Narrative like shattered ‘Glass’ makes new M. Night film a tough watch

This is the type of sinister chiaroscuro image that makes Glass worth a trip to the theater for noir fans. Images courtesy Universal Pictures.

3/10 Almost 20 years ago, M. Night Shyamalan was forbidden from using the words “comic book” to describe his 2000 movie Unbreakable, about translating comic book tropes into a gritty real-world setting, fearing that the recent Batman movies would scare audiences away from such a film. Instead, Unbreakable was marketed as a mystery-thriller in the vein of Shyamalan’s recent smash hit, The Sixth Sense.

In the intervening time period, we’ve seen comic book adaptations swing back to prominence, then its most auspicious and format-specific tropes cross over to film, then more and more obscure gimmick characters swim and size-shift into the mainstream. We’ve even seen Batman himself adapted a gritty, real-world series that was so successful Warner Bros. has been seeking to recreate it precisely ever since.

Now, after Shyamalan’s own concurrent descent into obscurity and recent rise back to popularity, he has finally made Glass, the long-awaited sequel to Unbreakable which brings comic books’ most auspicious and format-specific tropes to the big screen. Where Unbreakable released into a world of such deep skepticism surrounding comic books’ widespread popularity that it wasn’t allowed to be marketed as a comic book movie, Glass releases into a world in which the San Diego Comic-Con, where its trailer debuted last year, rapidly became the largest pop-culture festival in the world as soon as Marvel started spooling up its cinematic universe 10 years ago.

In textbook Shyamalan fashion, Glass doesn’t seem to be aware of the changes that have taken place over the past decades, to its extreme and bizarre detriment.

Following the events of both Unbreakable and 2017 hit Split, Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a man with 24 different personalities including one super-powered cannibalistic personality called “the beast,” has been on a kidnapping spree across Philadelphia, taking young girls to feed to the beast. David Dunn (Bruce Willis), who has been dubbed “the overseer” by the press for his heroic exploits, is searching for Crumb. They find each other early in the film, and are both shocked and enamoured to have met a physical rival, but are arrested when their battle spills out into the street. They are taken to an isolated asylum, where, along with Dunn’s old nemesis Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), they are treated by the world’s worst psychiatrist, Ellie Staple (a severely miscast Sarah Paulson).

Glass is a mess. It feels like watching the brainstorming session for the movie that it should have been. This manifests in several different ways, including jolting scene transitions and characters whose side-plots start and then drop as if they weren’t popular enough to make it to the second season of a TV show, but the biggest problem is the complete lack of stakes and tension in the second act.

The first and third acts are all about physical confrontation between Dunn and Crumb, but once everyone is packed into the asylum, that completely stops, and Glass enters what eventually turns into a power play between Price and Staple – Price wants to use Crumb and Dunn escape and prove that superheroes exist, Staple wants to convince all of them that they’re delusional. This leg of the movie absolutely does not matter. It could have been completely lifted out, and it cues viewers at different points into the idea that what’s happening onscreen will not affect the plot.

Staple tells her patients that she has been given three days to treat them, and then proceeds to not do that. She has separate scenes in which she introduces herself to Dunn and Crumb and we get the layout of their holding cells, then she spends about half an hour in the front office talking to side characters. Then, suddenly, we’re in the pink room from the trailer and Staple is saying this is group session, which is the first real session that has been put onscreen, will be the last session in her three-day treatment window.

I’m no therapist, but this doesn’t seem like a soothing office environment.

We’re never told what happens at the end of the treatment window, and it turns out the answer was “nothing” anyway – there aren’t any transfers or legal proceedings waiting on Staple, she’s even still in charge of the patients afterward. There was something about lobotomizing Price when the three days are up, but the timetable on that gets moved and Staple is still talking about her three-day window afterward. We’re never given any real stakes for that entire narrative chapter, and then it turns out there weren’t any. Even the lobotomy doesn’t matter, in the end.

After Staple’s empty three-day ultimatum, and only after, Price begins his work to break them all out, and at this point in movie, I can hear every screenwriting 101 teacher in the country screaming out what should have happened. There should have been clear stakes for Staple’s treatment window, and Price should have been active during that window, turning this act into a race. Then, you have, like, a basic level of narrative tension, and even if the conflict doesn’t matter in the end, you’re not constantly telling viewers that it doesn’t matter while it’s going on.

To make things worse, Price spends most of the movie under heavy sedation, and he and Staple never have any real interaction. You would only know it in hindsight, but Glass is about the personal and philosophical conflict between these two characters – so it needs to actually show conflict between these two characters!

This is why Glass feels so inconsequential and boring – it swings and completely misses at creating narrative tension with its most important conflict.

That’s, uh, that’s a wonderful color on him.

Luke Ciarrochi and Blu Murray’s sloppy editing job makes Glass feel less like movie and more like a jumble of vaguely related scenes, and while that creates some obvious long-range issues, plenty of those scenes are quite good. Jackson is simply a master in his sadly limited screentime, and McAvoy continues to handle Crumb with a technical sharpness that only a few actors in the world could bring to the role, which is put on full display – sometimes for better, but somewhat more memorably for worse in one scene at the tail end.

There’s a ton to like about Mike Gioulakis’ cinematography. The frame is constantly engaging and tense in the film’s many dialogue and suspense scenes. Deep shadows and pale purples and greens are put to heavy work, so much so that Glass almost feels like a film noir at times.

Everything’s got that magic Shyamalan quality that people loved 20 years ago and have sexted with every now and again ever since. M. Night Shyamalan is an upper-echelon auteur filmmaker, and whatever you think about his movies, the fact that you have thoughts at all about his specific movies is the ultimate validation of that. In addition to directing, he’s written and produced almost every project he’s been involved with, Glass included. His hits, his misses and the conversations surrounding them all revolve around his artistic preferences.

Just as Unbreakable was marketed as a thriller to establish brand synergy with The Sixth Sense, many of his subsequent films, particularly The Village and The Lady in the Water, were marketed the same way for the same reasons, and they all suffered heavily for it as viewers expecting a traditional horror experience walked away feeling cheated. This dynamic has lead to a strange relationship between Shyamalan and genre as a concept, and Glass continues that relationship. Though his movies constitute their own genre for most intents and purposes, as his movies and the public perception of them have evolved together, he’s started leaning further into traditional horror plotlines and elements – the best example of this is 2015’s The Visit, but Split falls comfortably into this tendency as well.

Paulson’s character is a problem in the narrative, but she is a separate problem for Glass. While she’s carved out a niche for herself on American Horror Story playing several different characters with essentially the same characterization, she continues to bring her boggs-standard Sarah Paulson affect to this film that desperately needs a more vibrant character in her role.

Glass is maybe his first film ever that hasn’t been marketed as a horror movie, but the movie itself bizarrely treats its action sequences like they’re horror scenes. Many of Shyamalan’s favorite shots lend themselves to horror – long shots of the protagonist in the foreground while the horror element stalks around them in the background, scenes shot in extreme close-ups of small details, these are tools that allow him to put a monster in more of a given movie without giving up the ghost too early, but they’re complete head-scratchers in an action movie.

In Dunn’s first scene stalking some Youtube punks, he’s shot like a monster, with the camera staying in the den with the kids while he mucks about in the entryway and kitchen trying to draw them to him. In one memorable shot toward the end of the film, Crumb goes to town on three guards, but it’s all out of focus in the background with Price’s giant afro’d head in the foreground as he emotionlessly wheels away. I was actually craning my neck to get around the big obstruction in the center of the frame so I could see some action.

The most common and most uncomfortable shot, though, is when Dunn and Crumb finally reach each other. For the most part, they lock up and choke each other, and the camera shifts between their two explicit points of view. So this action scene, which is just an elongated choking session, becomes a shot-reverse shot set of extreme close-ups between our two lead actors as they snarl at each other. This goes on for some time until they break.

Glass seems to have been made by someone oblivious to how the context of comic book movies has changed in the past 20 years, with no obvious metatext between it and the standard Marvel movie – which is strange, given that The Visit had so much to say about the state of modern found-footage horror. But if there’s one point of comparison, it’s the action. I’m constantly getting onto Marvel movies for how bad their action scenes are, but Glass’ are even worse.

As hated as some of his movies are, it’s nice to see the widely mocked director come full circle. Glass is nowhere near as bad as some of his other efforts, but it will only really appeal to people who still enjoyed the Shyamalan-ness of The Village and The Happening.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook,  follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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