We learn many things in M. Night Shyamalan’s GLASS. We learn that the Philadelphia police department has an abysmal response time. We learn that a fully staffed psychiatric hospital has only two orderlies its employ. And we learn that James McAvoy still cries more manfully than any other actor working today. Possibly ever.
He is the one bright spot in this mess of a would-be homage to comic books. Reprising his character of the Horde from SPLIT, he glides effortlessly through the 24 personalities that inhabit the unfortunate person of Kevin Crumb. In the space of a minute or so, he is a prim British woman, a nine-year od boy, a perfect example of toxic masculinity, and the Beast. That last is a synthesis of all the animals in the Philadelphia zoo where Kevin once worked, and is so roiling with rage that his blood vessels all but burst through his skin. To see McAvoy fully realize each persona with such fluidity, sometimes with nothing more than an expression and a brief sentence, is a thing of wonder to behold. The film in which he shows off this feat of thespian derring-do is anything but.
Shyamalan mines two of his success, the ci-mentioned SPLIT and UNBREAKABLE, in the service of a heavy-handed metaphor about light, and the boundless possibilities of human potential told from the perspective of how comic books are plotted and the power of true love. Points for the aspiration. None for the execution. He brings back psychic security guard David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and the genius with brittle bones, Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) from UNBREAKABLE, introduces them to Kevin, and then spends a very long two hours subjecting his audience to endless exposition about his lofty themes. That it’s the very same exposition over and over again pushes the envelope of what tedium can be. That he also occasionally injects a self-conscious deconstruction of the story makes it even worse.
Willis, clad in a Grim Reaper-style rain poncho, has tasked himself to patrolling the streets of Philly in order to fight crime. His latest target is the Horde, but when he saves the pony-tailed cheerleaders that the Horde is currently tormenting, he finds himself arrested along with his quarry and placed in Raven Hill. There they, along with Elijah who has been resident there for many years, will be treated by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a woman with a soothing voice and look of tender, if distracted, concern on her face at all times. She has three days to convince the trio that they do not possess super powers, a process that consists of finding logical explanations for their preternatural talents, and explaining the premise of the film several times as the camera zooms in on each character’s face.
In the case of McAvoy, this is terrific. Ditto Jackson, who spends the first part of the film silent and oddly quiescent yet counter-intuitively vibrant. Willis, however, is a stolid cipher. In the case of Paulson, it provides the distraction of wondering why the make-up department would do such a bad job of applying her lipstick.
GLASS provides flashbacks that add nothing to the story, and the spectacle of Willis, freshly doused with 42 high-pressure nozzles, still sporting dry clothing. There is, of course, a twist. This is M. Night Shyamalan. But it’s more fizzle than dazzle by the time we get there, and once it’s revealed, the film refuses to end. It drones on and on and on leading to what was probably meant to be an emotionally overwhelming denouement. It’s not, despite the swelling music and the camera heroically dollying out from a medium shot to a panorama dripping in honey tones.
Shyamalan has a genuine talent for visual composition,. The long shot of Raven Hill with his somehow menacing grove of trees in the foreground, a shadow moving across the wall, or that closing shot. It’s the narrative thrust of GLASS that fails. Perhaps it is the editing that reduced his original opus of over three hours to its present reduced running time that amplifies the narratives shortcomings. Perhaps it has spared us more annoyance. One day we’ll know, but I’m not getting my hopes up. And neither should you.