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A low-budget, high-concept superhero movie that’s as clever in its design as it is joyless in its execution, M. Night Shyamalan’s “Glass” is meant to be seen as some kind of demented self-portrait, but which of its dull characters is the long-suffering auteur meant to be? Is he “Unbreakable” strongman David Dunn (a vegetative Bruce Willis), the born survivor who can withstand any amount of pain and keep on coming back for more? Is he Elijah Price (a cunning Samuel L. Jackson), the brittle mastermind who takes everything too personally, and prides himself on the devious ingenuity of his plots? Is he “Split” antagonist Kevin Wendell Crumb (an exhausting James McAvoy), who suffers from an exaggerated personality disorder that makes it difficult to guess what he’s going to do next, or to reconcile his limitless potential with his glaring inability to control it?
Or is Shyamalan the random passerby he plays in one of his signature cameos, who’s eager to tell anyone who will listen about how he turned his life around with the power of positive thinking?
The truth of the matter is that Shyamalan can be found in each of these two-dimensional cutouts, but the exact geometry of how these broken shards fit together is ultimately besides the point in a film where they’re all so easy to see through. The trouble with “Glass” isn’t that its creator sees his own reflection at every turn, or that he goes so far out of his way to contort the film into a clear parable for the many stages of his turbulent career; the trouble with “Glass” is that its mildly intriguing meta-textual narrative is so much richer and more compelling than the asinine story that Shyamalan tells on its surface.
A quick recap: This was supposed to be Shyamalan’s greatest triumph — the coup de grâce of the long comeback saga that he’s been living for most of the 21st century. He burst onto the scene with “The Sixth Sense” in 1999, and by the time “Signs” came out three years later he had already been branded as “The Next Spielberg.” But audiences and critics soured on Shyamalan’s formula (a tense, vaguely supernatural mystery that’s unraveled with a big twist), and the director took that reaction to heart. His response was the dreadful “Lady in the Water,” a potential career-killer about a wayward mermaid-like woman creature who swims into the dirty pool of a Philadelphia apartment complex. Openly addressing the power of symbolism, the movie featured Shyamalan as a world-changing writer, and Bob Balaban as the misguided film critic who leads him astray (only to get eaten alive by a magical beast). It was a legendary flop. That led to the horror of killer plants in “The Happening,” and then to less personal blunders like “After Earth” and “The Last Airbender.”
In 2015, then a well-established Hollywood punchline and cautionary tale, Shyamalan managed to restore a measure of control over his own fate. Going back to basics with the micro-budgeted “The Visit” (a project empowered and distributed by horror producer Jason Blum), the filmmaker scored his first win in a long time. Then, with 2017’s self-funded “Split,” Shyamalan audaciously reinvested in his own power as a storyteller, delivering a last-minute twist that revealed it to be a backdoor sequel to “Unbreakable.” It wasn’t just a nervy way of introducing an interconnected cinematic universe, it was also a naked means of testing our enduring interest in the mythos of M. Night Shyamalan.
It worked. Shyamalan’s self-belief paid off in spades. And now he’s back with a movie that assembles “Unbreakable” and “Split” into two jagged pieces of a post hoc trilogy; a small January release that’s due to be received like a big summer blockbuster. “Glass” is poised to be the film that silences the doubters once and for all, and permanently re-establishes Shyamalan as a major creative force. Instead, this lugubrious slog only sharpens the feeling that he’s too raw and reactionary for his own good — that he’s grown too invested in his own story to tell any others with the patience, discipline, and power that defined his first hits.
“Glass,” which is likely to be incoherent for anyone who hasn’t seen “Unbreakable” and “Split,” begins just a few weeks after Kevin Wendell Crumb and his 23 different personalities (known as “The Horde”) have escaped into the streets of Philadelphia. The invincible David Dunn — who still struggles to accept that he’s a “superhero,” even though the private security firm he runs with his son (Spencer Treat Clark) is just a front for his vigilante work as “The Overseer” — is hot on his trail.
In the aftermath of a fight scene that’s filmed with all the excitement of a knitting circle, Kevin and David are both caught by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) who locks them up in the psych ward that’s housed and sedated Elijah Price for the last 19 years, ever since he was revealed to be a mass-murderer who would stop at nothing to prove that comic book characters walk among us. The rest of this turgid movie is devoted to Ellie trying to gaslight her patients into thinking that they suffer from delusions of grandeur. Did they ever possess their incredible talents, or are they not as special as they were led to believe?
The dramatic crux of “Glass” isn’t whether or not these characters are gifted — the previous installments of this trilogy have made their powers undeniable — but whether or not the world might be able to convince them otherwise. In theory, it’s an inviting conceit, and perhaps a necessary one for a film that traffics in superhero tropes on an indie budget; it speaks the language of the Avengers, but can’t afford to raise its voice above a whisper. In practice, that means 90% of the movie is confined to the sterile interiors of the sanitarium, where all of the characters are left to rot as Shyamalan maneuvers them towards a clumsy third act confrontation (and the very unsatisfying reveals that await on the other side).
If these scenes are more tedious than anything in “Split” or the riveting and haunted “Unbreakable,” that’s because all three of this film’s main characters arrive fully formed. There’s a purpose that David, Kevin, and Elijah have yet to fulfill, but nowhere for them to grow. It’s the same problem that Marvel suffered with “Infinity War,” but without the constant stream of funny quips and flashing lights to distract us: The Overseer is strong and skeptical, the Horde is violent and unstable, and Mr. Glass is delicate and deadly. Time hasn’t complicated or deepened any of that.
On their own, each of these characters possesses a tender measure of humanity. That’s especially true for Elijah, a background player in the film that bears his name until the climactic events allow Jackson to strip the character down to his broken soul). And yet, for a story that’s explicitly about how people challenge each other to become their best selves, Shyamalan fails to find the right angle for his bizarre triangle of badasses. In “Unbreakable,” David and Elijah went together like a lock and key. Here, everyone feels like spare parts.
For all of the endless blather about how comic books have the power to reveal all of our secret identities — one of Jackson’s pronouncements about the power of narrative tropes veers close to making “Glass” feel like the “Life Itself” of superhero movies — Shyamalan never meaningfully engages with the genre. And while his characters are meant to evoke classic superhero archetypes, their extreme lack of depth or development only calls attention to how far the form has come thanks to movies like “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” After 128 minutes, the only interesting question about Mr. Glass is this: If he’s been sedated in a psych ward for 19 years, then who made his sweet monogrammed “MG” cravat?
The other problem is that Shyamalan’s premise disarms his greatest strength. Shyamalan has always thrived on the power of the unseen, and his best films are so enduringly tense because of how they exploit inference and off-screen space; think of the pantry scene in “Signs,” and the general pall of fear that settles over “The Village.” Think of how both movies lose their luster as soon as the truth is put on full display. With “Glass,” the issue isn’t that there’s nothing to see, but rather that there’s nothing to hide. McAvoy is climbing on the walls in the first 20 minutes, and the Wizard of Oz is staring you straight in the face. Shyamalan never corners himself into his old compositional brilliance — he never uses the darkness to make us desperate for the light.
Instead, he bends over backwards to position pain as its own kind of superpower, literalizing a theme that has preoccupied a filmography where trauma is always repurposed as a survival mechanism. For Shyamalan, who seems to share his characters’ eagerness to make sense of who they are, the licks he took between “Lady in the Water” and “The Visit” were a necessary part of the hero’s journey; he needed to be cut down so he could roar back to life. Batman, Spider-Man, The Overseer: They all had to lose something in order to find their true strength. That’s a beautiful thing, and it’s truly great that Shyamalan persevered through a long period that may have destroyed many other filmmakers. But the power of positive thinking can only get you so far.
Universal Pictures will release “Glass” in theaters on January 18th.