M. Night Shyamalan’s latest effort in audience manipulation is a bizarre sequel to his previous films Unbreakable and Split. Initially, Glass plays like a mash-up of its predecessors, cutting back and forth as we catch up with David and Kevin individually. Not much has changed for them; David is continuing his street-level justice with his son, while Kevin continues his streak of terrorizing teenage girls with his split personalities. David’s hunt for Kevin is intriguing enough, and the film seems to be gearing up for a cat-and-mouse game of sorts until their paths cross and the narrative grinds to an abrupt halt.
Anyone familiar with the advertising for Glass can safely assume the bulk of the narrative takes place in a sort of mental institution, but it’s surprising how little actual plot there is once we get there. Our three main characters get put in separate rooms, each introduced to Dr. Ellie Staple, a doctor who specializes in patients believing themselves to be superheroes. That’s as far as I’ll go with the plot, not only to avoid spoilers but because there really isn’t much of it to speak of, until the film’s incomprehensible and endless 3rd act. The majority of the film is plotless wheel-spinning with our characters regurgitating the same thematic material we’ve been through in the previous two films. It seems like Shyamalan wants to explore how trauma impacts and transforms people, and how this relates to the superheroes we idolize in comic books, but his thesis is as thin as the plot, and repeating it over and over doesn’t make it any more profound.
Sarah Paulson in Glass, photo by Jessica Kourkounis, courtesy of Universal Pictures
What’s so disheartening about the bulk of Glass’ middle portion is that we essentially see the same progressions these characters have been through before. Unbreakable was about David realizing and coming to terms with the fact that he’s not just a normal guy; Split dealt with people overcoming past trauma and finding a way to connect to one another through it. Shyamalan, through isolating our characters and bringing people impacted by their trauma into the mix, essentially resets their development from the previous entries and has them (and the audience) suffer the same character arcs. It’s not only dreadfully dull; it undercuts the emotional depth of the previous two films.
Even aside from the plot, the film is all over the place. McAvoy and Paulson give strong performances, but it feels like Willis is sleepwalking through his role and Jackson’s character is almost entirely wasted. There really aren’t even traditional protagonists or antagonists to be found here, just characters sharing space, incessantly trading thematically obvious dialog. The editing does an admirable job of picking up the slack from the nonexistent narrative, so the film doesn’t feel like a total black hole, but the cinematography is the real draw for those that find themselves similarly disengaged. The framing and compositions are beautiful, and the film uses exaggerated colors assigned our main characters to interesting effect. Shyamalan’s images are almost always the highlight of his films, and it’s more valid than ever with Glass.
Samuel Jackson in Glass, photo by Jessica Kourkounis, courtesy of Universal Pictures
Shyamalan concludes his trilogy on an inarguably risky note and delivers the unconventional sequel he set out to make. Unfortunately, though, his focus on subverting expectations doesn’t work in the film’s favor, especially in the final stretch when it aims for poignancy (again, through well-trodden territory from the previous two films) and ends up a garbled mess narratively, desperately reaching for any way to surprise. The conclusion is as unexpected as it is unwelcomed. The film’s message will resonate with some, but for others, the narrative turns will go down as smooth as Elijah Price stumbling down a flight of stairs.
+ SPOILERS AHEAD!!!
I have to mention my disdain for Shyamalan’s eagerness to dive into risky thematic territory with seemingly no consideration. I thought Split was okay overall, but his messaging felt muddled (trauma makes people superhuman? The Beast only spares Casey because she’s been abused?), and the sexual abuse plotline is completely unnecessary, and Shyamalan’s handling of the material is more nauseating than the content itself. He seems to have learned nothing here, once again diving into delicate material with the sensitivity of a sledgehammer.
My major issue with the ending isn’t that David, our main protagonist across this trilogy, dies without any sort of meaningful arc to his character, ultimately leaving his only child parentless. It’s also not Glass’ master plan, which is to seemingly put the only 2 superhumans he’s come across in his lifelong search, in direct danger (ultimately sending them and himself to their deaths) in order to show the public evidence that superheroes exist (or at least did exist until the two known ones died minutes later), when undoubtedly the vast majority of the population will decry the video as doctored and move on with their lives, rendering his plan utterly pointless.
No, my major issue is that Shaymalan chooses to end his film, which is about people dealing with emotional and physical trauma who are gaslit into thinking they’re insane, with a literal suicide mission. The words “suicide mission” are even explicitly stated. Our characters’ self-sacrifices ends up not only benefitting the greater good but bringing together the people closest to them. Sure, I could be overanalyzing, but Shyamalan claims to have had this plan for his Unbreakable sequel(s) a long time ago, and I just can’t believe that the idea of ending a movie that takes place in a mental hospital with a suicide mission didn’t raise any red flags.