M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable was a watershed moment in superhero cinema history, because it very deliberately left out all the noise, spectacle, mania and camp that had characterized such movies up to that point in time. It is characterized by strong, subtle acting and careful attention to character development, and it established a template for naturalistic, real-world storytelling that would influence later classics like The Dark Knight, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Logan.
Split is a completely different viewing experience, a thriller about a serial killer that also, slyly, carried forth its predecessor’s theme about finding strength in being broken (although we do not know, until the very end, that the two films are related). It is tense and creepy, evoking Hitchcock in parts, and boasts some of Shyamalan’s best camera work (pro tip for aspiring directors: storyboarding is your friend, kids!). And star James McAvoy takes his acting game to the next level.
There is a great and wonderful story to be told in Glass, but that story, unfortunately, is trapped somewhere inside the morass of Shyamalan’s second-guessing, misguided sense of what his cinematic strengths are. It is a sequel to two very strong and distinct genre films, that lacks the vision and courage to be its own, weird and beautiful creature; it pulls from the aesthetics and themes of both previous films, trying in parts to be like each of them, instead of just staking its claim as a third, equally different and equally valid viewing experience.
Glass means to be a pressure-cooker story, in that it spends the vast majority of its runtime in a single location, wherein its three main characters are trapped, and their circumstances are meant to build to something climactic. And that’s fine, because that kind of setup affords its stars the chance to do what they do best. Bruce Willis continues his very low-key but intense work as super-powered vigilante David Dunn, though we don’t get to see nearly enough of him. Samuel L. Jackson is, as always, a treat; his Elijah Price is one of my favorite performances of his, and he has a lot of fun here, relishing his purpose in life as an evil mastermind and always being the smartest man in any room. James McAvoy, though, outdoes his previous work by a country mile, as his portrayal of the disturbed, multiple-personality-afflicted Kevin Wendell Crumb amounts to a Meryl Streep career sampler; twenty-some performances, with almost as many different accents, and not all the same gender. And the interactions between Price and Crumb, or, more accurately, Crumb’s various other personalities, are fun and oddly affecting, as the manipulative Price addresses each of Crumb’s “alters” – Patricia, Hedwig, the Beast, etc. – differently, as the different people they are, but always with the appropriate respect that each personality would require. It is intimate, scenery-chewing theater that goes a long way toward passing the time in this otherwise flawed movie.
One of Glass’s chief frustrations lies with how it fails to properly utilize its supporting characters. The always enjoyable Sarah Paulson does the best she can do, playing the psychotherapist who sets this story in motion, but Shyamalan’s script does her no favors, forcing her to push the plot forward with awkward exposition (which is always kryptonite to visual storytelling) and just generally leaving her stranded. Split’s heroine Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) returns, as do Dunn’s son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) and Price’s mother (Charlayne Woodard), and they are welcome faces to see, but are not given much to do beyond standing on the sidelines and looking concerned (Woodard, especially, gets saddled with some really creaky exposition).
I really wanted to enjoy Glass, and once the credits rolled it became clear to me what kind of story this could have been. That story would have been awesome, but, as has been the case with his worst films (which this is not), Shyamalan becomes his own worst enemy in the scripting. Like a rock star flaming out on self-destructive behavior, he does not seem to have a clear idea of what makes his best work so engaging. I am being deliberately vague on this point, in order to avoid spoilers, but if you’re well-acquainted with his filmography, you probably have an idea of what I mean.
Glass is fascinating to watch, in an instructive way, especially if you are an aspiring screenwriter and / or director. It demonstrates in various ways how the best story ideas can get undermined by bad decision-making. And it will make for hours of debate afterwards for fans of Unbreakable and Split, probably along the lines of foiled expectations and what-coulda-shoulda-been. For me, it further solidifies both Elijah Price and Kevin Wendell Crumb as iconic cinematic villains. But alas, the hoped-for Shyamalan-aissance has been put on hold, for now.