In his 2004 supernatural melodrama The Lady in the Water, M. Night Shyamalan cast himself as an author who receives a message from a “madam narf” (i.e., an elite mermaid-ish entity from the “Blue World”) to the effect that he shouldn’t give up writing in spite of low wages and nasty critics, because the story he’s penning at that very moment will inspire a child who will grow up and transform the world. I’m pretty sure Shyamalan regards his decades-in-the-making thriller, Glass, as the same sort of world-transformative work — an exhortation to incipient superheroes who walk among us to believe in their own powers. I only wish Shyamalan’s storytelling was as lively as his pathology. His mixture of pulp and idolatry congeals on the screen.
The sequel to both last year’s surprise horror hit, Split, and the glacial comic-book art movie, Unbreakable (2000), Glass takes off from the notion that we have gods in our midst: humans who have metamorphosed via a mixture of latent genius and severe emotional trauma into superheroes or, in the case of the ultrabreakable Elijah Price, a.k.a. Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), archvillains. (It was Price in Unbreakable who contended that comic books were not disposable fantasies for adolescents but “an ancient way of passing on history.”) Shyamalan’s true villains, though, are not the arch ones. They’re the people who deny that such exalted individuals exist or actively strive to suppress them. Shrinks. Bureaucrats. Critics.
This critic can at least refresh your memory of the Shyamster’s cosmos, because if you haven’t seen or don’t recall Split and/or Unbreakable you’ll be mighty puzzled. Split came on as a B-horror picture in which Kevin (James McAvoy), a psycho with multiple distinct personalities, kidnapped some high-school girls, tortured them with silly accents, and slaughtered all but the nonbasic one, Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy). But then Shyamalan got fancy. Casey survived, it turns out, because she’d been sexually abused, which gave her preternatural sensitivity and strength.
I don’t think Shyamalan meant to say that sexual assault is super-empowering, but his view of defense mechanisms and their hierarchy is not dissimilar from the one trumpeted by Mr. Glass, who engineered traumas to help superior individuals locate their individual superiorities. Kevin — the psycho with his “horde” of inner entities who take turns in the “spotlight” — was also abused, with the result that he has not just a wide range of stereotyped alter egos (prim matron, lisping 11-year-old, working-class tough, film professor) but a swollen, raging entity called “the Beast” off whom bullets bounce. Any day the Beast appears is going to be a bad day.
The commercial hook of Glass is a monster jamboree: The Beast meets the hero and villain of Unbreakable. It’s Shyamalan’s The Avengers. The hero is Bruce Willis’s David Dunn, the lone survivor of a train wreck on account of David having bones that don’t break. In Glass, he has become — with the aid of his computer-whiz son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) — “the Overseer,” a vigilante in a rain poncho who trudges around Philadelphia accosting thugs while TV talking heads pose civic-minded questions about the ethics of vigilantism. After their first Frankenstein-meets-the-Wolfman face-off, David and Kevin wind up in the west wing of Raven Hill Memorial Hospital alongside a heavily sedated Mr. Glass and under the care of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), whose declared mission is to convince them their superpowers are all in their heads.
Most of Glass takes place in that vast, chilly facility (it was filmed in the now-closed Allentown State Mental Hospital north of Philly), in long group therapy sessions in which Dr. Staple tries to get David Dunn and whichever member of Kevin’s horde takes the spotlight to recall the moment when he first became aware that he was super, as well as the moment when he knew he had a weakness akin to Superman’s kryptonite. She explains to them that there are medical reasons for their disorders. She tells Kevin, “the Beast isn’t as powerful as you think,” thereby shaking Kevin’s confidence — which ought to be a good thing, right? Not in the Shyamster’s universe, where it’s not only essential to believe but damnable not to. (I don’t think Shyamalan wants to demonize psychiatry the way the Scientologists do, only to say that shrinks tend to miss the big, metaphysical picture. Willis’s Malcolm Crowe in The Sixth Sense missed a doozy.) Mr. Glass, meanwhile, lolls in his wheelchair at a 45-degree angle, leaving us to wonder whether he’s genuinely drugged or faking it while hatching a diabolical plan to foment a super-battle between the Beast and the Overseer on the world’s mightiest stage. Three guesses. Make that one. Glass has to be present because he’s the catalyst. He put the story in motion.
To be clear, I have no problem with the essentials of that story.
I had no problem with it when Bruce Wayne suffered the trauma of losing his parents and created a vigilante alter ego whose activities raised all manner of ethical questions, or when Superman lost his parents but found in his alienation a source of clarity and strength, or when various X-Men and X-Women learned to set aside their sadness at being shunned for their differences and nurture what made them special. I had no problem with the Beast when he was the Wolverine or the more family-friendly Hulk. There’s nothing in Glass that hasn’t been done faster and more entertainingly in scores of superhero movies, minus the funereal pacing and pompous, clunky dialogue. If Shyamalan is an original, his originality is in draining the life out of pop archetypes, twerpily annotating them, and presenting it all as a gift from on high. The train-station finale of Glass must be seen to be disbelieved. The actors must have wanted to jump on the next train out.
Oh, these poor actors. The great Sarah Paulson has the worst lines (“It would be an honor to get to know your perspicacious mind,” Dr.
Staple tells Dunn) and the worst camera setups. I’d love to be able to forget her last shot. Anya Taylor-Joy is brought back to be ludicrously mushy and supportive of Kevin, whom Casey supposedly saw massacre teenage girls a mere three weeks earlier. (Casey knows that Kevin’s inner self is sweet and scared.) As Elijah’s mother, Charlayne Woodard must convince us that (a) her son, though a gleeful mass murderer, is a tender, hurting soul, and (b) that she gave birth to him at the age of negative five. (Woodard was born in 1953, Jackson in 1948.) Willis successfully reproduces his stuporous-ness from Unbreakable — not a happy achievement. But Jackson is agreeably hammy, especially when he finally gets to don his purple jacket and white ascot and madly gesticulate with his cane. And McAvoy slips more fluidly in and out of his various stereotypes — he’s impressive even if his material isn’t.
Glass comes after two hit movies (The Visit and Split) in which Shyamalan tamped down his ambitions and tried to tell scary stories with a minimum of fuss. But the end of Split was a tip-off that the journeyman genre-man was being shoved out of the spotlight by the Lady in the Water scribe whose work would inspire the messiah. I hope Shyamalan comes to realize that he should be careful of his inner grandiose posturing apostle. It’s his Beast.