[I’m very slowly getting around to the Top 20 movies of 2018 – for my like, three readers, it should come out sometime next week]
Synopsis: Hey, Split was pretty good! And remember Unbreakable? Also pretty good, right? So what if we took all the characters from both movies and crammed them together in an asylum and threw in some mumbo-jumbo about what superheroes really mean? That would be pretty good too, right?
1. Glass may well be the quintessential M. Night Shyamalan film. That is not to say it’s good – anyone who has followed Shyamalan’s career should know that ‘good’ would not be the best word to describe his filmography – but it certainly is the most representative of the auteur, including his worst habits. Corny dialogue? Check. Overly long exposition scenes? Check. Pop mysticism that makes no sense? Check. An overriding tone that pings wildly between The Exorcist and Troll 2? Check. A completely unnecessary twist? Well obviously. But yet, much of what made Shyamalan such a superstar in the early-mid 2000s is also present here, such as his gift for unconventional compositions, blocking, and camera movement. As such, how you feel about Glass is going to be a microcosm about how you feel about Shyamalan in general, and in my case, Glass was an infuriating clusterfuck of a movie that somehow manages to be riveting and interesting throughout. So yeah, the full Shyamalan experience.
2. With hindsight, the Shyamalan-Spielberg comparisons that arose after The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable are downright ludicrous, but if you squint a little, they make a little sense. Early Spielberg and early Shyamalan rely on the same central concept of playing a B-movie premise (killer shark, seeing dead people, alien invasion) with ramrod straightness and zero hint of irony whatsoever. The key difference is that Spielberg in his early years had no delusions of grandeur and Shyamalan, well, made Lady In The Water. This is why Split was so good, because M. Night dropped that veil of pretension and just made a dirty, nasty, unapologetic B-movie. The moments of Glass that follow that same path are downright excellent, such as when Sarah Paulson’s Dr. Ellie Staple deconstructs the superheroics of the previous two films as a shared delusion, or when (in a single revolving shot) Samuel L. Jackson and James McAvoy engage in what might be the best ‘villain-meeting-villain’ scene in a superhero movie since the Joker-Two Face hospital bed scene in The Dark Knight. If Glass were purely a straightforward realistic depiction of superheroism, this would be a very different review.
3. But, as things stand, what we get is a lot of pontificating in hospitals about the importance of the superhero myth and some metatextual dialogue to show that, no you guys, Shyamalan is totally in on the fact that his plot is a mass of cliches because it’s all following the big superhero tropes! Isn’t that clever? In a world just riddled with superhero deconstructions both good and bad (Watchmen, The Dark Knight, Logan, Kick-Ass, whatever the hell Zack Snyder thought he was doing with Superman), Shyamalan’s freshman-undergrad philosophising just seems like a shallow repetition of all that has come before, which makes so much of the hospital stuff feel like wheel spinning to waste time before the big climax.
4. And as for said climax, while no one would accuse this of being on the same technical level as Mad Max: Fury Road, it is still enjoyable to see a small scale brawl centred in character dynamics instead of the CGI-heavy cacophonies that populate so many superhero movies these days. Shyamalan also engages in some of his most inventive staging and compositions in this fight scenes, such as a POV shot from a window that places each character in a separate pane of glass, or another POV shot of a fight scene from inside a van that is being pummelled by different characters. While this does lead to some spatial muddling (I couldn’t tell where everything was in relation to everything else), it is refreshing to see a director actually try to do something creative with his action sequences instead of just passing it off to the second unit.
5. A hearty bravo for James McAvoy, who by now has co-created one of the best characters (or rather, several of the best characters) in modern blockbuster film. McAvoy has always felt wasted in prestige pictures, and Glass and Split are proof not just of his titanic talent, but also of his brilliant gonzo sensibility. Each of the different personalities that make up The Horde are fully realised characters, and what McAvoy does with his face, voice and body to convey the different personalities is nothing short of magnificent. This is not the type of role that gets Oscar noms, but it will be remembered. Long may he continue to pursue these weird little pathways.
Also, Samuel L. Jackson is as great as he was in Unbreakable, and Bruce Willis looks like he’s actually trying a little, which is all that we can hope from him these days.
6. Why, M. Night, why? Why the bloody twist? What was the point? A lot of the problems of the film could be quite easily waved away if there was a satisfying conclusion, but instead, we get an antagonist that is introduced and summarily dispatched in the last ten minutes. It makes no sense, saps the film of any remaining tension, and just adds more questions to a plot that ought to be wrapping itself up. Don’t even get me started on how the viewer is suddenly forced to treat the side characters as protagonists in the last ten minutes – shouldn’t the emotional arc of the film belong to the main characters as opposed to their friends and family? Ugh.
7. There is genuinely so much more to say about Glass that I don’t have the space to elaborate on. Here’s the thing about Shyamalan – love him or hate him, he is impossible to dismiss. Only Michael Bay even remotely compares as a filmmaker who is so gifted and yet so flawed, and oddly enough, it is those flaws that make Shyamalan far more interesting than the countless competent-but-boring directors that dot the current Hollywood landscape. Only Shyamalan can make a dialogue scene of psychobabble simultaneously boring and exhilarating. Only Shyamalan can weave together two disparate movies, one deathly serious and one goofy AF, into the first two parts of a trilogy that somehow manages to cohere while also making no logical sense at all. And only Shyamalan could have made Glass, a film that I have written over a thousand words on and still do not know if I actually like or not. Is it a good film? Hell no. But it is an interesting film, frustrating and satisfying in equal measure, and that alone makes it worth much more than the umpteenth faceless Hollywood action or horror movie.