There’s no other way to say it than M. Night Shyamalan, in the language of the internet, is “back on his bullshit” with Glass. It’s got a lot going for it, but the last 40 minutes can be politely termed insane, and impolitely batshit – taking the shine off a surprisingly diverse trilogy of interesting films.
Continuing from Unbreakable and Split, Glass sees David Dunn (Bruce Willis) continuing to fight crime, Kevin Wendell Crumb/The Horde (James McAvoy) entering his sights as he abducts more women for his superhuman alternate personality ‘The Beast’. Both are caught and detained by Dr Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) in hospital with Hugh Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), with the doctor determined to prove their powers are a delusion.
When I was at uni, I got into the stop motion comedy show Robot Chicken, which tainted my perspective on Shyamalan because of this recurring sketch…
The director went from visionary (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable) to mediocrity (The Village) and absolute bombs (The Happening, Lady in the Water, The Last Airbender and After Earth). It took until 2015’s The Visit for his unique style to get a welcome resurgence, and Split was a new high point, not least for reinstating gobsmacking twists and knitting together that film and Unbreakable in the same universe.
Glass is about 50% working hard to capitalise on that exciting venture, and 50% “oh shit, what the hell just happened” level twists, most of which come in the last 40 minutes. The sad thing is, the first half is strong – even when it slows down and becomes talky, this only makes it stronger. That early promise is then forgotten and everything goes haywire.
Twists are by their nature unpredictable, but the ones here are odd because they feel unearned, are overly signposted and seem hackneyed when the film could have played safer and ended stronger. Shyamalan’s script is similarly all over the place, some dialogue and debates very assured and others comically inept or hamfisted.
Editing from Luke Ciarrocchi and Blu Murray is notable in long slow takes during conversations, and the big scene between the three men and the doctor. While this methodology raises tension, the film is far less frightening or tense than Split, even with ‘The Beast’ on the prowl – Unbreakable had more of a foreboding atmosphere.
Shyamalan’s direction however continues to be unpredictable and daring, with a lot of camera angles and perspectives quite innovative. Fight scenes are shot with cameras almost mounted on Willis and McAvoy, making them oddly intimate and slightly uncomfortable, rather than the distanced view superhero films usually use.
He uses a lot of viewpoints and close up focuses that aid a claustrophobic feeling, while at the same time never tied down, whether we’re following Glass’ wheelchair at ground level, soaring up to ceiling heights with ‘The Beast’, or using focus pulling to artfully show violence in the background and build unease.
These quirks are positives, aligned to distinctive but sometimes anodyne cinematography from Mike Gioulakis. Certain scenes are staged with strong colours and shades evoking the three leads, but others are very bland. I imagine that was Shyamalan’s point, that this is supposed to be a gritty, normal world. It’s a shame though, given that the film uses clips from Unbreakable, which was dark and gloomy but successfully so (perhaps it’s the switch from film to digital).
That sense of being all over the place extends to the score from West Dylan Thordson, at turns suspenseful, exciting and forgettably anonymous. Of the cast, James McAvoy made a major impact, his remarkable physical and other portrayals of Kevin’s multiple personalities the best part of the movie – though minimised compared to Split.
That was a better stage for his considerable talents, and here that often feels forgotten – and the film feels a bit limper – when he’s not onscreen. New personalities are revealed that are less memorable than those in Split, while the most annoying and least interesting – the child Hedwig – is prominent, raising laughs at odds with the film’s tone. Despite that, in scenes where he effortlessly switches between personalities, McAvoy shows his range and versatility, always near to raising the threat with just a glance.
Bruce Willis, much like Harrison Ford of late, summons up a semblance of enthusiasm to continue in an old role, and there are hints in some scene where the surly old bastard re-engages, and you see sparks of his acting ability re-emerge. These are few and far between however, and Willis largely underwhelms his way through, though I must say I was surprised he agreed to what amounts to slightly more than a bit part.
While we get a fair bit of Samuel L. Jackson towards the end, we’re held away for too long, and when onscreen it’s vintage Jackson – persuasive, domineering and strong. It makes you wish he played more roles like this than the crap he often chooses.
All three are diminished somewhat by the presence of Paulson’s Dr Staple. She’s a great, expressive actress and it could be argued that she is the lead – so much does she dominate. The problem is her character, like the three leads, feels too slight as part of a collective – it’s like they all lose out. What I did like was her anxious energy and eerie calm, Dr Staple an enigma (up until she isn’t) to whom our attention is drawn, and Paulson is more controlled and less loud or frenetic than usual in what I thought was a good advert for her abilities.
Among the supporting cast are Split’s Anya Taylor-Joy and Unbreakable’s Spencer Treat Clark, who alongside Unbreakable’s Charlayne Woodard form essentially three “family” members trying to establish what’s happening to their “loved” ones, and who play a larger part in proceedings than you’re initially led to believe. Clark and Taylor-Joy impress in smaller, more intense scenes with the leads that the film could have done with much more of.
I was disappointed this film threw away sophisticated touches, brave choices and good performances in lieu of twists – squandering the positives and petering out with a ridiculous series of twists. Shyamalan has talent and hopefully he’ll make something as strong as his first two films soon enough.