That M Night Shyamalan should make a bad movie is no surprise. He has made plenty of them. But that he should make a bad movie this stultifying, this tedious, this uninteresting – that’s the surprise. Shyamalan has, over the course of his career, veered from being a budding master of the thriller, a competent exploitation filmmaker and, most excitingly with his bad movies, an outsider artist. But he has rarely been a bore*. Sadly, he is now a bore.
Shyamalan’s bad films have, before Glass, been transcendently bad; they’re like transmissions from an alien mind, barely understandable glimpses into a bizarre universe where logic and meaning are lost. They’re thrilling; to sit through The Happening or Lady in the Water is to be changed on a fundamental level. To watch a critic devoured alive, or to hear a guy give a monologue about hot dogs in the middle of the apocalypse are the kinds of cinematic moments for which I live – incongruous bits of madness that seem like good ideas to one man and one man only. To have the privilege of seeing inside the strangest parts of Shyamalan’s psyche is truly a joy, and I don’t mean this in some kind of ironic, distanced way but rather in the same way that I get joy from watching weird exploitation films from the 70s. These are works of art where you are granted a look inside the weirdness of another person, the kinds of things most of us don’t share with each other. Truly exceptional outsider filmmakers don’t have the right filter; watching a Neil Breen movie, for instance, is glorious because you’re just getting this dude’s unabridged weirdness, and it’s very intimate and very inspiring. The Happening and Lady in the Water had that same frisson. I love those films, and again, not in an ironic way.
But Glass. Jesus, Glass. I guess I should backtrack and give you my quick thoughts on this whole trilogy, starting with Unbreakable… a movie I do not like. Unbreakable is, for me, an overly somber, performatively lugubrious movie that fundamentally misunderstands superheroes. I think that a large part of its cult popularity is how ‘seriously’ it takes superheroes, which is the dream of many adult superhero fans. They want the childish capers of capesters to be taken seriously so that they don’t have to be so embarrassed for liking them, when they can just simply give up being embarrassed and be happier. At any rate, I found Unbreakable to be the kind of self-serious genre exercise that is the very death of fun.
Split, on the other hand, is awesome. It’s a much pulpier, sillier and more enthusiastic film, held together by a truly next-level performance by James MacAvoy. And the goofiness and energy of the film pays off in the final reveal that the movie is set in the Unbreakable universe. That ending got me excited against my own best instincts – I thought that the one-two punch of The Visit and Split Shyamalan had perhaps found his footing and figured out his best tone. If he could bring some of that fun into the world of David Dunn, I thought perhaps Glass could really work.
Not only is Shyamalan unable to bring that fun, he’s unable to bring anything approaching competence, which at the very least Unbreakable had in spades (I don’t like the film, but it’s well made). And on top of that, he fails to bring the lunacy of The Happening or Lady in the Water. What we’re left with is an inept lump whose entire second act is spent waiting around for the finale, focusing not on any interesting character or conflict but rather on a couple of dumb orderlies.
Here’s the premise: David Dunn, from Unbreakable, has spent the last 20 years walking around the streets of Philly and intentionally bumping into people so he can see if he needs to beat them up. He seems to be mostly dealing with low level goons – Glass opens with him beating up two kids who commit assault for the YouTube views (this seems like a crime the police could have cracked). He ends up fighting Kevin Wendell Crumb, the DID-suffering serial killer from Split, but as the two begin their big battle they get arrested and thrown into the looney bin… where it turns out Mr. Glass, from Unbreakable, has been semi-comatose for the past two decades.
In the mental hospital – which has a staff of three, apparently – they are treated by Dr. Staple, who specializes in people who think they’re superheroes. There’s a kernel of an idea here – these three characters, put together in therapy, could form the basis of a really intriguing psychological thriller. But that never happens; instead the film just plods along until Mr. Glass, who has been faking it, stages a breakout that leads to a climactic fight.
If you think I’m streamlining the plot, I’m not. Honestly, nothing happens in this film. There’s a group therapy session where Glass is drooling, Crumb is babbling and Bruce Willis is 100% checked out, and then there are a bunch of scenes where the orderlies deal with Crumb’s many personalities, but none of this leads anywhere. There’s a ‘subplot’ about Dunn’s son and Crumb’s survivor from Split doing research by reading comic books, but none of that adds up to anything sensical either.
In fact, this ends up being the gaping hole in the center of Glass – Shyamalan’s utter misunderstanding of comic books. If you think I’m exaggerating, know that the characters throw around the term ‘limited edition comic book’ when they’re talking about a storyline or miniseries. There’s a moment where Ana Taylor Joy’s character says to Dr. Staple, “Did you know that Superman couldn’t originally fly? And that Metropolis is really New York City?” as if these Wikipedia factoids mean anything. Glass gives a speech about how the spandex superheroes wear is inspired by the costumes of circus strong men, as if that somehow explains that superheroes are real. A lot of the stuff the characters throw around as comic book narrative tropes are simply narrative tropes, and some of them aren’t even tropes at all (the idea that a character’s parents are vital to their story is certainly present in some superhero origins, but is by no means widespread enough to even begin to be a trope). Listening to these characters discuss comic books is maybe the only time this movie approaches the surreality of The Happening, in that nothing they say reflects reality.
Because Shyamalan doesn’t get comics, none of his thematic stuff lands. And that’s compounded by the fact that this might be the worst script he’s ever written; structurally it’s turgid and on a dialogue level it’s positively primitive. I couldn’t believe that professional actors agreed to say some of these dumb lines, although I suspect that Shyamalan thinks that having them say dumb lines is somehow comic book-y.
Cinematically it’s also borderline incompetent. Shyamalan couldn’t shoot a fight scene to save his life, and his solution to having Bruce Willis in the fight scenes is to keep the camera tight on the old man’s face and shake it around a lot. He also makes a decision to shoot a lot of the more potentially interesting visual stuff from the POV of security cameras, a decision that only becomes sensible after the movie’s final twist has been revealed. I feel like an aesthetic choice that undermines the tension and excitement of your movie while also being only comprehensible in retrospect is an inherently bad aesthetic choice.
The script and bad direction doomed Glass, but the kicker is that the film is loaded with bad performances. Samuel L Jackson twitches his way through most of his scenes, at least until he ends up back in his Mr. Glass velour suit (come on, that thing is still gonna fit him in 2019?) at which point he slightly wakes up. Less awake is Bruce Willis, who brings all the energy of a person lazily checking their phone at a bus stop. At this point in Bruce’s career you know what you’re in for, but I can’t believe that he had more expressiveness in his cameo at the end of Split than he does in this whole movie.
James McAvoy saves the day, again investing so much more into his role than the movie deserves. He’s an extraordinary actor and he’s totally committed to the reality of his ludicrous character, whereas Sarah Paulson seems unable to leave behind the archness she picked up working with Ryan Murphy. I think that would be okay if Shyamalan or her co-stars gave her the space to be arch, but she doesn’t get it, and the result is a tonal crash that hobbles the film. It doesn’t help that she’s actually given dialogue wherein she complains about teen TV shows ruining San Diego Comic-Con.
You know, when I type that out I think “What the fuck is this movie?,” which is a similar reaction to watching Lady in the Water or The Happening, but the tone I feel is quite different. This stuff comes across as stupid rather than sublime. I suspect that Shymalan rushed into Glass in a way that he didn’t with his previously transcendent bad pictures; in fact the very end of the film offers us a glimpse of the kind of transcendent stupidity that would have made this movie great (there’s an ancient secret society that only meets in crowded restaurants for some bizarre reason – high level M Night Madness) but that is otherwise lacking. There’s a sense here that Shyamalan just didn’t know how to make this into a movie, at least not at this budget level, and so he spends a huge amount of the two plus hour running time spinning his wheels in profoundly uncinematic hospital rooms.
I will, for the record, give Shyamalan credit for the really batshit way he ends this movie. But that ending – which I believe you can spoil for yourself via Wikipedia – doesn’t excuse the prior two hours. It brings me no joy to tell you that M Night Shyamalan has made just a plain old shitty movie, a run of the mill tedious mess, a bog standard bit of badness. I like when Shyamalan makes good movies, and I usually like it even better when he makes deliriously bad ones, so you can imagine my pain at Glass being so painfully mediocre and pedestrian in its badness. I know M Night is capable of better – and worse – than Glass.
*For the sake of argument I am classing The Last Airbender not as a Shyamalan film but rather as a work for hire.