As the early reviews for Glass, M. Night Shyamalan’s much-anticipated third piece of his Philly superhero trilogy, began to trickle in, I was hit with a sinking feeling. I believed the reports, and bought into the claim that Shyamalan had gone off the rails again, and that Glass was a failure.
It always seemed like a possibility with this sort of ambitious project. Big ambition has gotten the better of the polarizing filmmaker over the years in some fascinatingly bizarre ways. Shyamalan typically shines when his films keep the focus small like Unbreakable and Split, the previous entries in this story, but Glass is something different. There are expectations to this world that didn’t exist until the final shot of Split last year. It made sense, sadly, that the early narrative around Glass was tepid to poor; Shyamalan had stubbed his toe again.
Fortunately, none of that narrative is true, at least it shouldn’t be true for any devotees of the wild and unwieldy rollercoaster that is the career of M. Night Shyamalan. Glass is big in ideas about people and superheroes and trauma and empathy, with a sumptuous visual palette that carries through every perfectly manicured scene. Every frame here could be pulled from the movie and put on the pages of a comic book.
Glass is also corny as hell, but it’s not ashamed to be. Shyamalan’s grasp on pop culture has always been suspect – his references don’t quite land the way someone like Tarantino’s do – and that’s the same here. But this is a comic book world, bathed in bright solid colors and fully committed to the story at hand, so the hokey dialogue, not to mention the effort Shyamalan puts into tying his cameos from the previous movies together, is all part of the charm. It’s surprising that anyone would expect anything different at this point.
As for the story, well, it’s as basic as the visuals are indulgent, but it allows Shyamalan to throw tremendous amounts of energy into rationalizing his own admiration for comics and his own beliefs about hero mythology through his three leads: James McAvoy, who plays the murderous Horde (a.k.a. 24 separate personalities), Bruce Willis as David Dunn, the hero of Unbreakable, who is now hunted by the law, and Samuel L. Jackson as the brittle, diabolical villain Mr. Glass. These characters are so fully realized, and the performances so endearing, that Shyamalan is able to meta-textually deconstruct comic books, while simultaneously creating a singular comic genre vision, and anyone willing enough to buy in will enjoy the ride.
The film is off and running early, buzzing with a nervous ticking-clock score and showcasing both Willis and McAvoy as their paths eventually diverge. The midsection is where the heavy exposition comes in, and it may lose some casual viewers, but the ominous tones and tense camera work add significant weight to whatever ostensible hypothesizing these characters are working out.
There’s no need for plot details; part of the fun of a Shyamalan film is seeing what sort of weird detours it will take. In fact, the setting is virtually inconsequential as the story progresses, merely a vehicle to combine the trio with a terrific supporting cast including a terrifically chilling Sarah Paulson, Spencer Treat Clark back as David’s son, Joseph, and Anya Taylor-Joy returning as Casey, the surviving victim of McAvoy’s spree at the end of Split. Casey’s arc in the story is particularly inspired for a small but crucial performance.
Willis and Jackson are fine in their roles, comfortable and serviceable, but the heavy lifting James McAvoy is doing here is spectacular. Every tick and switch from one person to the next is earned, and he is pulling this off dozens of times through the film. From his show-stopping physicality to his sincere embrace of Shyamalan’s words, McAvoy goes all in and puts on scenery-chewing clinic that belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of over-the-top performances.
The climactic showdown manages to be a commentary on everything Glass has been about up to that point, and yet it may alienate viewers who’ve been conditioned to expect certain things from their superhero movies over the years. There should be no expectation that Shyamalan was going to take the film down an expected path, and the decision to finish the story in this way, on that location, speaks volumes as to the type of specific story Shyamalan wants to tell.
I feel I can say with some certainty that Glass will be reevaluated in the public forum sooner rather than later. This almost always happens with Shyamalan’s films, and while I may not be the best judge of whether or not they’re good for everybody because I am a philistine who loves the Village, I know that this is the director absolutely nailing every one of his intentions with goofy jokes and heady ideas and style and thrills and excitement and suspense.
It’s a relief to see, at least through the fog of my undying support for the guy, that Shyamalan has not flown off the rails the way it’s being described. If you’ve learn to stop worrying and love The Shyamalan, Glass is right up your alley.