Well… that was interesting.
Glass is a strange beast of a film. Not because it’s an incomprehensible film, but because what works is directly at odds with what doesn’t. Rarely have we seen such rich characters with vast thematic potential get reduced to such pointless payoffs. Rarely does such big characters feel so small. The film will inspire endless debate for years to come. But much like Batman V Superman (2016), the debate won’t center on what the movie says but rather why the story itself is executed so poorly.
The film is a direct sequel to both Unbreakable (2000) as well as the stealth sequel known as Split (2017). After the events of Split, we find that Kevin Crum (James McAvoy), an individual sporting two dozen different personalities, is still loose and still kidnapping poor teenage girls. David Dunn (Bruce Willis) has continued his heroics from Unbreakable, becoming a vigilante that prowls the neighborhood while his son Joseph helps give him information from the home base. Dunn has super human strength, but he also has the ability to touch an individual and, in doing so, receive visions of any wrongdoing or criminal activity this person has committed. It is exactly this power that allows Dunn to track down Kevin and the girls he’s holding captive.
After breaking the girls free, Dunn is confronted by Kevin’s alter ego – The Beast, a barbaric brute sporting an amalgamation of animalistic abilities. After a lengthy tussle, the group is confronted and captured by a mysterious group of officers waiting outside. This leads to Dunn and Kevin being admitted to a mental institution – and wouldn’t you know, also being held at said institution is the villain of Unbreakable, Elijah Price AKA Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson).
While the setup is convenient, it is also engaging. Director M. Night Shyamalan paces the first act well, giving us efficient introductions to our key characters while providing just enough back story for those who have not seen the first two films. Due to the film being heavily reliant on conversations for its storytelling as opposed to action, the performances become even more important – and there are several good ones. Except for Bruce Willis, whom the less said about the better. I don’t think he changes expressions during the entire film. McAvoy steals the show, building on his turn in Split as he continues to hold our attention with the onslaught of personalities his character inhabits.
While McAvoy is the standout, another solid effort is given by Sarah Paulson as Dr. Ellie Staple. She’s the psychiatrist assigned to treat the trio of Dunn, Kevin, and Mr. Glass. She believes they all have delusions of grandeur, and that their “powers” can be easily explained away with real world logic. We as an audience don’t necessarily believe her, and too often Shyamalan scripts her to spew comic book references that are too on the nose, but Paulson’s performance lends the role a certain amount of credibility. Her denouncement of the concept of superheroes leads even Dunn and Kevin’s many personalities to question whether they are truly special. This doubt extends to Dunn’s son Joseph, who goes down a rabbit hole of comic book lore looking for answers. Meanwhile, Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), the teenager who escaped The Beast in Split, re-emerges to visit Kevin. She feels empathy for him and the abusive childhood which led to his multiple personality disorder. This relationship does a decent job of creating sympathy for Kevin, as the one genuine human connection he has is maintained. Charlayna Woodard reprises her Unbreakable role as Elijah’s mother. She rather quickly downplays the deaths Elijah caused in Unbreakable in a failed effort to get Staple to sympathize with her son
As Staple lectures our main characters on their delusion, the true mastermind of the film plays a surprisingly small role in the film’s first half. Due to being in a catatonic state (or so we’re told), Mr. Glass doesn’t have a single line of dialogue for the first hour of the film that bears his namesake. Once Mr. Glass finally comes alive, with a plot that involves awakening the beast and breaking out of the institution, it’s as if Jackson hasn’t skipped a bit with the character since the credits rolled on Unbreakable. Unfortunately, even though Jackson’s performance is solid, this is also where the movie begins to go off the rails as the plot becomes goofier and the dialogue becomes heavy-handed. You could probably make a drinking game out of how many times a character says some variation of “You see, in a comic book…” Kevin Williamson would think the screenplay is too meta.
Once Mr. Glass’ plan goes into motion, we’re hammered with a downpour of silly staging and ridiculous reveals. At one point, the loved ones of our 3 main characters arrive at the institution all at the same time, and at the time where the action is starting to begin. The way their arrivals are staged would fit more appropriately in a sitcom than this film. The silliness of it all is just a small omen for the third act where we’re treated to several characters spewing expository dialogue or “shocking” revelations. Here’s the thing about plot twists that people often overlook: the best plot twists re-contextualize what we have previously seen or thought we knew about a story or character. Every great plot twist must pass this test; hell, Unbreakable and Split both pass this test. Glass does not because it does not add anything meaningful or illuminating to the characters or the world they inhabit. Every twist could be met with “Yeah, that seems consistent based on what we know about this character’s back story or that character’s personality and goals”. They’re not really twists, they’re just reveals and bad ones at that. Yet the film gives off the sense that it thinks it’s so clever while answering riddles that wouldn’t be out of place on a popsicle stick. This leads to an ending that the movie is so earnest about, but ultimately leaves you hollow and wondering if you wasted your time. Somehow, the climax of the film would be more appropriate for spinning the story off into a TV series than ending the third chapter of this trilogy with a satisfying conclusion. There’s a better version of Glass somewhere, and it’s a shame we’ll never see it.
I respect M. Night Shyamalan. He has a vision and he goes for it, detractors be damned. But its a bit disappointing to see how his filmography usually varies in quality based on how well his third act is executed. When he hits, he hits big. When he misses, you wonder what he was even aiming at in the first place. I’m a big proponent that a third act can allow a film to ascend to greatness, but it’s not often that I see films with such intriguing premises fall apart like a Jenga set during its climax. The main goal of Mr. Glass in the film is to show the world that extraordinary beings exist. Regardless of the fact that there are actual extraordinary things done in our world everyday, perhaps the film’s biggest shortcoming is that it fails to show the viewer anything extraordinary.