, I never felt invested in this questioning of their abilities, and neither did the characters. The rest of the supporting cast includes Spencer Treat Clark reprising his role as David’s son, Joseph, Charlayne Woodard as Elijah’s mother, and the unfortunately underused Anya Taylor-Joy’s as Casey Cooke, the lead from Split. Unfortunately, these characters are all given very little to do, largely serving as spectators when they aren’t helping to force the plot along or make call-backs to previous films.
These characters do get their time to shine though. Unfortunately, it’s during the third act which is chaotic, to say the least. Shyamalan’s trademark twists are in full force here, somehow managing to be either worryingly predictable or poorly executed. Regardless, I found them to be nothing short of disappointing, which I suppose is how I view this film as a whole. The twists in this film felt unearned, and ultimately fail to capitalise on what this series could have achieved. The series has been described as “the first auteur shared superhero universe” by the Hollywood Reporter’s Graeme McMillan and, for better or worse, he’s correct. This series was created by a director with a vision and creative control, from start to finish. It could have provided a fresh take on the superhero genre and how we view it, as audiences. Instead, rather ironically, it ended up succumbing to the inherent camp and cheesiness of the genre, coming across as silly when I’m fairly sure it was being perfectly serious.
Sadly, Shyamalan has broken his ankle on the landing in this instance, and while I will acknowledge his effort, I cannot look past this film’s flaws and how they will affect how this series is seen over time. For me, it will remain in my mind as a missed opportunity, a film that could’ve really delved into the superhero genre and how we look at it, but missed the mark, under serving its characters and themes for the sake of unearned twists. Ultimately, Glass tried to do something unique and different in a very crowded genre, and at the very least, it makes for an interesting time.