From the Archives: Glass perfectly reflects Shyamalan’s vision

From the Archives: Glass perfectly reflects Shyamalan’s vision

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

I will never forget the moment at the end of Split when it was revealed that the whole thing was a sneaky sequel to Unbreakable. I will undoubtedly be chasing that high for the rest of my life, and even if my prediction is correct and the world of cinema grants us another surprise sequel, much in the same way “dead the whole time” was aped repeatedly in the wake of The Sixth Sense, nothing will ever be able to capture the gobsmacked excitement of that night at the movies just a few years ago.

When it happened, the collective film consciousness started reeling, wondering just what Shyamalan’s plan was. Obviously he intended to make another entry in the series, but what flavor would it take? If we really were just introduced to the heroes and villains of a new cinematic universe, how would it compare to the past decade of superhero media taking over the box office? Would he go big? Would he keep it small? Is there really a way to believably depict an aging Bruce Willis holding his own in a brawl with an unbelievably jacked James McAvoy?

That last question was the most pressing for me. But it goes to show where my head was at in a post-MCU world. A superhero movie looks and feels a certain way in my mind, and M. Night Shyamalan, as evidenced by Unbreakable, clearly has an interest in the medium, as well as a passable knowledge of what makes classic superhero stories tick. He was also a progenitor of “superheroes in the real world,” a trend continued by Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. But where Unbreakable was a melancholic, brooding tone piece, Split was an aggressive, explicitly supernatural wad of pulp. So which tone could a proposed third chapter take? It’s a question that can only be answered by the movie itself, and like all of Shyamalan’s films, it’s pretty much pointless to go in with any sort of expectations. Love him or hate him, he’s earned that much.

Note: I would recommend revisiting both previous films before seeing this one.

Glass picks up just a few weeks after the events of Split. The Beast (James McAvoy) is still loose, and he’s holding a new group of young women captive in a secret location. David Dunn (Bruce WIllis), who now runs a home security service with his son, moonlights (ha!) as a vigilante crime fighter that the newspapers have dubbed “The Overseer.” No word on whether or not they find him to be a menace. David and son have a Batman/Alfred thing going, complete with walkie talkie headsets and a monitor room, and with a little bit of detective work, the dynamic duo locates The Beast. This initial squabble between hero and villain gets them both captured by the authorities and incarcerated in a mental institution — the same institution which houses Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson). Inside, they find themselves under the care of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a doctor who specializes in treating patients who believe themselves to be comic book characters. It’s pretty weird.

But here’s the thing: it stays weird from beginning to end. Shyamalan self-financed the film (Blumhouse produced), and was given license to do whatever he pleased. I’m talking complete creative freedom. In a world where every single comic book film is written and directed by committee, it’s a bit jarring to see something that is, by all estimations, a comic book film, but one that shares very little DNA with what we’re used to. Furthermore, Shyamalan is clearly aware of what we are expecting, and for better or worse, he looks to subvert our expectations at every turn. At the same time, there are threads of metatextual material here, at least in terms of Shyamalan’s career. Plenty of the plot beats play like Shyamalan looking into a mirror (a looking glass if you will) and exploring how he’s gotten to this unique point in his career.

It’s ambitious as hell for the filmmaker to try and juggle his newborn cinematic universe with the thematic concerns he’s imbued it with, and it’s under the weight of this ambition that much of the film suffers. The oft-maligned director has a history with letting his ego infect his work (although who wouldn’t lean into it if they were dubbed the next Spielberg?), and you get the sense that ol’ M. Night is doing it here a little bit. There’s no doubt that he feels he’s making his masterpiece, and while that may prove irritating to some, for me it registered as the first time in a long time that Shyamalan was having fun. He already filled the seats with the promise of Split, so now he can do whatever he wants, and what he wants is to make a very weird movie about superheroes, comic books, identity, and the strength that comes from belief in oneself.

There are some strange choices — a few reveals that would have played better straight; a structure that leaves major characters out of the film for long stretches of time — but for every baffling choice is an equally weird choice that ends up being a success. The color palette, for one, is much more aggressive than the previous films, and the trailer made it look like it may err on the artificial side (Dumb and Dumber To is an example of such a thing going poorly), but in action it works beautifully. The colors are sharp, but lack the edge that would make it feel pretend. Low-contrast is the term, I believe. Yellow for The Beast, purple for Glass, and blue for Dunn, shifting in the presence of each character seamlessly (and often mixing!), while still maintaining a look that is somewhat of an antidote to the drab color palette of much of the MCU. It’s like a comic book, just a little more naturalistic. There are a few segments which use footage from the cutting room floor of Unbreakable, which serve to highlight the textural differences between shooting digital and shooting on film. No matter, that’s why you hire Mike Gioulakis (It Follows) to shoot it. The man knows how to make digital photography sing.

It’s also a bit strange for the film to be so talky. There’s a fair amount of “catching up” in the first act, and the bulk of the movie is just different settings with different people chatting in them. With this being a little more plainly expository than something subdued like Unbreakable, or purposefully vague like Split, it will certainly bother plenty of filmgoers. And while there were a few moments where the pace moved toward sluggishness, those moments were sparse. For the most part, these sequences of chatter serve up some great moments of scene-chewery from the cast. Some players are better than others. Willis, as much as I like him, isn’t actually given too much to do, and therefore isn’t nearly as engaging as the last time he donned his green rain slicker. McAvoy is downright terrifying as he unearths a few new personalities on top of those he previously exhibited. Jackson, however, is the standout. His Mr. Glass is as slimy and pathetic as he always was, but with even more character-building trauma under his cravat. Jackson brings a subdued anger to the role that feels borne of fear. It’s incredibly nuanced, especially for a character who spends much of the film in a state of catatonia. Paulson, too, goes pretty big with her performance, even if she’s only got a single movie on which to build Dr. Staple. Across the board, the entire cast seems to be enjoying themselves, including Willis. I like when a film is this weird and its players “get” it.

Undoubtedly, this film will divide audiences, and it’s all because of how deeply strange every aspect of it is. In the final act, which features the big showdown between all of the players, anyone at risk of detaching from the movie will likely lose it entirely. It’s an oddly anticlimactic climax that still feels pretty big by the standards of the series’ previous entries. No, you’re not going to get The Beast, The Overseer, and Mr. Glass scrambling to be the first to reach a glowing object from a high place, but you will get Mr. Glass yelling out which comic book tropes are being exhibited in real time as the action kicks into high gear. It’s very weird, and a few moments are cringeworthy, but for my money, it feels a lot like a comic book. Whereas the tentpole comic book films pumped out by the DCEU and MCU are designed to reference their source medium while also taking pains to be cinematic, Glass is disinterested in catering to the cinema end of things, once again for better or for worse. Not since Kenneth Branagh gave us Thor did Dutch angles make such an aggressive presence in a comic book film, and when applied here, I think they work. Any filmmaker who can employ such aggressive tilting without making it nauseating (as is the gamble with Dutch angles) gets a few bonus points.

Oh, and it actually doesn’t look too strange to see Willis and McAvoy engaging in fisticuffs. Dunn’s raincoat does a great job of covering up the stuntman’s identity, and unless you’re looking for it, it’s easy to buy that it is indeed a man of Willis’ age and stature.  Thank god. Of all things, that could’ve been a deal-breaker for me.

There isn’t much here by way of twists, and as I said before, a few of the reveals really should have been played straight, but that’s the magic of Shyamalan. The dude is always trying to screw with our perception and send us home talking. In that way, Glass is a massive success. Love it or hate it, you will absolutely be talking about it. Why? Because it’s a filmmaker’s vision rather than a company’s vision, and it leans into its own weirdness as hard as it can. This is to be celebrated and appreciated, even if, for some, it’s tough to love.

With Glass, it’s probably time to cap this series before it becomes a full-on franchise. Comprised of three movies released over the course of 19 years, the, um, Unbreakable-verse now sits under a scrappy, loosely tied bow, and that’s enough. It’s a solid package. Any further tinkering and the series could become the very thing it’s trying to subvert, and nobody wants that. You might think you do, but trust me, you don’t. There’s plenty of that already.

Glass opens today in Philly area theaters.

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