Shyamalan’s 2016 sleeper hit Split proved to be an exciting, simplistic return to form for a director whose efforts had divided his fanbase much like that film’s title suggests. But what proved more exciting was that film’s revelatory possibilities: unveiled as a spiritual successor to Shyamalan’s superhero classic Unbreakable, the idea of Split’s DID suffering serial killer Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) going toe-to-toe with Unbreakable’s silent saviour David Dunn (Bruce Willis), was too rich of a prospect, both cinematically and financially.
Yet we don’t quite get that with Glass, which treads these expected waters in its early moments. What we get instead is Shyamalan tinkering with the superhero genre’s clockwork: nothing quite ticks according to the laws of comic book storytelling, much to your pleasure or pain. Glass is going to be an acquired taste. But for those with willing taste buds, it could prove to be the most unusual of cinematic treats.
Following Kevin and David as their paths intersect, committed to their own personal crusades, Glass finds the two caught by Dr Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist with a particular taste for Marvel/DC toned delusions of grandeur. Working to convince each individual that they are equally insane in their beliefs that they are superheroic, both David and Kevin are brought into contact with a third subject of Staple’s experiment: Elijah Price, a.k.a. Mr Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), Unbreakable’s revelatory archvillain.
This second act, set predominantly within this psychiatric hospital, is ballsy, performative and exploratory, if a little repetitive. Staple sticks to her guns and it can become grating as she repeatedly puts David and co. down for their beliefs: you start to feel right at home in the walls of that hospital.
However, the actors truly deliver in these moments, selling their passivity/passion to see the other brought to justice. Kevin’s suffering at the hands of a new technology inspires a sympathy that adds to our already complex relationship with the character. David’s tired, weary attitude is heart-breaking, almost as though that childhood wonder that we experienced witnessing him perform heroic acts in Unbreakable, is withering away through our transition into adulthood with this latest instalment. And Glass’ silent, probing glare is one that begs the question over his motives: Jackson sells the layered time bomb effect perfectly.
Shyamalan is at his most interesting when he risks his reputation for the sake of storytelling that breaks the status quo. And unlike duds such as After Earth and The Last Airbender, Glass is no exception to that clause: Shyamalan tears into the cinematic rule book like a kid with a crayon set, writing over his mother’s favourite cookery book. From abandoning the classic ‘hero vs villain’ set-up that has defined every superhero flick since Downey Jr. powered up the Iron Man armour, to a low-scale, dialogue based middle act that gives little to any care to the ‘action is everything’ rule of contemporary blockbusters, Glass is definitively original and love him or hate him, signifies Shyamalan as a singular visionary.
His DOP, Mike Gioulakis, builds on this foundation by bending the camera to his will a la David Dunn. From steady cameras attached to the actors as they battle, to an emphasis on colour in certain sequences to exemplify thematic undertones, Gioulakis paints the strokes of Shyamalan’s brush as his surrealist canvas begins to take shape in its final moments.
And what a divisive conclusion. Shyamalan’s twisty directorial persona has gotten him in bother before: audience expectation has made him somewhat of a joke in the industry, with everyone quipping on the twist we expect from a Shyamalan film. Split provided a refresher that cleared Shyamalan’s throat, proving that he is the king of that kind of last minute storytelling. And Glass, again, sits comfortably in that pocket of his. Leave any and all desires at the door: Glass likely won’t capitalise on them as Shyamalan sticks to his personal version. I think the film is better for it but, on an initial viewing, it may well leave you feeling alienated.
What is perhaps most admirable about Glass is that it refuses to simply exist within a bubble of fantastical superheroes. Even those that take themselves seriously – Logan, The Dark Knight– still have tangential links to that genre’s iconography. But Glass is as grounded as they come, despite the themes at play here: in spite of Mr. Glass’ efforts to convince us of the unreal. Certainly, you will believe a man can topple a police car or punch a hole through a steel wall. But it is all grounded in very real themes, principles that have come to play in Shyamalan’s films before, such as Signs and The Village: the idea of faith. Shyamalan deliberately pits science and faith against each other in the film, rather metaphorically, in an attempt to say something about the nature of belief: in something superheroic, in something evil etc. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk, opening itself up to a discussion on faith’s limits in inspiring action. But the fact that Shyamalan wishes to instigate that through a blockbuster sequel to his quiet superhero drama Unbreakable, is truly unexpected in this day and age.
As a result, I came out of Glass surprised, confused but relieved overall: it wasn’t the sequel I expected for Unbreakable, yet in that way, it was the sequel I expected. Because Unbreakable existed in its own powerful, meditative puddle: small, still, reflective. And Glass refuses to break from that box, embracing it as its own characters get used to their dwelling within the hospital that threatens to end their fantasies. As a result, its unlike anything you’re likely to see this year. And it sets Shyamalan in stone as one of cinema’s most unusual directorial talents.
Dir: M. Night Shyamalan
Prd: M. Night Shyamalan, Jason Blum, Marc Bienstock, Ashwin Rajan
Scr: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson
DOP: Mike Gioulakis
Editor: Luke Ciarrocchi, Blu Murray
Music: West Dylan Thordson
Runtime: 129 minutes