Recall, if you can, the year 2000 — a time when cinematic superheroes were not ubiquitous, when no comic-book franchise enjoyed sure-shot viability or vitality. Batman was … uh … well … ON ICE! Superman was in a cycle of hot-potato development hell. No matter how sharp, Blade wasn’t quite a phenomenon. Spider-Man was still two years away. X-Men did well that summer but earned less than a movie in which Mel Gibson could hear women’s inner thoughts.
2000 was also the same year that M. Night Shyamalan enjoyed the freedom to do anything he damn well pleased. Since then, few directors have dined out as luxuriously, or lingeringly, on their breakthrough as Shyamalan has on The Sixth Sense. His is the sort of success that secures him a permanent seat at the table … even as he bumps elbows with other diners complaining that he’s still there. The surprise twist became Shyamalan’s calling card and his monkey’s paw, both the authentication of his career and an albatross around his creativity.
It’s easy for most people to remember Shyamalan — who’s been making films for 27 years but is only 48 — has not directed a legitimately good movie since 2004. It’s tougher to recall that he followed up Sense with the best original superhero movie ever in Unbreakable.
In it, David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is a barely married man in middle-aged malaise who winds up the sole survivor of a deadly train crash. Encouraged by comic-book aficionado Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson, his hair like an ink smudge brought to life), David comes to recall and embrace — after years of suppression — his superhuman strength, impenetrable skin and ability to sense bad behavior through skin-to-skin contact.
Nearly 90 minutes pass before David engages anyone in physical combat, but Unbreakable remains indelible in both intensity and intimacy. With a painstakingly thorough inquisition of (super)human nature, Shyamalan treats his canvas like comic panels, his characters like everyday people and their conflicts like palpably scaled threats. Our world is never at stake in Unbreakable, just someone’s world. This is a secret identity story in which the secret starts to subsume all semblance of identity, David’s badge of normalcy outweighing the buoyancy of his gifts. It’s also home to one of Willis’s most heartbreaking performances, full of quiet yearning and regret, but also love for a son (Spencer Treat Clark) who sees his dad’s powers as a strategy to keep him closer when he’s never been at a greater emotional remove.
Unbreakable embraces the portent of David’s uncertainty and depression, patiently parceling out details — or doubts — about his abilities while pairing them with unforgettable visuals like blood slowly blooming on the bandages of a less-fortunate crash victim. Shyamalan uses the film’s mirror motif for backward reflection, bits of truth in the lies we tell ourselves and vice versa. Those ideas are also the springboard for what remains his most devastating narrative surprise.
Elijah, responsible for helping David awaken his abilities, is in fact a madman who engineered the train crash. Born with a disease that causes his bones to shatter under the slightest pressure, Elijah — having embraced the nefarious schoolyard nickname of Mr. Glass — has orchestrated “accidents” for years in hopes of drawing out his exact indestructible opposite. Jackson subdues braggadocio for a man quietly resigned to a life of brokenness but energized by the point at which his psychopathy finds unexpected purchase.
In an abrupt ending of onscreen text, we learn David reported Elijah to the authorities and Elijah wound up in a psychiatric hospital. This has never felt like a proper resolution to Shyamalan’s most compelling tale, as if he ran out of time, money or ideas. That clunkiness is likely why so many have wished for a sequel to offer sufficient closure.
Yes, this review has gone on at length about a movie now old enough to buy a pack of smokes on its own. That’s because someone has to remember what made Unbreakable a classic because Shyamalan sure doesn’t in said sequel, opening today and titled Glass.
Ah, but it’s also the completion of a Frankensteined-together trilogy. It concludes both Unbreakable and Shyamalan’s 2017 film Split, in which James McAvoy plays Kevin Wendell Crumb, a kidnapper and murderer with 23 different personalities whom he refers to as “the Horde.” One of those personalities is the Beast, a ghastly manifestation of feral strength perhaps superior to that of David Dunn. (Shyamalan stitched the films together in a postscript scene of Split that likely had audiences wondering what Bruce Willis was doing there rather than making connections to a movie they hadn’t thought about in 17 years if at all.)
We’ve waited so long for what turns out to be a wanton waste. Glass betrays both the elegant narrative potential of Unbreakable and McAvoy’s command performance from Split. It’s pedantic, dreary and dunderheaded — as bloodless as its ideas and lethally verbose. (Glass could be called We Need to Talk and Talk and Talk About Kevin.) You’ll finish the first act thinking Sarah Paulson should get some kind of award for eventually escaping the roundabouts of exposition and recapping in which she’s stuck circling for minutes on end. In Act II, you’ll wonder if her somnambulant tone represents a sort of hypnotic suggestion to fall asleep. By the time a didactic third act of unintentional hilarity hits, you’ll rue the moment she opens her mouth again.
Paulson plays Dr. Ellie Staple, a new-character psychiatrist who corrals Kevin, Elijah and David in the same asylum — eager to disabuse them of their pretensions to preternatural abilities and convince them the only powers in play are those of suggestion, trauma and confusion. (For example, Dr. Staple says, David’s intuitions about bad deeds are the result of frontal-lobe damage from the crash, rendering him some sort of world-class mentalist.) If that sounds familiar, it’s a wholesale retread of ideas in Unbreakable and Split, stretched to a painful length of 129 minutes and papered over by intolerable psychobabble.
Through a casually phrased onscreen entreaty prior to the preview screening, Shyamalan urged audiences to keep to themselves what transpires in Glass. This presupposes its developments are so wild as to inspire uncontainable excitement, let alone moderately compelling. But in the interest of preserving … well, things that happen in this movie, fair enough. It won’t surprise you to learn Elijah is feigning his twitchy catatonia. Or that despite their confinement, the first-act grapple between David and Kevin won’t be the last. Or that Shyamalan has saved his dumbest, deepest asspull of all for the one movie people have wanted him to make for so very long — rendered more intolerable by stentorian, straightforward declarations to the audience about how comic books work.
That void Unbreakable filled back in 2000 has long since gone away, but it seems Shyamalan has stuck his fingers in his ears and shouted gibberish to pretend no one else has made any great superhero movies. How else to explain such hyper-literal definitions of comic-book storytelling beyond his ignorance of two decades’ worth of smart, witty, exciting discussions about heroes’ moral and ethical underpinnings? In his preshow plea for silence, Shyamalan calls Glass the movie it took him 19 years to make. This feels like he didn’t even give it a single thought until the 19 months since Split became a certifiable hit.
Speaking of Split, only McAvoy musters any real presence here. You know any role embodying nearly two-dozen personae will be capital-A all the way. But in Split, McAvoy let us seamlessly see Kevin shift from one character to another and observe those personae wearing the masks of the others to trick people. His dime-turn vacillations between squirrelly humor and spine-chilling horror provide a spark of life here, too, until Shyamalan treats his best asset like a dancing monkey.
Dr. Staple ostensibly uses a gigantic rig of flashing light to wrangle and deflect the Horde’s more violent personalities (because why not embellish an execrable movie with potential seizure-triggering strobes). But it’s mainly a way to let McAvoy lightning-round his way through even more accents, postures and affectations. After a while, it feels no less comically over-exaggerated than Robin Williams pantomiming all those different choreographers’ styles in The Birdcage or Mike Myers’ bit as Phillip the Hyper Hypo on Saturday Night Live years ago.
Anya Taylor-Joy returns from Split, too, as Casey, the only person to survive Kevin’s rampage. Kevin spared Casey, you see, because he could sense she’d been sexually abused and was, as he was by his own guardians, broken before he could bloom. Never mind that Casey saw Kevin crush, kill and eat people. It’s not long before she’s laughing along with the more outlandish personalities of the man who tried to kill her just weeks before. The idea that even the villains need an advocate is an intriguing one with which Glass briefly flirts, but it’s eventually drowned in a shallow pothole along with one of its characters.
In Unbreakable, Elijah eloquently lamented the idea of comic books as a cultural touchstone of communicative art that had been jazzed up and made into titillating cartoons for the sale rack. In Glass, he refers to something he does as taking a “bitch-ass long time” to complete.
Those of us who have wanted a sequel have wondered whether Elijah’s revelation to David strengthened David’s resolve or only edged him closer to the abyss from which he thought he’d pulled back. As David re-emerges in Glass, he’s just some generically disinterested do-gooder chasing bad guys for lulz. He’d rather be known by his Reddit-appointed superhero name of the Overseer rather than previous iterations like the Tip-Toe Man or the Float. (A connotation lost on Shyamalan: “Overseer” as the preferred superhero name of a white man actualized by a black man.)
In other words, Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson are respectively playing the cheerless check-cashing spectre formerly known as Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, Reliable Badass. It’s particularly ill-advised of Shyamalan to smuggle in unused scenes from Unbreakable between Willis and Clark — returning as David’s son, now his tech-savvy sidekick — and remind us of the nuances Willis could summon back in the days when he gave a damn.
Shyamalan is quick to emphasize, though, that his own pro forma cameos in all three films constitute the same character … and a man changed by the power of positive thinking at that! It’s here that Glass tips its hat about what really interests Shyamalan in revisiting these characters. It’s his reclamation of swagger as a profitable filmmaker after consecutive hits (the other being 2015’s The Visit, also terrible) rather than establishing any palpable mood or tension. It’s a dais from which to deliver another thinly veiled diatribe about his own insecurities along the lines of Lady in the Water. (At least that one had Paul Giamatti.) You’ve heard it before: Like Mr. Glass, Shyamalan’s genius is perpetually unappreciated. Those who would challenge him inherently discourage him from something special. (Yes, this means Shyamalan tries to rehabilitate the reputation of a character who killed thousands of people to find one hero.) Both Glass and Shymalan are so desperate to prove their smarts that an entire act of dialogue given to Jackson sounds like academic annotation rather than any human speech.
All told, Glass rips out the heart of everything that worked in Unbreakable, squanders the sole asset of Split and sloppily grafts them both into new genetic scaffolding — caring little about the life-sucking hole left behind. Indeed, there seems to be open contempt for the mysteries posed by Unbreakable.
After Glass was over, I jokingly remarked that at least I’ll always have Unbreakable, that I could pretend this didn’t happen much as I insist there hasn’t been a Die Hard movie since 2007. But can I really do that if this is the sloppy, simple conclusion Shyamalan envisioned for one of my favorite films of the last 20 years?
The aphorism goes that you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. If that’s true in Hollywood as it is in comic books, maybe 48 is the new 38 for Shyamalan’s sinister insistence on cinematic sadism and we are all the poorer for it.