Glass? Who gives a sh*t about glass?!?
by Thom Yee
I don’t think there’s a movie director working today who’s as openly criticized as M. Night Shyamalan. Mmmaybe George Lucas. But he only counts if you consider his last few projects actual movies. Most people don’t. Shyamalan, on the other hand, has continued to produce a wide ranging body of work ever since he made his big debut with The Sixth Sense back in 1999, and, like another product of the ‘90s, The Simpsons, by now most people look back at what Shyamalan’s done and see that, despite a very strong, groundbreaking, world-defining start, there’s probably been more good than bad that’s come from the man overall.
Note that I said “criticized” though. Not hated or panned or deemed obsolete. I think those are the sorts of things that most come to mind when you consider Shyamalan given the arc of his career, even if it’s been on a bit of an upswing over the last few years, but as much as the man has gained his fair share of detractors, he also has a fierce contingent of fans on his side. Shyamalan movies have a tendency to take on a life of their own, with the artifacts of his works travelling far outside of the movies that actually contain them. “I see dead people” is the kind of thing you might have heard and had no idea it came from The Sixth Sense in the same way that you hear things like “No, I am your father!” or “We’re not in Kansas anymore” before ever seeing Star Wars or The Wizard of Oz. At their worst, Shyamalan’s movies have gained the writer/director a reputation as a self-important, blunt-force director who’s long ago lost whatever connection he may have had with humanity.
But at their best… oh, at their best, they’re some of the best movies ever. Although most of the time that people are talking about M. Night Shyamalan’s best movies, they’re really only thinking about one movie: Unbreakable. If The Sixth Sense is Shyamalan’s big break, Unbreakable is the movie that’s probably most fondly remembered by people who still care about the man and want to see him keep doing good work. And that’s exactly what we got when his movie Split opened in 2017. Billed as a horror-thriller about a dangerous man with dissociative identity disorder, Split was critically well received for its own merits, but, more importantly, it revealed at the last minute that everything we’d just watched, all of this otherworldly weirdness and nigh-on superhuman improbability, wasn’t just a series of events that didn’t quite add but were in fact part of a greater plan, with Bruce Willis’ David Dunn turning up at the very end to show us that we had just watched another chapter of the Unbreakable universe. It was such a shocking twist to me that it re-framed the entire movie I’d just seen as something else entirely, something that suddenly, jarringly made sense. It was the sort of reveal that gave me such enormous pleasure as a movie fan that it was the movie equivalent of a cheat code, one that allowed Split to rocket all the way to the top of our list of best movies of 2017.
It’s with that level of wonder and excitement and simmering tension that we arrive now with Glass, almost two years later to the day, as the conclusion to the trilogy.
What’s it about?
The Horde (James McAvoy) has been unleashed! Continuing in his quest to punish those he deems “impure”, the Horde has kidnapped four teenage cheerleaders and only the mysterious hooded hero, called “The Overseer” (Bruce Willis) by the media, can save them! But is this all in fact an elaborate plan concocted by the mysterious mastermind known as Mr. Glass?
Glass made $40 million in its opening last weekend, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or merely an okay thing. Cards on the table upfront, I’ll just go ahead and admit right here and now that I liked the movie. If you read the intro above or my review of Split from two years ago you know that I’m a fan of this trilogy and have a lot of emotional energy caught up in how things would ultimately turn out for for the people of this world, so when I say I’m not sure if $40 million is good, I mean that I’m not sure if that’s going to be good enough to deem this movie enough of a success that people won’t just indiscriminately bag on it all the time like they do most of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies. Like I said up above, I think it’s really between Shyamalan and George Lucas as to who is the director who garners the most willful and passionate hatred among moviegoers, and, personally, I’d like for people to be able look at these Unbreakable movies with some objectivity, as movies at least worth examining rather than just dismissing offhand.
One thing we do know and have known since before Glass opened, though, is that the critics certainly haven’t embraced this last chapter. The movie currently sits at 36% on the Tomatometer, which is in stark contrast to its predecessors, Split at 77% and Unbreakable at 69%. Thirty-six percent is one of those numbers that’s going to disappoint just about anyone in any field, a score too low for anyone to feel free to admit if they loved Glass and too high for the movie to be seen as “so bad it’s good”. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting the movie to have universal acclaim or anything, but a number like 36%, to me, feels like all kinds of wrong. Here’s why:
Is it any good?
… Look man, the thing you have to keep in mind is that Unbreakable opened in the year 2000. And that not everybody liked it back then. Or even really knew what it was. Unbreakable is a movie that’s from an entirely different age than we live in in terms of movies and especially in terms of superheroes. Back in 2000 there was no Marvel Cinematic Universe to show us the way, no Dark Knight trilogy to give us depth and enduring symbology, no Deadpool to tear the whole institution apart. We didn’t even have a superhero institution in 2000, all we had was a foundation — Superman movies that started strong but had long ago lost their way and Batman movies that went sideways real, real fast. Oh, and an X-Men movie that continues to age poorly the more years we get from it (speaking of, I wonder what director Bryan Singer is up to these days?).
It’s in that kind of world that Unbreakable launched, and at the time, even with all of its crystal clear comicbook references and reverences, there were still a lot of people who didn’t understand that what they’d just seen was a superhero movie. Unbreakable is quiet, grey, muted, slow, and contemplative, and there were (and still are) people who see qualities like that in a movie and can’t or won’t understand that superheroes and superhero movies don’t have to be bright, bombastic, or straightforward. They don’t have to be just one thing. Unbreakable wasn’t a smash hit at the time, it was just another notch in director M. Night Shyamalan’s belt, generally looked on favourably but not nearly the success that The Sixth Sense the year before. Without actually being confusing, it, nevertheless, left people confused simply for the dissonance between its themes and its execution, and it’s only over the intervening time between then and whatever year it is now that we, as a whole, have managed to catch up to it.
What I would say upfront about Glass, then, is that you should try to keep an open mind going in. Maybe even more basically, you should just try. Glass isn’t for everyone, not even for everyone who’s seen and may have even liked its forebearers, Unbreakable and Split. By its very nature it’s divisive and I think the worst thing you can do is take this movie at face value. So if you’re not going to try to see what this movie is going for, I would say it’s going to be a complete waste of time for you.
That said, the last thing I want to suggest is that you would be wrong for not liking it. Glass is a movie worthy of careful thought and consideration, I think it demands it if you’re going to get anything from it, but it’s far from a flawless movie. That might actually be the biggest thing it gets wrong, that it’s nowhere near flawless. Glass is a movie very clearly flawed in terms of thing like pacing and the presentation and order of its ideas, and as much as those are things that a lot of movies get wrong, they’re things that Unbreakable and Split got absolutely right. In comparison to those movies, which may also not be for everyone but are undeniably strong representations of what they were going for, Glass suffers. Quite a bit.
We open Glass catching up to where our three primaries are now, only weeks after the emergence of the Horde [from Split], a collection of multiple personalities contained in the body of Kevin Wendell Crumb, whose most dominant personality manifests as the Beast, an animalistic man with superhuman strength, speed, and durability. David Dunn [from Unbreakable], whose own strength, near invulnerability, and ability to detect evil have led him to protecting others under cover of darkness, is in search of four young girls who have gone missing, believed kidnapped by the Horde. Meanwhile, Elijah Price, deemed Mr. Glass for his brittle bones, has remained incarcerated at a mental institution after the events of Unbreakable.
From there, to be honest, things turn out more or less how you might expect, at least if you’ve seen the trailer. The Horde and the Overseer fight before being brought to the same mental institution housing Mr. Glass, Mr. Glass hatches a plan to escape with the Horde while also manipulating events to bring the Horde and the Overseer together in one final confrontation for the world to see, and one lone psychiatrist, Doctor Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) does her best to question these people for why they could possibly believe that they’re superheroes. And that’s kind of it. Simply in terms of plot, Glass is very straightforward and a superhero movie almost exclusively in conventions rather than dynamic, world-shattering action.
What really worked for me with Glass was its sense of storytelling. The process of bringing these people together in a mental institution is surprising given what we know of the story so far and the direction superhero movies tend towards, but it’s also a very obvious place to go when viewed through a more conventional lens. Both with Unbreakable and Split we’d witnessed events that could be seen as extra ordinary, but there wasn’t anything so unbelievable in those movies that they couldn’t be explained away through some mild stretches in logic. The Horde never flew through the air in Split and Dunn never shot energy blasts from his hands in Unbreakable. All we really saw in those movies was two very strong men lift weights, scale walls, and survive tough situations along with a narrative that compellingly and seductively suggested that something more was happening. But there was nothing that couldn’t be explained by, say, a strong immune system or the weakness of old, rotting metal, or just freak luck. That’s what made those movies so relatable, that they were very much contained in at least a sense of reality, and that’s the sort of space we play in in Glass.
The other thing I enjoyed in Glass and what really brings it together is the narrative structure it builds over the three movies. To be honest, there isn’t a whole lot that connects Unbreakable and Split beyond the obvious tie in. Unbreakable is very much a drama of self-discovery and a family coming together while Split is a horror movie with only vague notions of suffering and purity. What Glass does really quite brilliantly as the final third act of this trilogy is bring these movies together. It’s very easy to see that, as much as the story pulls of Unbreakable and Split brings these characters together in natural conflict, there’s nothing connecting them thematically or tonally, and rather than just go with the natural but uninspired flow of two super people punching each other, what Glass does is unite the two ideas for what they’ve each represented in their own way: Self identity.
There was an idea (see what I did there?) presented by Elijah, Mr. Glass, at the end of Unbreakable, delivered at a time when we were all reeling at the movie’s twist that if David was the hero, he must be the villain.
You know what the scariest thing is? To not know your place in this world. To not know why you’re here. That’s… it’s just an awful feeling. I almost gave up hope. There were so many times I questioned myself. But I found you… Now that we know who you are… I know who I am. I’m not a mistake. It all makes sense.
“I’m not a mistake. It all makes sense.” It’s that idea, that idea that we all suffer and hope to eventually find salvation from, that gives Glass a sense of depth that might not be apparent at its surface. All throughout the movie there are comicbook conventions being followed as the bad guys team up, as the cast of supporting characters — Dunn’s son, Joseph, who still sees his father as a real-life superhero, Casey who sees the good man hidden away and suffering inside of the Horde, and Mrs. Price who raised her son Elijah to never give in to his weaknesses — come together, as the whole thing reaches its explosive conclusion, and viewed only at that level Glass is an often funny, occasionally entertaining, but ultimately empty movie, but if you frame the movie as the final story of Mr. Glass, it becomes a movie about finding yourself. And in that way I think it’s mostly successful.
The highest compliment I can pay Glass is that very soon into watching it I had no idea what time it was. I didn’t know if there was a half hour left, an hour, or if the movie was about to end. I was completely lost in it. I wanted to understand everything that was happening and couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. How these characters would confront each other. How they would get out of the mental institution. How characters like Anya Taylor-Joy’s Casey or Spencer Treat Clark’s Joseph (all grown up from Unbreakable!) would figure into things. How this movie would grow and evolve and twist its way into something that would stay with me.
But it never quite got there.
If Glass is internally about the quest for meaning in all of our lives and the existential fears we all face, externally it seems to be about ideas of suppression and control, and on those more literal notes I don’t think it works, not in this first viewing at least. The Overseer is the hero, the Horde is the villain, and Mr. Glass is the mastermind, but Dr. Staple is that force that would try to suppress the extraordinary, and this idea is ultimately taken to its most straightforward end by the movie’s unnecessarily twisty conclusion, and simply for what that twist ending is, it’s kind of disappointing where this movie ends. Sad really, and that’s the greatest feeling I was left with as I left the theatre for reasons it wouldn’t be right to reveal here. I do think it’s a fitting ending for this trilogy that began with Unbreakable, unexpectedly continued with Split, and now ended with Glass, it doesn’t come close to the wonder I felt after watching Unbreakable or the white-hot thrill I was left buzzing with at the end of Split.
So should I see it?
I’m of very mixed opinion when it comes to Glass, but the last thing I would say is that it’s a bad movie. It’s a strange movie and a considerate movie and a movie worthy of examination, but I don’t think it’s right or fair to make a firm, declarative conclusion of the movie without seeing it at least one more time.
In simply comparing Glass with Unbreakable and Split I think it’s fair to conclude that it’s the least of the three because I think it is definitively worse than both. But in terms of is it worth seeing, I think it’s more than worthwhile. Is it effective? Is it worth deconstructing? Does it lead you through a story that you want to see through to its conclusion? I would say yes to all of those things.
Thom’s Glass final score
On the Edge
- Yeah, you get those guys, David, show them what idiots they are for recording themselves punching random people on the streets for their YouTube channel on a frigging camcorder. Who uses camcorders anymore? Idiots!
- Say what you will about the egotism M. night Shyamalan must have for constantly putting himself in all of his movies, but he’s actually a decent actor.
- Doctor Staple? I see what you’re doing!