Though he doesn’t always nail them, M Night Shyamalan deserves praise for the ending of Split: the highly successful 2016 thriller, revealed in the very final moment to be part of the same universe as 2000 alt-superhero film Unbreakable. Very few people, especially those that had no idea he was working on a sequel to his almost two decades old smash, saw it coming; the ambitious ploy was almost universally celebrated as the director’s finest trick. In what seemed like a playful rebellion, or maybe even satire of Marvel’s dominance, M Night had kicked off his own cinematic universe and left us all curious as to how he was going to work it into a trilogy.
Glass is how. Though, for all its stunning production, impeccable acting (for the most part), and dedication to character, the film winds up being a victim of M Night’s worst tendencies. Through multiple twists and an ill-advised middle, Glass comes with sizable restraints which dull the otherwise exciting prospect of seeing ‘real’ superheroes and villains do battle.
M Night splits glass [I’m here all day] into three distinctive parts, which automatically puts it on shaky ground. The results are uneven to say the least, kicking off with the exciting everyday life of David Dunn (Bruce Willis), three weeks after the ending of Split. The sole survivor of the fictitious Eastrail 177 train derailment, stoic and once apprehensive about his powers of tactile omniscience and super strength, is trying to track down Kevin Wendall Crumb (James McAvoy) before he kills again.
This introduction to Glass speaks very much in the same dark and grounded tone as Unbreakable, enjoyable as a true sequel to the film and a brief checklisted check-up to see how Dunn has adapted to his given title of “The Overseer”. Solemn and determined, he has warmed up to the idea of being a superhero; something once touted in vain by his now-grown son, Joe (Spencer Treat Clark), who relishes in the opportunity to enable his dad’s unnatural abilities. Joe is to The Overseer what Alfred is to Batman: a manager of sorts, using tech knowhow to help his father run a low-key vigilante service from the back of a security office.
This sequence is spliced with a re-introduction to “The Horde”, Crumb’s dastardly moniker inspired by his 24 split personalities, who has kidnapped an even bigger group of teenage girls and is holding them captive in a warehouse, taunting them mainly as the cold and calculating “Patricia” and the often hilariously naïve “Hedwig” before the arrival of his mythically strong – and cannibalistic – side, “The Beast”. This re-hash of Split doesn’t offer anything new, but once again proves that the deeply traumatised Crumb is a pertinent role for McAvoy, who orchestrates these personality shifts like a true maestro. The actor seamlessly shifts not only accents and demeaners in often quick succession, but also subtle micro expressions which become so distinctive that, as the film progresses, he doesn’t even have to speak for the audience to tell what personality is in “the light” (that is, active) at any given moment.
A muscular fight scene between Dunn and Crumb signals the end of this first act and segues quite aggressively into the second, vastly different setting of a psychiatric facility where Crumb and Dunn are held captive under the care of Dr Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson with a forgettable performance). Their respective weaknesses – paralysing and catalytic flashes of bright light for Crumb’s personalities; water for Dunn – are used to ensure they don’t go anywhere while Staple attempts to, through close examination, prove that they’re actually quite normal and that the supernatural abilities are all in their head.
It is also revealed – by Staple, this isn’t a twist or spoiler – that Elijah Price (Samuel L Jackson), dubbed Mr Glass for his extremely fragile bones, is also a patient at the facility and is under similar scrutiny. Seeing as the name of the film references his character, it’s expected that Mr Glass plays a prominent role, but Jackson’s major requirement throughout this second act is a purely physical performance which the veteran actor is incredibly capable. In fact, Jackson’s just may be the best performance of Glass, which is saying quite a lot since both McAvoy and Willis are at their best.
The reason why this second act is so jarring, and will undoubtedly be the most divisive part of Glass for audiences, is M Night’s insistence that there most be some higher concept to play around with. He isn’t content with going full Marvel, instead putting shackles on the action by indulging in Staples’ quest to convince these three characters that they aren’t anything like comic book superheroes and are just normal human beings whose bodies and minds have adapted to terrible trauma. Granted, it’s interesting, but the whole concept ends up feeling overdone with the most fascinating part, the trauma, brushed over haphazardly with a nonsense one-brief-flashback-per-character sequence.
Thankfully, there’s more at play here, and Mr Glass’ sinister Machiavellian talents begin to unfold as the film barrels towards its third and final act. Of course, detailing it would spoil the entire movie for our readers, but just know that it’s an exciting, entertaining and satisfying turn of events, right up until it becomes clear that the whole thing has been worked backwards from a twist.
Now before you get angry and shout “spoilers”, may I remind you that this is an M Night Shyamalan movie and the fact that there are twist(s) shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. While two of the three major twists themselves are clever, one of them being even more ambitious – and divisive – than anything M Night has done before, working backwards from these “gotcha” moments has clearly taken M Night away from his characters and necessitated some poor contrivances.
The big problem here is that, as with mostly all M Night movies, everything is in service of the twist. This means that your experience of everything that came before that twist heavily relies on how you reflect on it after the big reveal. And unfortunately, that big reveal will be largely disappointing to many.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Glass is in cinemas now