Review: Shyamalan’s ‘Glass’ Shatters Expectations with Strong Themes & Powerhouse Performances
by Adam Frazier
January 18, 2019
Indian-American filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan first gained major acclaimed for his 1999 supernatural horror drama The Sixth Sense. That film was a commercial and critical success and was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. His next big feature released in 2000, the ambitious Unbreakable, kickstarted the modern comic book movie boom alongside Bryan Singer’s X-Men, also released the same year. Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, which co-stars Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, is a serious-minded deconstruction of the superhero subgenre before movies like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy made it the industry mainstay it is today. He finally follows up this with Glass, continuing the story 19 years later.
In 2016, Shyamalan returned to the universe he created with Split, starring James McAvoy (X-Men: Days of Future Past) and Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch). A psychological horror thriller about Kevin Wendell Crumb (McAvoy), a troubled young man with dissociative identity disorder who kidnaps and mutilates teenage girls, Split wasn’t marketed as a sequel to the writer-director’s 2000 film, saving the revelation for a final scene in which Willis makes an uncredited cameo as his Unbreakable character, David Dunn. Enter Glass, the culmination of Shyamalan’s unprecedented (and rather unexpected) trilogy of deconstructionist superhero films and the first great movie of 2019.
In the 16 years since Unbreakable, security guard Dunn has devoted his life to fighting crime as a vigilante superhero known as The Overseer, protecting the citizens of Philadelphia with the help of his now-adult son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark). Gifted with superhuman strength, stamina, and invulnerability, as well as an extrasensory ability to see the crimes people have committed by touching them, Dunn uses his security business as a means of maintaining his anonymity while equipping people with the tools to protect themselves. Meanwhile, Crumb’s sinister personalities, a collective known as The Horde, have kidnapped four more “impure” teenagers to feed to The Beast, a superhuman creature that dwells inside Crumb.
When The Overseer comes face-to-face with The Beast, the battle results in both men being captured and detained at Raven Hill Memorial Psychiatric Research Hospital under the care of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who specializes in a specific type of delusion of grandeur: people who believe they have superpowers. Dr. Staple has a third patient suffering from the same affliction, a man who has been housed at Raven Hill for 16 years: Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson). Known as Mr. Glass, Price is a highly intelligent mass murderer and comic book aficionado with Type I osteogenesis imperfecta, a condition that makes his bones brittle and prone to fracture. Now wheelchair-dependent after 94 breaks, the mastermind and archenemy of David Dunn is secretly orchestrating a plan to unleash The Beast and expose the world to the existence of superhumans.
It’s fascinating to see Shyamalan conclude his superhero trilogy as the genre reaches its saturation point. This is the era of Avengers: Infinity War, a sweeping epic with more than 30 integral characters, massive action set pieces, and an estimated budget in the range of $316–400 million, and here’s Glass, a $20 million character drama that boldly, and poignantly, explores our obsession with superheroes. In comparison to the cheesy, over-the-top melodrama of Aquaman, or the wink wink; nudge nudge nature of Deadpool, Glass is more minimalist, exploring the psychology of people with superpowers – the traumatic experiences that shape us into heroes or villains. If you’re expecting an Avengers-level spectacle, you’ll likely be disappointed – Glass has more in common with Brian de Palma’s The Fury or Josh Trank’s Chronicle than anything from Marvel or DC.
There are a few areas, however, in which Glass competes with big blockbusters, namely in its impressive acting ensemble and its eye-popping production design. As Kevin Wendell Crumb, McAvoy brings to life a complex character with over 20 distinct personalities of all ages and genders, manifesting unique physical attributes for each. There’s Hedwig, a nine-year-old boy with a lisp; Barry, a flamboyant fashion designer; Dennis, a muscular brute with OCD; and Patricia, a domineering woman who commands The Horde. And then there’s The Beast, a terrifying creature that climbs walls and eats flesh. McAvoy brings them all to life with such ease, and such empathy, it’s really kind of a miracle. McAvoy’s mesmerizing turn is accentuated by Anya Taylor-Joy who radiates warmth and compassion as Casey Cooke, a young woman who, like Crumb, was horribly abused as a child and, as a result, has formed a spiritual bond with her former captor.
As expected, Willis and Jackson slip back into their roles with ease. In his isolation, Jackson’s Elijah Price has become even more calculating, despite appearing as a mute, heavily sedated lost cause. Dunn, meanwhile, has become a grizzled veteran of vigilantism, like Batman, with his son acting as moral anchor and aide-de-camp; his Alfred Pennyworth. Watching Dunn, Crumb, and Price interact is more than enough spectacle; a scene in which they join Dr. Staple for a group therapy session is the dramatic equivalent of a comic book splash page – it’s just so satisfying to watch these characters bounce off each other while sharing a mutual disdain for Staple.
Speaking of which, while McAvoy no doubt steals the show, Sarah Paulson might be the film’s secret MVP. As Dr. Staple, Paulson attempts to persuade the men that there is no such thing as superhuman powers – that they suffer from mental illness or traumatic brain injuries. Paulson holds her own against three strong actors, delivering emotional depth as the perplexing Dr. Staple, a character with a deep-seated belief that her way of thinking is the solution to the world’s problems. Like the best villains, Staple believes that what she’s doing is for the benefit of humanity. Like Black Panther‘s Erik Killmonger or The Last Jedi‘s Kylo Ren, Staple doesn’t see herself as evil – she thinks she’s right. Staple sees herself as the hero of the story, and Paulson is thrilling to watch as she goes toe-to-toe with McAvoy, Willis, and Jackson.
Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis (It Follows), Production designer Chris Trujillo (Netflix’s Stranger Things), and costume designer Paco Delgado seamlessly weave the palettes and visual styles of two movies made 16 years apart together while creating an aesthetic specific to Glass. The deliberate use of color – pinks, purples, greens, and golds – creates a visual vocabulary Shyamalan uses to clue us in on the psychology of characters and the spaces they occupy. The group therapy room, painted monochromatically in pink tones, feels like it was colored by John Higgins (Watchmen). It’s just a beautiful looking movie, with one foot firmly grounded in reality and the other in a comic book panel.
Like Christopher Nolan, Shyamalan creates intricate narratives that often feel more like an equation being solved than a story being told. You know there’s going to be a revelation – something in the third act that changes the way you perceive the film – and Glass is no exception. Your overall enjoyment of Shyamalan’s latest will likely hinge on its ambitious and unconventional third act, which some may find slightly underwhelming or deeply unsatisfying, depending on your expectations. Personally, I love that the writer-director swings for the fences, opting for a powerful finale that literalizes the themes and ideas at the core of both Unbreakable and Split, and delivers a logical, meaningful conclusion to this story he is telling. Et cetera.