M. Night Shyamalan directs the hell out of “Glass,” but he writes the life right out of it. His intentions are so ham-handed, it’s impossible to determine if the film is overwritten or underwritten. Its many plot convolutions clash with its many plot holes. It will make you believe it’s possible for a film to be dense and flimsy at the same time. I marvel at the contradictions in its conception and development.
And yet, it’s often easy to admire Shyamalan’s ambition and handiwork. Of course, it’s important to note the film’s place in the Shyamalanaverse – and if you’re sensitive to spoilers that range between two and 19 years old, consider yourself warned. “Glass” follows 2017’s “Split,” which revealed in its final frames that it was a surprise sequel to 2000’s “Unbreakable,” which itself revealed in its final moments that we’d been watching a comic book movie about superhumans the whole time, and likely didn’t realize it. The gig’s up with “Glass,” making it easier to appreciate how the filmmaker employs his signature horror-derived stylistic flourishes, atmosphere and suspense to freshen the aesthetic of modern comic book movies.
That’s the film’s greatest strength; it’s also Shyamalan doing what he does best. The manner in which he draws out intense moments and stages complex sequences reminds why he was once hyped as the successor to Hitchcock. Yet the stumblebum dialogue he pens renders him the successor to alphabet soup – specifically, the ingredients list on the side of the can. The words he puts in his characters’ mouths are maddeningly stiff and self-aware.
And then there’s the pressure Shyamalan apparently feels to concoct big third-act twists, which are his calling cards, and it’s disappointing to see him blunder into his own tripwires. The ending meanders anticlimactically, indulging multiple false endings on the way to a revelation that feels like a shrug in a light breeze on a 63-degree day: mild. Mild as heck. Don’t expect to be blown away.
Yet “Glass” has its moments, most of them owned by James McAvoy, reprising his “Split” role, a character with 24 personalities referred to as “the Horde.” The core personality is named Kevin Wendell Crumb, although the collective is ruled by the right properly icy Patricia. His scariest facet is a feral howler known as the Beast, who climbs walls and has a taste for young women. Eating them, mostly. McAvoy cycles through multiple personae in lengthy takes, with all kinds of convincingly twitchy madness lurking in his eyes. It’s a showy performance, no doubt, but neither is it flash at the expense of substance. We have no choice but to believe it, and be wildly entertained at the same time.
In the parlance of comics, “Glass” would be dubbed “a crossover event” in which Kevin/Patricia/Beast/etc. tangles with the “Unbreakable” principals. Bruce Willis is David Dunn, a vigilante in a hooded poncho with super strength, as well as the ability to touch people and catch glimpses of where they’ve been and what they’ve been doing. He’s known in the media by many names – the Overseer is decent, less so Tiptoe Man – and when he’s not punching the crud out of ne’er-do-wells, he and his son run a storefront for their security business.
Samuel L. Jackson returns as Dunn’s nemesis, Elijah Price, a.k.a. Mr. Glass, whose skeleton is as fragile as his intellect is strong. It’s certainly among the strongest ever, although it’s doing him no good now that he’s institutionalized, heavily sedated and wheelchair-bound. The plot rounds up Dunn and Kevin/etc. under the same hospital/prison roof, where they’re subjects of treatment and study by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), and, for reasons unclear beyond third-act plot requirements, monitored by an alarmingly small number of guards and orderlies. Hacking their psyches with finely honed skepticism and reason, Dr. Staple nearly convinces Dunn to doubt himself, explaining away his abilities as the result of warped self-perception and delusion. This is also Shyamalan ingeniously convincing us that her explanations are true, so we’ll be more surprised when they’re not, right? This is Shyamalan being daft, tricky, a gifted manipulator.
But the filmmaker ultimately must sow seeds in the soil of his own rocky ambition. The more screen time Jackson gets, the more laughably maladroit the dialogue becomes. Dunn’s character asks very little of Willis, whose presence is disappointingly unmemorable. Shyamalan also clutters the story with Anja Taylor-Joy’s “Split” character, and Charlayne Woodard as Mr. Glass’ concerned mother, and they’re plot devices at best. At least McAvoy holds the film together, thanks to multiple scenes of his character’s invisible kaleidoscopic transformations; you can almost hear his brain whirring and pinging like a slot machine as he hops from one set of mannerisms to another.
As I write this, I’m talking myself out of liking the movie, which tells me it’s better in the moment, but doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. A wise man once said of films in general, “Minimum story, maximum direction,” four words Shyamalan might want to heed. He’s still a highly skilled visual artist, and deserves credit for telling original stories. Yet he doesn’t play enough to his strengths behind the camera, and apparently isn’t aware of his weaknesses at the keyboard.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence including some bloody images, thematic elements, and language
Cast: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Paulson
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Run time: 129 minutues
Related review: 'Split’ (2017)