Fickle, hokey, silly; all the things it shouldn’t of been.
M. Night Shyamalan’s tenure saw a downward spiral through the beginning of the millennium; from confident, sublime genre pieces like The Sixth Sense and Signs to disasters like The Last Airbender and The Happening. But then came Split in 2016, a gonzo horror with a warped wit and electrifying central performance from James McAvoy. Just as the credits are about to roll though, we cut to customers talking in a diner about the villainous newly-named “The Horde”. One asks: “Is this like the crazy guy in the wheelchair they put away 15 years ago? They gave him a funny name too… what was it?” The camera pans slowly down the counter. “Mr. Glass” replies Bruce bloody Willis, evoking gasps, clenched fists and orgasms across the world’s cinemas. This remarkable twist placed Split in the same universe as Shyamalan’s earlier cult classic Unbreakable. But what would come next? You have to produce the goods after such an arousing tease. After 19 years, we have Glass.
David Dunn (Willis) now runs his own home security store while moonlighting as a brutal vigilante in a green poncho, now referred to as “The Overseer” online. After tracking down and subsequently tussling with Kevin (McAvoy), the pair are placed in Raven Hill, a psychiatric hospital. Supervising and studying them is Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a doctor who specialises “in a very particular illusion of grandeur… those who believe they are superheroes”. They’re not alone though; also under Staple’s care is a heavily sedated Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson). As the trio grow wary of their situation, plans are put in place for some orchestrated chaos.
Quick recap of the three men’s powers; David has super-strength and extremely accurate intuition, having survived a catastrophic train crash without a single scratch, but his weakness is water. Kevin, aka The Beast, aka The Horde, suffers from multiple personality disorder (he has 24 but we get to see 20 in the film), and can manipulate his own physical state to achieve extraordinary feats. Elijah has extremely brittle bones (he’s suffered 94 breaks in his life), but is dangerously smart, and believes that comic books are a continuation of human history. Unbreakable deconstructed its own genre before the superhero boom happened. It was slow, somber, dark but epic, sincere and believable. Split, while sillier, kept the narrative tightly aligned with McAvoy and finely tuned in to the bizarro feel of it all. But Glass strips a lot of what made those two films work, neither endearingly solemn or intriguingly weird, more farcical and feeling more like a half-baked team-up movie than a worthy continuation.
Visually we’re back in Split territory (with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis returning), the camera whipping round scenes with a more dynamic energy as Kevin scales the walls and limbs along pipes. Although there are gorgeous wide-zooms à la Unbreakable, as well as the use of lighting as a very effective tool. As the action gains momentum and scale though, the cracks reveal themselves; a claustrophobic shooting style takes viewers out of the fight, with one too many close-ups of Willis as he’s being bear-hugged. Seeing these characters go to war in a large, open playground is epic in its own right, but the propulsive choreography simply isn’t there to take enjoyment beyond appreciating the idea.
From a bracing opening, things slow right down for most of the film, as Paulson’s character monologues endlessly and dissects each character’s delusion with a tantalising, genteel stare. But the dialogue’s impact dries up fast and as it becomes a rinse-and-repeat job. Willis’ everyday man take holds some conviction, but is hindered by wooden delivery (also due to the script, let’s not talk about the “salt bae” conversation). Whereas Jackson holds the screen with the smallest twitch of the mouth or eye, compellingly inanimate – that is until he’s back in his purple coat, when his interminable Glass-splaining of comic book story tropes and gesticulating causes the unsettling aura to fade (“I truly am a mastermind” – yeesh). Other cast members pop-up; Anya Taylor-Joy is excellent despite the very small amount of time she’s afforded, Spencer Treat Clark returns as David’s son but, even though the continuous casting is refreshing, he’s really rather weak. Leaving McAvoy, who completely steals the show with a barnstorming, unbelievably transformative performance that takes versatility to a new level, even succeeding in the face of a script that does very little to help (we’re all agreed that Patricia is his best personality, right?). In a just world, he’d be in awards conversations.
There are some attractive flourishes; the mental game of cat-and-mouse between Dunn and Kevin’s ego produces some invigorating little moments (helped hugely by West Dylan Thordson’s nerve-shreddingly screeching composition) and a distressing flashback scene on a fair ride will have you covering your eyes. But the screenplay is a tonal and logical shambles, spending too long setting up and discussing things that never happen and discussing the formerly delicate intricacies of comic mythology to the point where it all feels contrived and pointless. Shyamalan’s strengths have always been in raw storytelling, emoting through the moving image rather than dialogue – this, sadly, is some of his worst writing in years. The twisty-turny journey to get to the credits feels like a reflection on his own career; some of his trademark revelations are engraved in cinematic legend, others are just plain daft. Glass’ final reveal(s) fall into the latter category; confounding and carrying as much dramatic strength as Elijah’s legs.
Shyamalan’s final entry in his unlikely cinematic universe is a Split sequel with Unbreakable filling; but what’s the point if none of it makes sense?
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm