I’ve never been the biggest M Night Shyamalan fan. His career really started to blow up when I was young, and most of his groundbreaking movies were a little too intense for me to watch when they were new, and by the time I actually was getting into film and was able to check out his films, they were starting to turn. So, I just kind of wrote Shyamalan off, and took part in all the cultural mockery of his over-reliance on twists and increasingly terrible movies. I gained a lot more appreciation for him and his work when I started listening to the Blank Check Podcast, but he’s still never been a director who really clicked for me. But, two years ago I decided to take a shot on a new Shyamalan movie, something I really never expected myself to do. Primarily because of the bizarre word of mouth, I checked out Split, and ended up having a great time with it. It was weird, exploitative, in bad taste, and actually a whole lot of fun. And, at the end of the film things completely went off the deep end and revealed that the movie was actually taking place in the same world as Shyalaman’s fourth film, Unbreakable, one of his more beloved films that never got to evolve in the way people expected it to. It was a crazy revelation, apparently signaling that Shyamalan was attempting to pull the trigger on his Unbreakable trilogy he had wanted to make in 1999, almost twenty years later. And, because Split was generally considered a success, both critically and commercially, Shyamalan actually got to make his follow-up. A weird cap to a weird trilogy, mixing the two very different movies together to put all the characters together into one big showdown. It seemed like it was going to be a slam-dunk, paying off two decades of fan expectations. And, not surprisingly, it didn’t clear that high bar for a lot of people. The film has gotten some incredibly hostile reactions, and seems to have led to a whole bunch of disappointed people. But, whether it was because I didn’t have a whole lot of investment, or I just have something wrong with me that most people don’t have, I generally enjoyed myself with this movie.
Glass picks up shortly after the events of Split, but quite some time after Unbreakable. Kevin Wendell Crumb, the serial killer who is known as either the Horde or the Beast, is still on the loose, and has recently abducted several teenage girls to kill. And this has gained the attention of David Dunn, who has spent the last twenty years still going out and fighting low-level crime as a superhero that people call the Overseer. He and his son Joseph have been tracking down the Horde, and David finally happens upon Kevin, who bumps into David, thus letting him see his intentions and get the proof that he’s the killer. David then puts on his rain-poncho, and goes to rescue those girls. Which puts him into combat with Kevin, who awakens his powerful Beast personality, engaging in a massive brawl, giving both men the first time they’ve ever had to fight someone with their level of strength. Their fight spills out of the factory Kevin was keeping the girls in, and they’re then immediately pacified by a large group of police officers who are using some powerful strobe lights to negate Kevin’s personalities. The two men are then arrested, and brought to a special mental hospital to become patients of a psychologist named Dr. Ellie Staple, who has specialized in treating people who think that they have super-powers. She is convinced that David and Kevin actually are suffering from an undiagnosed mental disorder, and has been given three days to try and diagnose and cure them. Along with another patient who happens to be at this facility, Elijah Price, also known as Mr. Glass, the man who caused a train-wreck in order to find David Dunn.
The film then slows down quite a bit, and primarily becomes a series of scenes of Dr. Staple meeting with David, Kevin, and Elijah while trying to convince them that they aren’t actually special. She posits that Kevin simply has DID, and that all of his exploits as the Beast can be explained away as simply being a very fit human being. And that David is just a strong man who received a terrible brain injury when he was involved in the train crash, giving him delusions that he can read thoughts, is unbreakable, and has a weakness to water. And, it starts to work. David and Kevin become wracked with self-doubt, while Elijah is more or less comatose thanks to the amount of anti-psychotic drugs he’s on. But, that ends up being a trick. Elijah has secretly weaned himself off the drugs, and is preparing something insane. He is still obsessed with the idea of bringing superheroics to the real world, and wants to reveal superhumans to the world through David and Kevin. And he’s going to accomplish this by freeing himself and Kevin, and then heading to a massive skyscraper being built in Philadelphia to have a final showdown with David, before blowing the building up. He befriends Kevin, and the two manage to escape their confines, getting Elijah all dressed up to become Mr. Glass. But, before they can escape the facility they find themselves trapped in front of the mental hospital. David escapes, and confronts Glass and the Horde, while Ellie Staple watches on in horror, along with David’s son, Eliah’s mother, and Casey, the girl who survived the Beast in Split. They then watch as The Overseer and the Beast clash on the front lawn of the hospital, all to Mr. Glass’ machinations. Until it all comes crumbling down. Joseph Dunn reveals that Kevin’s father died in the train-crash that helped create David, thus meaning that Elijah is responsible for Kevin’s disorder and powers. This causes Kevin to turn on Elijah,breaking his back and leaving him for dead. At which point a group of SWAT officers arrive and are able to kill Kevin, before attacking David. Which is when the movie gets very unexpected. Ellie Staple reveals to David that she’s a member of a secret society who kill superhumans so that humanity will never know that they exist. They then drown David in a puddle, getting rid of these three superhumans. But, Mr. Glass wins in the end. It turns out he secretly took over the cameras in the hospital, filming all of their superhuman antics, and has sent the videos of Joseph, his mother, and Casey, who team up to release the footage to the world, showing them that there are superhumans among them.
This movie is absolutely not what I was expecting. And, it appears to have been what almost no one was expecting. Which is probably why it is being met with such serious resistance. But, with hindsight, I’m not really sure what else this film could have been. Unbreakable wasn’t really a superhero film. It looked what it would be like if people with superpowers existed in the real world, which turned out to be dour and a lot less exciting than something Marvel would pump out. So, when this movie took three superhumans and put them together, I’m not sure why people were expecting a Marvel movie. The whole film sets up the idea that there’s going to be some climactic final battle on a skyscraper, which is what you’d expect from any generic superhero film. Instead, we get a lot of slow-moving scenes of psychoanalysis and self-doubt before ending with all three protagonists being killed by the Illuminati in a parking lot. And, it kind of feels right. I actually found myself enjoying this film. The ending was really the only part that kind of fell apart for me, and maybe not in the way you’d be expecting. I actually think the idea of killing David in a puddle and revealing weird secret societies isn’t terrible. It’s the kind of weird swerves that Shyamalan seems fascinated in. What I didn’t like was the fact that the last third of the movie becomes mired in exposition, with characters explaining comic book tropes to each other fervently, just taking you out of the film immediately. But, aside from an apparent lack of faith in the audience, the movie kind of worked for me. And that’s almost entirely thanks to the work of the four principle actors. Bruce Willis can often phone his roles in, especially in the last decade, but he actually seems to be having a good time in this movie, bringing David Dunn back to life in a way that feels incredibly satisfying. James McAvoy showed us in Split that him going completely unhinged is an incredibly enjoyable experience, and that continues in this film, making the Horde one of the silliest and most fun characters in recent memory. And, Sarah Paulson deserves some sort of award for making all of the exposition she’s forced to spew be so gripping and fascinating, making Ellie Staple work far more than you’d think she could. But, the real star of the show has to be Samuel L Jackson, just having the time of his life as Mr. Glass, giving us the sort of Lex Luthor that we so desperately need, just gleefully maniacal and evil, providing some fun superhero camp in between all of the dour looks at trauma the film seems fascinated by.
Because that ends up being what this whole movie is actually about. It’s about trauma, and the ability to take that trauma and do something productive with it. We never really learn why these three men have the abilities they have. Why is David strong and invulnerable? Why is Elijah so incredibly smart at the expense of his body? Why did Kevin’s DID manifest a superhuman personality? We have no idea why, but part of it seems to be the fact that they have suffered. Which, is kind of what Kevin’s whole deal in Split was about. It took a terrible train-crash for David to reach his full potential, a lifetime of pain and misery for Elijah to find his, and a childhood of terrible abuse for Kevin to manifest the Beast. They all suffered, and in return were given the ability to change the world, for better or for worse. Which, is kind of weird. It ends up falling into that idea that only unhappy people can make art. That it’s some sort of exchange, that if you suffer you’ll at least get to do something impressive as a reparation. And, that’s an idea that I don’t really give much credence. These people are only super because they are broken, which I guess gives them worth. Which is a bummer. But, hidden inside that message, and Shyamalan’s general grousing over if the rise of superhero fiction is bad or good for human society, is at least something that feels very superheroic to me. I don’t like the idea that you have to suffer to gain powers, but the fact someone like David Dunn could look adversity in the face and become a hero is pretty great. It’s kind of the Spider-Man thing, deciding that if you have the ability to do right, you should. Which works for me. It’s kind of like making lemonade out of the lemons that life gives you, even if those lemons take the form of a whole lot of abuse at the hands of your horrible mother which gives you weird animal powers.
Glass was written and directed by M Night Shyamalan and released by Universal Pictures, 2019.
Categories: Reel Talk