The conclusion of M. Night Shyamalan’s ’Eastrail 177 Trilogy’ features James McAvoy, Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson.
Dir/scr. M. Night Shyamalan. US. 2019. 119 mins.
Glass links the highly variable The Sixth Sense writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s 2000 film Unbreakable and 2016’s pulpy hit thriller Split. In short, it gives us James McEvoy’s multiple-personality serial killer, Bruce Willis’s shatter-proof security guard, and Samuel L Jackson’s brittle-boned, comic-obsessed mastermind Elijah Price (or Mr Glass) in a low-fi rumination on superheroes as they might appear in real life. Intermittently intriguing, in no small part due to the talents assembled on screen (joined by Sarah Paulson as a psychologist), this is a grungy curio which struggles with its own world-building, although comic book purists may self-ignite at the concept.
The lion’s share of Glass’s budget appears to have been invested in the cast
Uniting moderately successful supernatural films released almost two decades apart is a risky commercial proposition, and Shyamalan has a chequered track record. Split is fresher, and counter-intuitively audiences don’t need an re-introduction to James McAvoy’s 24 personalities. Unbreakable, however, could do with a recap which Shyamalan does not provide. Audiences looking for the director’s trademark narrative twist may suspect Bruce Willis is dead, but that’s another story. Word of mouth should be so-so and audiences will skew male, but in a very lacklustre January, Universal and Shyamalan have the field pretty much to themselves and box office may initially be encouraging.
Shyamalan plunges heedlessly into a mix of tones to re-introduce the audience to the physically-pumped McAvoy’s “horde”, a rapidly-moving cast of personalities designed to protect abuse survivor Kevin Crumb. Chief amongst them is the murderous The Beast, who can walk on walls and ceilings and is about to kill four young shackled girls, helpfully identified as cheerleaders by their costumes.
Willis, meantime, returns as David Dunn, a vigilante in a mac who works with his son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) and has been dubbed The Overseer by the tabloid press. When he finds and rescues the cheerleaders, both Kevin and David are incarcerated in the Raven Hill Memorial Hospital where psychologist Dr Ellie Staple (Paulson), who specialises in patients who believe they are comic book characters, has three days to treat them. Conveniently, Jackson’s Mr Glass is also in custody in the same Gothic Pennsylvania lock-up where it rains every day and the only light is neon.
Much of Glass’s budget appears to have been invested in the cast. McAvoy lights the physical and mental fireworks again, while Willis plays it down and Jackson’s performance is pitched somewhere inbetween. Paulson has a hard task, however: lifted off the pages of a comic book like the rest of Shyamalan’s scenario, her character is implausible, even in a story which by definition cartoonish. (Dialogue which includes lines such as “it would be an honour to get to know your perspicacious mind” don’t help). She assembles the three together in a pink room for a shared diagnosis, wearing a matching pink sweater, recalling the colourful live-action cartoon misfire that was Dick Tracy.
There’s a certain amount of curiosity in watching how Shyamalan sets up his very human characters as “super”, although the budget runs out long before a promised pay-off in a skyscraper, a nod to Willis’s off-screen persona. As he works towards the end of his fim’s second violent hour, Shyamalan’s references become more distractingly direct (dialogue suggests we “look past the capes and monologuing villains” and instructs us that “this was an origin story”). Meanwhile, production values are not much of a step-up from the bare-budget in-the-cellar bones of Split (both shot by Michael Gioulakis).
Thus, despite the pyrotechnics of McAvoy’s performances and Willis’s grounded conviction, there’s just not enough here past the high concept of “what if real people were superheroes?”, already discussed in Unbreakable and now retrospectively plastered on to Split and grandly labelled the ’Eastrail 177 Trilogy’.
Throughout his career, Shyamalan has scored highly on ideas; it’s often the execution which lets him down. (The highs of The Sixth Sense have been more than equally matched by the lows of Lady In The Water, The Last Airbender and After Earth). Best when flying low or even under-the-radar, as with Split and The Sixth Sense, his films are always worth a gamble, and this is no different. Glass as an origins story, however? That really would be shattering.
Production companies: Blinding Edge Productions, Blumhouse Productions
Worldwide distribution: Universal
Producers: Marc Bienstock, Ashwin Rajan, M. Night Shyamalan, Jason Blum
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan
Production design: Chris Trujillo
Editing: Luke Ciarrochi, Blu Murray
Cinematograpy: Michael Gioulakis
Music: West Dylan Thordson
Main cast: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L Jackson, Sarah Paulson