As GLASS fades to black it becomes obvious that Unbreakable was conceived as a stand-alone story, and that any notion of creating a franchise from it came to Shyamalan as an after-thought. In fact I will extend that sentiment to Split, because that too strikes me as an isolated film with its reveal ending tacked on after it was decided to explore a shared universe. And so be it. Split was an impressive psychological thriller, which showcased a tour-de-force performance from James McAvoy, and giving him more screen time in a third instalment suited me just fine.
And so here it is; GLASS... the long-awaited conclusion to a painfully long and drawn out narrative. It's taken almost 20-years to reach this point and the geeky barrens of the internet have been salivating at the thought of an epic showdown. The film begins with McAvoy's character(s) making headlines for kidnapping 4 more girls, and Bruce Willis' character trawling the streets in search of them. When their paths finally cross they are both captured and institutionalised, and subjected to an incredibly specific superhero-dilusion therapy (apparently that's a thing). Joining them is Elijah (Samuel L Jackson) who was already residing in the asylum - highly sedated and immobile. Their therapist (Sarah Paulson) is specially trained in the area of superhero syndrome and is intent on proving that all three men are suffering from mental disorders, as opposed to having superhuman attribute.
GLASS makes brilliant use of the flashback trope, as it revisits Unbreakable and Split using a combination of excised footage from those films and clever augmentation. When the plot requires backstory it never feels contrived and we are taken back to those familiar stories in a seamless and well-crafted manner. The actors are never aged backwards and the audience benefits from a renewed effort to finesse and bridge the gaps between each instalment. Furthermore there is an added surprise and delight with the return of Spencer Treat Clark and Charlayne Woodard who played David's son and Elijah's mother from the original, as well as Anya Taylor-Joy from Split. Their return reenforces Shyamalan's efforts to stitch the series together, saving him the exhausting task of recasting without disjointness.
And that is where my praise ends, because GLASS is an otherwise laborious and heavy-handed final act, which relies on pop-cultural references and self-awareness. It is riddled with implausibilities and ridiculous situations. Never mind that two men are captured and institutionalised without due process, and ignore the fact that the enormous asylum is mostly unpopulated, with a staff of only three. The film is rife with such absurdities that “Disregard” and “Overlook” become habitual recommendations to Shyamalan's convoluted ego-trip and the overall proceedings feel as though he's making it up as he goes.
The cast are mostly good and their contributions cannot be faulted. Willis, Jackson and McAvoy resume their roles comfortably and do their best with what little they have to go on. McAvoy gives a stand-out performance, exploring many more of his 24 split-personalities with absolute ease. Where some critics note the irresponsible depiction of mental illness, I would argue that there are no limits to fiction and McAvoy's performance is outstanding. The other return players also impress and give strong support, with Spencer Treat Clark being the standout. Sarah Paulson, on the other hand, offers a tedious turn as the idiotic shrink with zero charm and fuck-all appeal. Her performance is boring and her delivery is arduous, and regardless of my pre-conceived disliking for her as an actress, I can't help but feel that the film would have resonated more with someone more charismatic on screen.
The bulk of GLASS takes place within the confines of the asylum, with only the first act and the various flashbacks giving us a broader picture of the world these characters occupy. In doing so Shyamalan has forced himself to rely on character interactions and ostentatious dialogue without actually showing his audience the greater picture that he's so intent on describing. His attempt to subvert the superhero genre is a noble one, and the inclusion of Mr Marvel himself (Jackson) is a fortuitous convenience. And yet despite Jackson rambling on about an epic final showdown, the audience isn't given the pleasure. The conclusion is both underwhelming and vapid and only serves to remind us how absolutely brilliant Unbreakable is, and how it's best served without seconds.