Books, Arts & Manners

M. Night Shyamalan’s Most Intriguing Film Since Sixth Sense

Bruce Willis in Glass (Universal Pictures)
Glass continues the Unbreakable saga.

M.  Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable (2000) was released by Touchstone Pictures. Remember them? Kids’ movies and animated pictures had hit an all-time low. So Disney created the new Touchstone label in 1984 to mark its new emphasis on making grown-up films for grown-ups. Touchstone faded out in the 2000s as the market for grown-up movies fizzled. Disney was happy to let it go as it developed a new strategy: make kids’ movies for grownups. That meant sophisticated animated films, savvy superhero flicks, and not much else.

So the famously aggravating structure of Unbreakable turned out to be a harbinger of where Disney, and Hollywood, were heading: The film started out as an eerie, grown-up thriller, only to pull the rug out at the end to reveal that it was actually a comic-book movie. Now Disney is producing a nearly-all-fantasy slate of Marvel movies, Star Wars movies, and cartoons, and has been (by far) the biggest movie studio for the last three years.

Shyamalan’s second follow-up to Unbreakable, Glass, is in part an oblique reflection on all that is happening in its genre, and I consider it his most mature and interesting film since The Sixth Sense (1999), his only first-rate picture. Glass is as much a think piece as it is a movie, which suits me fine, but I predict a major portion of the audience will find it slow and inert, lacking as it does much in the way of the cheap scares scattered all over Split (2017), its (other) predecessor.

I can’t think of anybody else who has made a triangular shape out of three films as Shyamalan has: Unbreakable and Split were unrelated movies of different genres until the writer-director tied them together in the closing minutes of the latter, a split-personality serial-killer flick aimed at teens that marked Shyamalan’s return to box-office glory after a decade in Flopsville that produced such legendary stinkers as After Earth (2013), The Happening (2008), and Lady in the Water (2006). Shyamalan is still only 48.

Glass takes place mostly in a mental hospital where the head shrink (Sarah Paulson) has rounded up the three leading figures from the previous two movies. She tells each — Kevin (James McAvoy), David (Bruce Willis), and Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson) — that he is suffering from a delusion that he’s either a superhero (David) or a supervillain (the other two). David has become an online sensation known as the Overseer or the Green Guard after the color of his poncho; Kevin’s alter ego, the Beast, has seemingly superhuman strength and agility and joins with the other personalities to form the mighty force called “the Horde.”

The shrink, though, patiently explains that there are plausible explanations for everything each of them has done  — Kevin, who was seen scuttling up walls and across ceilings in Split, is simply a practiced rock climber; David isn’t psychic but just really good at reading body language and facial cues — and that the road back to mental health means that they must acknowledge there is nothing supernatural about any of them. Elijah, a.k.a. the evil mastermind Mr. Glass, begs to differ: He thinks comic books are documents of some archetypal truths that lie buried within humanity. I suspect if we explored Mr. Glass’s library we’d find not just DC and Marvel (to both of which Shyamalan includes on-screen allusions) but also Nietzsche and Jung.

I won’t reveal more about the intriguing plot except to say that it’s a bit too slow to develop, mainly because Shyamalan interweaves 20 minutes of McAvoy spinning the lazy Susan of his various personalities while he’s in his specially equipped cell, which is outfitted with high-wattage lamps that force him to switch identities every time they flash on. McAvoy is a fine actor, and I’m certain he had a jolly good time toggling from kindly woman to lisping nine-year-old boy to damaged middle-aged man and 21 other personalities, but a less indulgent director would have said, “Bravo, James!” and then left 96 percent of this on the cutting-room floor. Meanwhile, Mr. Glass, in his cell, is catatonic. Ever seen Samuel L. Jackson remain silent for an hour? I don’t think I have. His stillness is more compelling than McAvoy’s look-at-me-act showmanship. Waiting for Jackson to do something is delicious.

Shyamalan’s big failing is his weakness for the groaner Twilight Zone–style trick ending that makes you curse the director for wasting your time, the sensation I had at the end of both The Village (2004) and Unbreakable. Glass, though, lends Unbreakable some retroactive interest. And this time the ending is a lot more complicated than usual, and it has the potential to open up a new channel of comic-book epics.

I suspect most moviegoers watch superhero movies for spectacle and gags, not rumination (or, if you like, pretension). But as Shyamalan folds the tropes in on themselves like cinematic origami in the third act, his meta-analysis is more gripping than the climax of a common-or-garden Avengers flick. I hope he continues the saga.

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