Warning: This review contains spoilers for some years-old M. Night Shyamalan films. It does not contain spoilers for Glass.
If the last 20 years have taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected from director M. Night Shyamalan.
It’s really quite simple: Shyamalan — the polarizing Philadelphia filmmaker whose collective oeuvre suggests an artist who owes much to Steven Spielberg’s sense of wonder and Alfred Hitchcock’s sleight of hand, with just the tiniest dash of Roger Corman’s ability to sell the sizzle — is almost always going to make films as he sees fit, the audience’s desires or expectations be damned.
That is absolutely the case with his latest effort, Glass, which opened Jan. 18 and rocketed to the top of the box office with a $40.5 million debut weekend.
As you’re likely aware, Glass is the third entry in an unlikely trilogy that has played out over 19 years. It began with 2000’s near-flawless Unbreakable, unquestionably Shyamalan’s best film. (Don’t @ me.) Though quiet and deliberately paced, Unbreakable toyed with a dynamic concept: that superheroes and supervillains are real, and walk among us, using their abilities in ways that, while more grounded than they might be on the pages of a comic book, nonetheless suggest an element of the fantastic and the spectacular.
Unbreakable came at the very beginning of the current comic book movie boom — Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film also came out in 2000, announcing what has become the seemingly permanent residence of comic characters at your local cinema — and has remained the sort of cerebral cousin to the efforts from Marvel and DC. With a solid performance from Bruce Willis as a security guard coming to grips with abilities he didn’t realize he had, and with a delicious turn from Samuel L. Jackson as the villainous Elijah Price aka Mr. Glass, Unbreakable tantalizingly teased the idea that superheroes actually exist.
And then there was 2017’s Split, a fright flick that featured James McAvoy as a man with 23 different personalities, one of which has seemingly superhuman capabilities, who kidnaps a trio of teens and locks them away in an underground hideout. While not initially advertised as a sequel to Unbreakable, Shyamalan pulled a final reel shocker and revealed that Split, indeed, took place in the same universe as the 2000 classic.
And that sets the table for Glass, an effort that throws the characters from Unbreakable and Split together for what is presumably the final film in the nearly 20-year saga. Without giving too much away, this time around the central players — Willis’ David Dunn, Jackson’s Mr. Glass and McAvoy’s Kevin/The Beast — find themselves in a mental institution, with a psychiatrist (Sarah Paulson, with a sort of perpetual deer-in-the-headlights look) asking them to question whether their perceived superhuman proclivities are real. Hijinks, as they do, ensue.
I’m willing to bet that more than few people are going to walk away from this film disappointed, particularly if you are hoping this will be one where the central conceit of the first two entries — that superheroes are real — will be realized in a way that rivals what we have come to think of as a “comic book movie,” with people in spandex shooting lasers out of their eyes or whatever. It’s simply not that.
However, it is unmistakably an M. Night Shaymalan film: brooding, dark, moody, methodical, filled with symbolism and exposition and that constant feeling that something is right around the corner. If you’re looking for Aquaman, this ain’t it.
The performances here are a bit of a mixed-bag. Willis continues what has been his modus operandi in recent years, delivering a sullen, almost monosyllabic turn as Dunn. I understand Dunn was an understated character in Unbreakable, but here you’re almost tempted to check for Willis’ pulse. Meanwhile, Jackson turns in a performance that winds up over the course of the picture, and he eventually devours entire scenes as the wheelchair-bound criminal mastermind Mr. Glass, a character who is forever moving pieces around the chess board.
The unquestioned standout is McAvoy, who plays with the nearly two-dozen different personalities within his character’s body with considerable skill. It’s incredible to watch him become different people, switching personas at a moment’s notice. If anything, he’s become more adept at shifting between “characters” than he was in Split two years ago.
No, Glass isn’t a superhero spectacle. But if you are willing to once again go along with Shyamalan on a dialogue-driven, foreboding slow burn that peels back layers over the course of two hours, leading to one of his trademark twisty conclusions, you may find some satisfaction in the third chapter of this long-developing series.
Either way, Glass is the story Shyamalan wanted to tell. I’m guessing we’ll be debating its merits for quite a while.
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