Movie Review: Glass
By Ben Gruchow
January 21, 2019
“Is there a possibility that all this has a rational explanation?” So asks the research psychiatrist to her subject, who believes he possesses superpowers. The viewer is intrigued by the possibility; based on some of the things we’ve seen the subject do, we’re not much inclined toward believing him normally-powered. But how do we know what we’ve seen? What if the shotgun shells were just old and wet, and the man they were fired at wasn’t really bulletproof? What makes the difference between a real premonition, and a good forensic exercise?
Glass is a movie enthusiastic about asking these questions, agreeable about exploring some of them in further depth, and disinclined to answer any of them with conviction. It is written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan as a superhero origin story of unusual ambivalence about which side to root for—or if we are supposed to root for anyone at all. It possesses multiple twist endings, which lean toward resolution but not explanation. In another movie, with another set of circumstances, this ambiguity would play as cheap: a way out of having to answer for any stakes introduced in the storytelling. One of the immediate rewards of this movie is how skillfully it dodges that accusation; one of the delayed rewards is in analyzing the mechanics of how it does so.
The research psychiatrist is Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), and she has been given three days to attempt a new treatment for a novel form of personality disorder: that of the individual who believes themselves superhuman. She has three cases to treat. There is David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a former security guard who has spent the last nineteen years administering justice to low-level criminals, with a reputation of near-invulnerability. There is Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a brilliant strategist with an extreme case of osteogenesis imperfecta. Price is confined to a psychiatric ward for committing several acts of mass murder years ago; his quest was to find his polar opposite, an unbreakable man. And there is Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a serial killer with differential identity disorder to the tune of two dozen identities; some of these are benevolent, some are malevolent, and one is potentially supernatural.
We already know these three, from two earlier Shyamalan films. Crumb is the more recent addition, being from 2017’s Split. Dunn and Price come from further back; they were the leads in 2000’s Unbreakable, Shyamalan’s second major film and his first “disappointment”. The reveal that these characters all occupied the same universe happened at the very end of the 2017 film, and now they’ve been placed in the same care facility and subjected to the same experimental treatment by Dr. Staple: can she convince these three that they are not in fact superhuman, and start them down a road of traditional psychiatric therapy? The alternative, given a healthy criminal history for each of them, is lifelong confinement.
People of significance to each linger on the periphery: David’s son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark, also returning) made a promise in 2000 that he can’t let himself break, Mrs. Price (Charlayne Woodard) cares more about keeping her son’s mind intact than necessarily getting him rehabilitated, and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) remembers Kevin’s humanity and empathy when his main personality shows itself. Meanwhile, Dr. Staple brings a curious amount of foreknowledge and context to her brief time with the three principals: if these people really are superhuman, she asks, why are there only three of them? How does she know there are only three?
The movie is more interested in asking these questions than in answering them. To do otherwise would be disruptive to the deceptively intricate balancing act Shyamalan strikes here between tone and plot. The connection between two decades-apart films was an interesting wrinkle in 2017 on the practice of tying superhero films together to fit one overarching narrative year in and year out; more interesting to me, though, was how Shyamalan would reconcile two very different storytelling aesthetics into one film. Unbreakable and Split are both good films—but one is good in hushed tones, thoughtful and somber, and the other is good in the style of a darkly-comedic B-movie thriller, with some sequences conducted in the mold of a documentary. It’s a testament to Shyamalan’s strengths as a director that all of these modes are able to coexist within this single entity, and the success of that overlap is key to selling the ambiguity. The story’s setting is grounded, but not realistic; we are firmly in the realm of mythical fantasy with this film, where the outcome is mostly predetermined and coincidence is cancelled.
The mechanics of the story itself are no less impressive, even though there are some factors that make it a little easier to sell: the superhuman activities we’ve seen before are given just enough of a rational explanation for us to accept the possibility for most of the movie’s runtime, although we (and the characters, to an extent) concede that it’d be an incredibly fortunate series of coincidences to allow three individuals with disorders of this degree of specificity to run into each other so significantly. The world of the three films here appears to have proceeded mostly in real time, and two years is probably enough to develop the technique used here to force Kevin’s identities to switch in and out (just in case a malevolent one shows up at an inopportune moment). Nineteen years is almost certainly enough time to develop the hypotheses and mechanisms used to contain David, and for both Price and the hospital staff to develop their own wary methods of informal communication.
The mechanics, though, are not the source of the movie’s greatest success, nor are they where Shyamalan has fallen down the hardest in the past. If there is a single component of Glass that threatens to take the film down, it’s in the dialogue itself; although improved from Split and far better than anything the filmmaker put to page during his lower moments, there’s still some florid liabilities in exposition and explication and response that are up on the screen here. Here, as in his last film, the cast is the salvation: the actors dodge the worst of the screenplay’s sins, and turn the average into the authentic. Consider the last-act monologue by Jackson, or any of a handful of bravura sequences with McAvoy as he shifts between multiple identities, usually in unbroken takes. Willis has the most grounded character, and the least heavy lifting to do, and leaves the lightest impression when all is said and done. Still, these are passages of extravagant wordiness, vacillating between borderlines of gravity and goofiness. They’re more than troublesome; they’re obstacle courses. But Shyamalan has chosen the right actors, they play to the right instincts, and he administers the right framing and lighting and music to maintain his grip on the material. Sometimes it results in a moment of exquisite cinematic perfection, like a late shot of four principals arriving together in a parking lot. Sometimes this results in a moment that makes it just above the bar for success, where it should’ve fallen far short.
If I observe the occasional arrhythmias of pace and motivation during the movie’s middle sections, I am something close to awestruck by how well it ends. Going back to my review of Split, I noted Shyamalan’s ability in that film to re-frame routine storytelling events into an askew and mildly unsettling perspective, and his success at tying multiple disparate threads together into something approaching a unified theme. So these things are here, albeit more so; in fact, I’d go so far as to say that the cascade of actions/reactions in this film’s concluding 25 minutes or so are among the best directorial work of his career. The denouement of Glass, especially, is something to behold: the movie takes protracted narrative beats and weaves them together using the right dialogue and intonation and music (the score, by West Dylan Thordson, is nicely effective at punctuating tense moments, if not at creating them) to craft something that starts building off of the climactic reveals, and then off of its own events. We get reinvested in new narrative developments, right as the final cut to black happens. It’s pretty daring for any movie to twist its own twist ending, and it’s gratifying when it succeeds as well as it does here.
4 out of 5