By Preston Wilder
An article in The Guardian last week claimed 1999 as “the greatest year in modern cinema”, citing The Sixth Sense among the evidence to support that claim. M. Night Shyamalan was briefly touted as ‘the next Spielberg’ in the wake of that success – but exactly 20 years later he’s something of a minor cult figure, re-hashing past hits on low budgets.
How low? Well, let’s just note that a major plot point in Glass, Shyamalan’s latest, has to do with a “showdown” taking place at the unveiling of a new skyscraper (“A true marvel”) which the villains plan to blow up with chemical weapons – but in fact that doesn’t happen, and the showdown (sans explosion) ends up taking place in a humble parking lot. The film works this into its narrative, in a cinematic version of ‘I meant to do that’ – it might even be part of the ‘meta’ layer it flatters itself on having, a metaphor for M. Night’s own disdain for the Marvel ethos – but still. You’re not fooling anyone.
Not that the Indian-born auteur (who also casts himself in a small role here, as he’s done on previous occasions) would admit that his stock has fallen. “I specialise in a particular type of delusion of grandeur,” explains verbose psychiatrist Dr. Staple (Sarah Paulson) – and Shyamalan too may be suffering from this delusion, or at least a variant. True, he doesn’t believe himself to be a superhero or comic-book character, like David Dunn (Bruce Willis) or Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) or indeed serial killer Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy) – but he does seem to think that Glass is a much smarter film than it actually is, studding his script with sly allusions to comic-book clichés and lines like “This all sounds very familiar”. It comes on like a next-level superhero pastiche for the discerning connoisseur, as opposed to a thin, often ludicrous concoction that collapses under the weight of its own dullness.
The film is being hyped as the conclusion of a trilogy (it even has a name: the ‘Eastrail 177 Trilogy’) but in fact that’s a stretch, to put it mildly. The Lord of the Rings is a trilogy, i.e. each instalment leads into the next. What we have here is a movie (Unbreakable, made in 2000) about one character and another movie (Split, from 2017) about a whole other character, their one point in common being a last-minute ‘twist’ which gratuitously inserted Character A into the film about Character B for the sole purpose of making a third movie (this one) featuring both of them. It’s a cynical exercise, as indeed becomes clear from how little point there is to the fusion. The premise is that mastermind Elijah (a.k.a. ‘Mr. Glass’) hopes that a public showdown between ‘unbreakable’ Dunn and Hulk-like schizophrenic Kevin (one of whose personalities is ‘The Beast’) will “awaken” ordinary people to their own inner superhero – but Kevin is a serial killer who’s sadistically murdered several women. Will “coming out” in public really inspire the masses to join his cause? The truth is that Shyamalan needed a hook to make his own cut-price version of a comic-book universe, and came up with this flimsy excuse.
None of this would matter if the film were fun; but Glass is deadly, a slow-moving, overlong drag weighed down by this director’s trademark portentousness. Shyamalan’s style has its virtues: unlike many hyperactive filmmakers, he appreciates silence and tension; he’ll linger on a wordless close-up with the patience of an arthouse director. But the style becomes a liability when it feels like a scam, like it’s covering up for shoddy craftsmanship – and much of the film is just idiotic. Dr. Staple is an intellectual, so she uses words like ‘cataclysmic’ and ‘perspicacious’. Dunn’s son Joseph (played by the same, now-grown kid actor who appeared in Unbreakable) looks for clues by browsing through random comic books, finding vague – but apparently helpful – insights like a supervillain’s parents being key to his story. Joseph’s bedroom in a quick flashback has a sign reading ‘JOSEPH’ on the door, just in case we’re confused. Kevin’s dad in another flashback is randomly reading a leaflet for DID treatment, DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder) being the name for Kevin’s condition.
This leads us to James McAvoy, whose parade of cartoonish personas – switching in a trice from the terrible Beast to lisping, nine-year-old ‘Hedwig’, oracular ‘Patricia’, flirtatious ‘Jade’, belligerent ‘Ian’, and so on – is as hammy here as it was in Split. (That film’s saving grace, meanwhile, the luminous Anya Taylor-Joy, is badly underused.) Then there’s Bruce Willis, who seems to be acting (or sleepwalking) in a whole other movie, maybe because Dunn isn’t much of a character. “Water is his weakness”, we’re portentously informed, another silly touch – it’s not a ‘weakness’ that a man with unbreakable bones can nonetheless drown; lungs are not bones, people! – and another case of a cinematic hustler peddling makeshift ideas by cloaking them in self-importance.
Shyamalan has a right to feel unappreciated. Unbreakable was one of the first films to take superheroes seriously, before the whole Marvel tsunami; he showed the way, only for others to reap the rewards. Glass, however, feels hollow and pretentious, a case of a fading director jumping on a bandwagon in a bid for relevance. 1999 was a lifetime ago.
DIRECTED BY M. Night Shyamalan
STARRING James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson
SCI FI DRAMA
US 2019 129 mins