M. Night Shyamalan is an intriguing figure. Here is someone who, as a director, came out of the gate on fire with hits – some could argue these are classics – such as THE SIXTH SENSE, UNBREAKABLE, and SIGNS. Then, just as quickly as he rose, he fell – with films such as THE VILLAGE, LADY IN THE WATER, THE HAPPENING, THE LAST AIRBENDER, and AFTER EARTH establishing Shyamalan as the ultimate butt of a joke in the industry. At this point, Shyamalan seemed preordained to remain an anecdote in film history, a prime example of the “up-down” trajectory of a Hollywood career. But with the release of 2015’s THE VISIT and 2017’s SPLIT, something happened. Both of those films were well-received critically and publicly. This signaled that Shyamalan might just have turned his career around, going from rock bottom back to the prominence and popularity that he basked in during his early career. What made things even more interesting was the appearance of David Dunn – Shyamalan’s protagonist from UNBREAKABLE – at the end the SPLIT, confirming that SPLIT’s story takes place in the UNBREAKABLE universe. Shortly after the release of SPLIT, Shyamalan confirmed that his next film would be a follow-up to both SPLIT and UNBREAKABLE, later confirmed to be called GLASS. With Shyamalan’s career seemingly on the rebound lately, GLASS will be the definitive test as to whether this resurgence is here to stay, or if it was all just a flash in the pan. Personally, I’ve been hyped for GLASS ever since I saw SPLIT, eagerly awaiting how Shyamalan would complete the trilogy. So how does GLASS turn out?
Soon after his encounter with Casey Cooke (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) in SPLIT, Kevin Wendell Crumb (played by James McAvoy) is still on the loose. Seeking more sacrifices for the Beast, Crumb kidnaps 4 high school cheerleaders, keeping them locked up in an abandoned warehouse somewhere in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, David Dunn (played by Bruce Willis), has been keeping up his vigilante lifestyle – with the help of his now-teenage son, Joseph (played by Spencer Treat Clark). After following leads as to the whereabouts of Crumb and the kidnapped girls (spotting patterns of previous incidents involving the Beast) and an incidental encounter with “Hedwig,” Dunn might just have an idea of where Crumb is hiding.
Throughout the first hour of GLASS, it really does feel like the conclusion of a trilogy. Shyamalan puts the pieces in their proper places and creates a story that seems like it would naturally occur at some point in this universe. With both David Dunn and Kevin Wendell Crumb existing at the same time – and in the same city – it was only a matter of time before Dunn set his sights on Crumb and the Beast. The initial encounter that Dunn and Crumb have to wrap up the film’s first act is everything I could’ve asked for as a fan of both characters. If there’s one thing that Shyamalan does have a knack for, it’s creating the right amount of tension where it’s merited. It speaks to the strength of the characters and their backstories that their fight scene together would create the amount of tension and emotion that it did, providing the required action and pacing to propel the story into its second act. At that point, we are introduced to Sarah Paulson’s character, Dr. Ellie Staple, and reintroduced to our old friend, Elijah Price, better known as Mr. Glass (played by Samuel L. Jackson).
However, it is at this point that the film starts to show signs of wear. While the reintroduction of Price did not disappoint, there were some character choices that didn’t make sense when compared to what the other two films established. This is seen in two particular instances – the first with Casey Cooke’s character, and the second with Dr. Staple. In Casey’s example, her actions seem almost contradictory of someone who went through the traumatic experience with Crumb that she did, and the sympathy she shows for him comes across as out of place. In the case of Dr. Staple, the second act is devoted to her treatment of her three star patients – Dunn, Crumb, and Price, and how all three of them are connected. While I do understand that Shyamalan was trying to sow the seeds for the film’s climax, the fact is that this part of the narrative brings the film to a halt. It seemed like instead of trying to actually treat her patients, she sought to question Dunn and Crumb’s abilities. We would find out why this was at the end of the film (more on this later), but personally, I felt that instead of debating whether or not Dunn really does have “superpowers,” or if Crumb really does have twenty-four alternate personalities, this part of the film should have been used to establish more tension between Dunn and Crumb, with Price in the middle of it all, pulling the strings. This eventually does happen to lead the film into its final act, but it comes across more as a “too little, too late” situation. At that point, it feels like even the story is trying to get itself out of the second act, and its only way out is for the bad guys to finally team up, without the proper buildup to justify it.
This all comes to a head in the film’s third act, where all of the goodwill established in the first act, and in the previous two films, all falls apart. One of the things that Shyamalan seems to pride himself on is his use of the twist ending, with that story trope becoming synonymous with his films (in both the good and bad sense). With GLASS, it feels like Shyamalan had all of these different endings for the film, and he couldn’t decide which one to use…so he used all of them. What results is an (to put it in pro wrestling terms) overbooked mess that ends the trilogy with a whimper instead of a bang. The end of the film left more questions than answers (which is what you don’t want to do to end a trilogy) and, while explaining the significance of Dr. Staple’s prominence throughout the story, her character now felt even more shoehorned than she did before – because without her, the ending makes even less sense. I can’t go into specifics without spoilers, but suffice to say that there is such a thing as “too many endings,” and unfortunately, GLASS doesn’t seem to recognize that.
While the story overall is a mess, that’s not to say that there aren’t good things here. James McAvoy is an absolute treasure to behold, bringing the same energy and fortitude that he did in SPLIT to this film as well. Seeing McAvoy transform himself the way he does – twenty-four different times – makes him easily the MVP of this film. Bruce Willis’ performance, while unspectacular, still manages to hold the audiences’ attention, while Samuel L. Jackson breathes new life into Mr. Glass; I only wish we were able to see more of it than we did. The film’s action sequences are also well shot and choreographed, knowing how to keep the audience on their toes and invested in what’s going on on-screen. Specifically, the encounters that Dunn has with Crumb’s the Beast exceeded all of my expectations, and are the moments that I will remember the most from this film. If only the story didn’t let all of its characters down.
I don’t want to speak prematurely, but it seems that while GLASS will not go down as Shyamalan’s worst film (THE HAPPENING earns that distinction by a country mile, in my opinion), it is destined to go down as his most disappointing. UNBREAKABLE is personally my favorite Shyamalan film, and SPLIT came along at a time when Shyamalan was still considered nothing more than a gag. The equity that had been built up by these two films led to raised expectations for GLASS that, sadly, did not deliver. I really (really) wanted to like GLASS. I truly did. But its uneven storytelling that would crescendo into an underwhelming and sloppy ending drastically undoes any goodwill that the film earns through other avenues, such as its acting and action sequences. If GLASS proves anything, it’s that maybe – just maybe – Shyamalan just can’t cut it anymore. The ball is now in his court to prove me wrong in the future.
M. Night Shyamalan
2019 • 129 Minutes • United States
Color • English • Universal Pictures
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, James McAvoy, Sarah Paulson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard