At the denouement of M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, when James Newton Howard’s Unbreakable theme ushered in a cameo from that earlier film’s lead character, jaws were dropped. “Split is a secret Unbreakable sequel!” people said. More accurately Split is a secret spinoff, and now Glass’ task is to sequelize two very different movies. The somewhat admirable and somewhat mediocre Glass goes in an odd direction, but it’s that very oddness that makes it an interesting auteur artifact.
Since Glass makes very few concessions for those who haven’t seen the previous two movies: David Dunn (Bruce Willis, better in his other recent vigilante movie Death Wish) is a street-level super-strong righter of wrongs (weakness: water), Elijah Price/Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) is a mastermind supervillain (weakness: brittle bones), and Kevin Wendell Crumb/The Horde/The Beast (James McAvoy) flits between 24 personalities plus one brutal animal-human hybrid (weakness: the invocation of his birth name). All three larger-than-life figures end up institutionalized where Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, who will play another mental health professional of questionable competence in a Nurse Ratched TV show) tries to rationalize all of their fantastical skillsets.
At the end of Psycho, there’s a commonly criticized scene of a psychologist laying out in prosaic English his diagnosis of Norman Bates, making plain text what was shadowy subtext before. In his screenplays, Shyamalan seems to love to adhere to this super-schematic device of play-by-play commentary and explication. In Split, Betty Buckley’s character explained at length Crumb’s disorder, and here in Glass, Dr. Staple does much the same (with the occasional leaden clunker of a line). There’s a long scene of Staple debunking each character’s extraordinary abilities that at first feels agonizingly self-defeating until it becomes clear that this is exactly the point.
When he made Unbreakable in 2000, Shyamalan’s “grounded superhero movie” stood out. But in 2019, after Super, Kick-Ass, so many “realistic” takes on superhero conventions, and even riffs on the device of living within a comic book, is Glass late to the party? In ways that I can’t discuss without spoilers, Shyamalan doubles down on the tension between superhero existence and mundane reality; he sets Glass in a world that willfully bends superheroes into the contours of “the real world”. His powered characters are animated by genre, but face the existential threat of realism.
Glass is a very talky film, often to a tiringly didactic extent. But at least the actors show up to play. McAvoy once again deserves a curtain call for his herky-jerky modulation between multiple personalities, sometimes within one take. Anya Taylor-Joy, reprising her “final girl” survivor from Split, convinces with unconvincing material. But Samuel L. Jackson truly owns the screen, especially when given a self-consciously dramatic villain monologue.
With these actors, Shyamalan trusts them and favors the extreme close-up (perhaps a corrective after directing himself as the awkward lead in Praying with Anger – his Glass cameo is also endearingly goofy). He shoots much of the action with Guy Ritchie-style bodycams that play up the prosaic messiness of a real fight and other vérité techniques. The mundane is given a sweeping quality by composer West Dylan Thordson slathering Howard’s Unbreakable leitmotifs all over the score, which is rather cool to hear.
This is an idiosyncratic and sometimes alienating film, but its commitment to finding new ways to flatten superhero tropes into everyday life is notable. It’s not a particularly engaging work – too dramatically inert for that – but while Glass is often as dissonant as a Philip Glass composition, the twist is memorable and blindsiding. Glass is a proudly low-budget genre experiment that’s probably more interesting to talk about than watch.