M. Night Shyamalan’s years in Hollywood have been interesting to follow. At the beginning, he was heralded as the next big thing; the Spielberg of his generation as some had called him. This was in no small part due to the runaway success of his breakthrough film, The Sixth Sense (1999). The movie became an instant classic, and is renowned more than anything for the way it perfectly executed it’s shocking twist ending. From that, Shyamalan jumped into his next feature, the comic books inspired thriller Unbreakable (2000), which despite receiving strong reviews among critics performed only a fraction as well as it’s predecessor The Sixth Sense, despite also starring Bruce Willis. But, he would bounce back with his next film, Signs (2002), which performed very well at the box office, but at the same time also launched the director into a stage in his career that would also be his downfall. With Signs success, Shyamalan was forced into a position where his brand became centered around one thing, and that was the shocking twist ending. With every movie thereafter, from The Village (2004) to Lady in the Water (2006) to The Happening (2008), he was continually having to one up what he had made before and it was increasingly undermining his abilities as storyteller. And even when he tried to branch out into other genres like with The Last Airbender (2010) and After Earth (2013), it kept throwing him into further turmoil, as he was increasingly becoming less trustworthy in Hollywood. But the truth is, the big problem with M. Night’s career wasn’t that he became a bad director overnight; it was that he was continually forced to live up to an unrealistic high standard which made it hard for him to fulfill his abilities as a director. What he needed was a major reevaluation of his career and a renewed focus on what he was good at.
That’s when Blumhouse Productions stepped in and allowed M. Night to get out of his slump and start making movies that appealed to his own sensibilities, without the pressure of Hollywood’s expectations weighing on his shoulders. With 2015’s The Visit, Shyamalan had his first critically applauded film in a decade, and that allowed him the clout to return back into the groove that he once started out in, albeit to a smaller degree. And what he chose to do next pleased many a fan of his earlier work, especially when it became clear what he was planning. The movie Split (2017) was a taut, tense thriller that represented the best of the director’s style; deliberate pacing, steady camera work, and unnerving performances from his cast. But, at the film’s end, people discovered probably one of the director’s finest twists to date; that the entire movie was a secret sequel to Unbreakable. After nearly twenty years, Shyamalan showed that he hadn’t forgotten about his underappreciated gem and clearly intended to return back to the story that apparently has meant a lot to him over the years. And the timing couldn’t be better either. Unbreakable has become something of a cult hit ever since it first premiered, with many proclaiming (myself included) that it’s the director’s true masterpiece. Given the fact that Split not only won him back critically and box office success but also shared a universe with Unbreakable made many of the fans of those films rejoice, because it showed that Shyamalan had just as much affection for the story as well and was ready to bring it back in a big way. Thus, we now are getting the third in this surprise trilogy with Glass, seeing the once proclaimed director finally reasserting himself in Hollywood the way he has always wanted to. But, after the long wait, and many distractions along the way, did Shyamalan really return to form, or does Glass take what good will he has left and shatters it.
The movie takes place not long after the events of Split, with a multiple personality disorder patient named Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) hiding in the shadows, committing heinous murders across the city of Philadelphia. Shifting constantly between 24 different personas, he transforms most dramatically into a creature called the Beast, which gives him superhuman strength. Crumb’s activities have, however, been monitored by a vigilante crime-fighter named David Dunn (Bruce Willis), who 19 years prior had discovered his own superpowers by being the only survivor of a horrific train crash, leaving the incident without a scratch. He runs a security equipment store with his son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), who believes in his dad’s super hero abilities and has been helping him track down criminals with the same surveillance equipment they sell. They finally track Crumb down to an abandoned factory, where he’s holding four teenage girls hostage. Dunn manages to subdue Crumb, who’s in his Beast mode at the moment, long enough to help the girls escape, but once their battle reaches the outside, both are subdued by local law enforcement who have the means of exploiting the weaknesses of both super beings. Following the orders of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist who specializes in patients like Dunn and Crumb, the police put both of them in custody at a local psychiatric hospital. Dr. Staple means to convince each of them that their super powers are just delusions and that they are just as normal as any other person. Dr. Staple even enlists the help of the lone survivor of Crumb’s attacks, Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) who somehow managed to breakthrough the many personas to bring the original person back, helping him to heal slightly. But, all the best laid plans are put to the test as another patient quietly plots his own escape; the criminal mastermind Elijah Price, aka Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson).
I personally have always wanted a sequel to the movie Unbreakable. It was my favorite movie from the year 2000, and I’ve always considered it the best movie that Shyamalan ever made. It was a brilliant dissection of the mythos of comic books, made in a time when super hero movies were not considered even noteworthy, especially in the wake of failures like Batman and Robin (1997). But, in the 19 years since it’s release, comic book super heroes have dominated the film landscape, and it has only increased the relevance of Unbreakable’s story ever since. So, I was thrilled to see Shyamalan make a return to this story and tell a new chapter that revisits the same themes, but in a new era where comic books have far more influence. The only question is, did his years out in the wild change him too much as a director to ever effectively make this story work again. The answer is a complicated one. Throughout Shyamalan’s career, he has rarely found middle ground among critics and fans. People either love the things he does, or they hate it. He will always be a polarizing filmmaker, and Glass more than likely will continue that. I have mixed feelings about this movie myself, but they are not to the polar extremes that I think that most people are going to respond to this movie with. On the one hand, I was satisfied seeing these characters return and watching them interact with each other, but on the other hand, the story is a bit of a mess. Keep in mind, Shyamalan’s movies have resulted in much worse results in the past, so I have to take this into perspective as well. The movie is not terrible by any means, and in fact does work for most of the film’s running time. But, as a follow up to two of the his best films to date, this is easily the weakest in the so-called Unbreakable trilogy. He’s managed to disappoint, but to a degree that I don’t think shreds the rest of his reputation nor shames the movies that have come before it.
Where the movie faults is in the execution of it’s larger themes. M. Night has many talents, but one of his less reliable ones is screenwriting. He certainly is able to effectively weave a mystery through most of his movies, which has made him an expert in subverting the audiences expectations and hiding the surprise twist in plain sight. But it’s in the dialogue where he begins to show his limitations. Characters in his movies speak their dialogue in this weird sort of way which really takes you out of the movie. Essentially, they speak like their words are specifically chosen to deliver important plot information, and not spoken in a natural, real life sort of way. This has always been a problem in Shyamalan movies and is particularly problematic here in Glass. Not one character talks like a normal human being, and you just get the sense that Shyamalan is writing this dialogue more for himself as a way of navigating through his story rather than allowing the the story to unfold naturally. He also relies heavily on plot conveniences which again don’t feel genuine. Security guards are conveniently incompetent at this mental hospital. The remedy for subduing the inmates there, like the water hoses used on Dunn and the light flashes used on Crumb have somehow been figured out, despite the fact that both men have kept their abilities secret. It’s the kind of plot conveniences that become annoying the more you analyze them. But the movie really goes off the rails in it’s third act when Shyamalan’s indulgent style begins to loose it’s foundation, and every new twist is delivered in the clunkiest way possible. Where it really starts to affect the movie negatively is in undermining the effectiveness of the film’s themes. Essentially, Shyamalan throws it in our face the parallels between this story and comic book lore, with Mr. Glass in particular stating as much with his own observations, as if Shyamalan doesn’t trust his audience to figure it out themselves. He’s got to remember that we’ve had a decade’s worth of Marvel movies dominating pop culture as a whole, so the themes of this movie should already be familiar. We don’t need it beaten into our heads.
But, even despite the lazy plot and the clunky dialogue, there are a lot of things that shine in the movie. For one thing, even though his writing skills still haven’t recovered over the years, Shyamalan’s abilities as a director are greatly improving, and showing once again the creativity that really defined his early work. I think that this is especially due to the influence of Blumhouse, which has kept his vision in check, making him work within a smaller budget. This has allowed Shyamalan to be creative and rely more heavily on practical effects and good old fashioned camera work. Shyamalan has always been a fan of using color theory within the narrative of his films, and it’s used quite effectively here. The color used from scene to scene helps to reveal different moods for the characters in each moment, and even communicates to us without words what each character represents. McAvoy’s Crumb is often shown in the widest range of bright colors, showing us the chaotic jumble of personalities that inhabit his mind. The scenes with Mr. Glass are especially effective, because of the way that Shyamalan zaps out almost all the light within the scene, playing much of it in shadow which emphasizes the dark soul that the character represents. Even the pastels usually associated with Dr. Staple also tell their own story, and one that indicates a little bit about what she is all about. At the same time, Shyamalan returns to the effective, stripped back shooting style that defined much of his earlier work. Even when the movie kicks into action mode, he places the point of view in interesting and unexpected areas; such as shown through surveillance cameras, or as creatively as inside of a police car as it’s getting flipped on it’s side. Within Glass, we see a director learning to trust his instincts as a visual story-teller once again and that helps to compensate for the shortcomings of the script. Shyamalan may not have remastered all of his talents, but it is a treat to see him try to challenge himself again and try out some interesting ideas.
What also helps to make the movie work for the most part are the performances. Even when his movies have suffered terrible writing, Shyamalan can somehow manage to get his actors to make that clunky dialogue work. Thankfully, he got his two leads from Unbreakable back with Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson’s return is especially worthwhile, because you can tell while watching this movie that he’s long wanted to return to this character and really explore that villainous side. In Unbreakable, Jackson’s Elijah had to hide the person he truly was behind a facade, only to have his true evil nature revealed in the movie’s brilliant twist ending, and Sam Jackson sold that trickery so well. In Glass, we get to see that villainous side unleashed and it’s a joy watching him take so much delight in being unapologetically evil. Willis likewise returns to form, and balances the movie out with his more subdued and quiet performance. Sadly, the movie doesn’t give him much to do with all it’s various plot threads, but Bruce makes the most out of what he’s given. It’s James McAvoy who shines the most, however, in his returning role from the movie Split. He is mesmerizing to watch in every scene as he effortlessly shifts from one persona to another, completely convincing you that he is multiple people all inhabiting one body. He does it so brilliantly with simple changes in his facial expression or just the way he moves his body, and every moment he’s on screen you can’t take your eyes off him. It’s also a physically demanding role for him too, and the commitment to get into shape for this role is pretty astounding. Sarah Paulson especially deserves a lot of credit in this movie too, especially given that she’s given some of the most ridiculous dialogue in the entire movie and she delivers it with complete sincerity. Shyamalan owes a lot to actors like her and the others for overcoming the limitations of his writing. It’s also pleasing to see other returning cast members help to bring this trilogy full circle, especially Spencer Treat Clark who last played this role when he was still a child. Had this cast not put their best efforts into this movie, we would have has a much less effective movie overall, and given the problems already there, they are a life saver.
So, as a conclusion to this trilogy, Glass is far from the home run that we would have like to have had, and sadly is the least effective movie in the series overall. But the fact that this trilogy even exists at all is a miracle in itself, and I’m glad that it ever made it as far as it has. I always believed that Unbreakable was only ever going to be this one standalone thing, and I was fine with that. But, the fact that in this super hero driven world that we live in now with regards to cinema that this long forgotten film was all of a sudden seen as a worthy inclusion to the genre as a whole, and worthy of a universe of it’s own, makes me incredibly happy. Unbreakable is still a masterpiece of it’s genre and of film-making in general, and I love the fact that it was able to be rediscovered and appreciated once again. Glass may not be a great movie, but it compliments Unbreakable in a way that still satisfies. I still liked how they treated the characters of Bruce Willis’ unbreakable man and Samuel L. Jackson’s Mr. Glass. And seeing them interact with James McAvoy’s incredible character from Split makes up the best parts of this movie. Unfortunately, Shyamalan still needs to refine his writing skills, because they keep undermining the effectiveness of story. Shyamalan has proven that he works best within boundaries, because it forces him to think more creatively, and these film in this trilogy prove that. Unbreakable was a brilliant examination of what the extraordinary would look like within our ordinary world, and Split portrayed this crazy world effectively through one single character’s fractured mind. Glass is the least restrained movie of the bunch and therefore the least effective, but it still works as a part of the whole. For all we know, now that Shyamalan has closed the book on this trilogy he’ll be able to take more chances on things that appeal to his tastes, now that he has a renewed understanding of where his strengths lie. As of now, this Unbreakable trilogy is his crowning achievement as a story-teller, and despite the mixed results of Glass, it’s still a genuine treat that the legacy of M. Night Shyamalan’s best work is still going strong all these years later, and in a culture that has finally embraced the value of comic book legends that it was way ahead of the curve on.