The Writing Falters;
Against High Expectations;
But Still Delivers.
It has to be tricky for M. Night Shyamalan these days. He gained such a reputation so early in his career that his work gets put under a much higher-powered microscope than most of his contemporaries. And given that this is his first trilogy (it almost feels like the first actual sequel, since none of us realized Split was connected to Unbreakable until the credits), the expectations are even higher and the comparisons even more inevitable than ever before. After a string of failures and his eventual “comeback” with his two films previous to this, the buzz had returned in full swing by the time the Glass trailer premiered. The question is, can it hold up, either as a sequel to other heralded works or on its own two feet?
This was one of my most anticipated films of 2019, and although it has some glaring issues that drag it down, I definitely enjoyed the two hours I spent in the theater. I am in the camp that believes Unbreakable to be Shyamalan’s best work to date, and I was a big fan of Split as well. In terms of “wrapping up” the trilogy, I think Glass does a lot of things well and even sets the stage for the possibility of more films within its own universe down the line. The final act holds a few surprises and while it didn’t fall apart nearly as hard for me as it did for a lot of critics, it is certainly going to be a discussion topic, especially because of the director’s famed “twist” finales. Obviously I don’t want to spoil anything so I will avoid details, but suffice it to say it didn’t end the way I expected. But the thing is, defying expectations, even in a negative way, doesn’t make a film bad, and I think this one is getting a rep for being a lot worse than it is.
The script has some issues, to be certain. It never builds the same levels of tension that the previous two installments manage, which seems strange because the same core of people are involved. I have no issue with the reasoning for the characters being grouped together, or the location they find themselves in, but at the same time, to see all three of these characters in the same room just talking has a certain sense of a letdown around it. That’s not to say things don’t pick up, because they certainly do, but when the script takes this direction you expect the tension to ratchet up to a very high level that it just can’t reach. Where Unbreakable surprised people by being a comic book film (after the initial trailer gave away very little) ahead of the massive swell of said fare that would hit theaters over the following two decades, Glass beats you over the head with its comic book stylings, including far too many meta, self-referential lines of expository dialogue about comic books. Our society is inundated with comic culture these days, so deconstructing the genre in this way is fine overall, but Shyamalan doesn’t need to play down to his audience the way this script does by telling you, out loud, “this is the part in the comics where our hero…” We understand the nature of these stories and I can’t tell if he isn’t giving us enough credit or if it was an attempt to skewer the genre in his own way. In either case, those lines really missed the mark for me in a big way, as everyone is suddenly an expert on comics and can’t wait to tell you all about them.
That said, I absolutely loved a lot of what was going on. Seeing David Dunn fully embracing his role as The Overseer (a great nickname given to him on social media) and not letting his age slow him down was great. The poncho is an awesome look and when coupled with a lot of the lighting around him in key scenes, he really does look every bit the vigilante hero that we hoped he would become. When he runs afoul of The Beast early on, we get a taste of the action that will finally rear its head in the third act, which I really appreciated in hindsight because so much of the film is without that action. Overall, however, Dunn doesn’t have enough to do in the film and outside of some good characterization done with him and his son (Spencer Treat Clark, returning to the role he played twenty years ago as well), his portion of the film is lacking a bit. Once again, James McAvoy knocked his roles out of the park, effortlessly switching back and forth between a host of identities and nailing them all. The most impressive aspect is that, when Kevin, the real person, finally arrives, you find yourself actually rooting for him and feeling sympathy, despite the atrocities you know he has committed while not in control of himself. McAvoy deserves a ton of credit for this, as his range is on full display and is quite impressive. I can’t say a lot about Samuel L Jackson, who does a fine job as Mr. Glass, because I don’t want to get into what his character was up to for fear of spoiling anything. Shyamalan makes a choice to confine his character in a certain way that, while logical, is probably bound to rub a lot of people the wrong way, but one that I felt really enhanced the vibe that the film was striving for and showed just how cunning that character is. This isn’t your average superhero movie in any sense, and that’s okay.
The film retains the look and feel of a Shyamalan work, with harsh shadows in the lighting, slow camera movements and high and low angles, but there are some things I didn’t enjoy from a technical standpoint. There are several shots from cameras attached to actors that are clunky and don’t flow very well with the rest of what is going on, for instance. It felt like he wanted to try some different techniques every so often, which goes along with his against-the-norm mentality (one that film needs, by the way), but they didn’t always resonate with me. But for every odd shot choice I could point out, it would be equally easy to find a scene executed flawlessly, such as Mr. Glass trying to draw The Beast out of Kevin in a face-to-face meeting that works perfectly.
Thematically, the movie has a lot to say about belief in oneself and becoming the best version of you in your own mind, even if the world may not see things the same way. Confidence and belief can radically shift a person’s course in life, and I appreciated that concept being explored in different ways by different characters. Elijah fully believes in his mental powers (nearly to the extent of feeling Godlike), Dunn is made to question himself and begins to suspect mental illness, and Kevin, buried behind so much pain that he has created The Horde to protect him, knows full well what he is capable of at his worst and struggles to believe that his best can overcome. Kevin’s belief in himself is echoed by Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), having survived The Beast and seeing through The Horde to the scared figure underneath. Sometimes we all need a fresh set of eyes to identify the best parts of ourselves amidst the shadows and darkness that encapsulate our thoughts.
There is a whole lot to like in this film, but also some head-scratching decisions and moments that are poorly handled. I think when you weigh everything against each other, the results are an average movie that is slightly elevated by the acting and framing and execution of certain key scenes. Even in its middle portion, it is never lacking entertainment, which is surely why the audience scores are much higher than critical reviews. While it certainly could have been better, you have to take into consideration the constraints that come with something this different, where you have a trilogy with characters who have previously only been seen in one of the two existing films. More time and care to really flesh these characters and the story out a bit would have helped, but I enjoyed what we got and hope other filmmakers dare to take chances like this in the future.