With Glass, M. Night Shyamalan faces a challenge fit for a superhuman. How does one cross the grounded style and characters of Unbreakable, a 19-year-old superhero mood piece, with the nightmarishly deranged antagonist of Split? His answer mirrors the philosophy of the titular evil genius, create a story that acts as the polar opposite of the typical bloated superhero crossover. This is an intimate story that is mostly confined to the mental institution our motley crew of misfits find themselves trapped in. This smaller scale will definitely prove frustrating for some, but for my money, it makes for a fascinating if messy character study that honors the grounded tone of the original while still updating it for a modern audience.
The film’s greatest pleasures come from the evolving dynamic of our three main characters as they weave through a comic book version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Shyamalan is equally invested in the arcs of David Dunn (Bruce Willis), Kevin/The Horde (James McAvoy) and Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) and gives them each an act of the film to take center stage. The first act is the Dunn focussed Unbreakable sequel two decades in the making, the second is the James McAvoy variety hour, and the third is where Mr. Glass becomes the mastermind that has been simmering within him from childhood. Each of these characters embody very classical comic archetypes but the deliberate pace allows each one to adjust to Shyamalan’s unique sensibilities.
This fusion is especially helpful to McAvoy who benefits greatly from having equally large characters to interact and contrast with. In Split, Kevin’s personalties felt like an excuse for a wildly talented performer to put on an indulgent one man show. Here, they act as fuel for a bigger story and in that context, McAvoy’s wickedly manic work shines. It’s fascinating to watch the social hierarchy of his alter egos play off each other, especially as people try to manipulate them to achieve their own goals. His scenes with the significantly more restrained but undeniably frightening Mr. Glass are by far the strongest in the film. Jackson plays Glass with a quiet dignity that makes his every move unpredictable. In Unbreakable, we saw a strategic sociopath find a purpose and in Glass he owns that persona and unleashes it upon all who fuel his wrath. Meanwhile, Willis gets a little short changed once the action moves to the mental institution. We still check in on him every once and a while but Shyamalan is clearly more interested in his other two characters, using Dunn more as a plot device to bring them together. It’s a disappointing mishandling of a very compelling character, but Willis does the best he can with what he’s given.
Shyamalan starts to run into problems when he has to transition from his borderline brilliant conceptual instincts into the nuts and bolts of the screenplay. Sarah Paulson, playing a psychiatrist who is bullishly committed to convincing our trio that their abilities are psychosomatic, receives the majority of the weak material. Shyamalan’s dialogue is mannered in its bluntness, but Paulson is given the thankless task of having to deliver extended expositional diatribes using that language. Her passages are the most repetitive stretches of the film, as she starts to have the same conversations over and over again. The reintroduction of supporting characters from the previous films also feels clunky, particularly in the case of Anya Taylor Joy’s Casey. While her dynamic with Kevin is intriguing, she never finds her place in the story.
There are also several twists piled on in the sure to be wildly controversial climax. While some are highly effective, others feel undercooked. None of them are bad on a conceptual level but they all suffer from a lack of screen time. It’s a film in desperate need of a rewrite that could balance out the pacing, giving us an equally ambitious story while trimming some of the fat that makes these last moments feel so sloppy.
There’s no denying that Glass is a bit of a mess as an all consuming Shyamalanian love-fest that throws the best and worst elements of his work into a blender and throws the messy pulp into the audience’s face. However, that delirium leads to a wildly entertaining ride that’s a product of pure passion. This is the work of a deeply talented visionary who can coast on pure filmmaking bravado, even if he is in desperate need of an editor. I suspect that like Unbreakable, it will become more appreciated as time passes. After all, a superhero does need some time to become loved by those they inspire.