After 20-plus years of filmmaking, the M. Night Shyamalan template for storytelling has become quite clear: He spends around 100 minutes carefully setting a table with plates, glasses, candles, and then strips off the tablecloth in the last 60 seconds. These cinematic shenanigans have produced a filmography with decidedly mixed results. I staggered out of Sixth Sense like I had just seen David Blaine catch a bullet in his mouth. Other films, like Lady in the Water, have produced good, strong eye-rolls. Somewhere on the better end of this spectrum lies Unbreakable, a thoughtful, atmospheric superhero movie that never cried out to have a universe constructed around it. Still, multi-movie mythology is all the rage, so Shyamalan belatedly followed Unbreakable with Split, a thoroughly average serial killer flick made watchable by a jaw-dropping James McAvoy performance. Finally, we get Glass, a film built on a phenomenal hook, but with a wholly disappointing execution. It’s as if Shyamalan takes the first act to set the most beautiful table of his career, only to use the rest of the movie to swipe the fine china onto the floor.
The story begins where Split left off: Kevin Wendell Crumb/The Horde (James McAvoy), a serial killer with 23 personalities, wanders Philadelphia and abducts attractive teenage girls. His mission? To satiate the hunger of the Beast, a feral rage-monster who serves as Crumb’s alpha personality. The only person who can stop him is David Dunn/The Overseer (Bruce Willis), the melancholic vigilante from the first film. Dunn tracks the Beast to a David Fincher-type warehouse, but their face-off is interrupted when the cops intervene. Hero and villain get remanded to a mental institution, where they fall under the watchful eye of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a shrink with Nurse Ratchet tendencies. Staple groups the two men with Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), Dunn’s brilliant-but-brittle archenemy, where she attempts to trace what she thinks are their respective delusions. Like so many comic books, this move allows the men to form fragile alliances and plot their eventual escape.
I’m a giant nerd, so the first chunk of this movie had me pumped. That makes even more of a bummer when Shyamalan takes his balloon animal and slowly lets all the air hiss out of it. We see and hear hints of a big payoff battle on the horizon, but instead of Oreos, we get stuck with a whole sleeve of Hydrox cookies. Several story arcs are bundled into one big Debbie Downer of an ending. An epilogue that was intended to be bold and moving instead comes across as overly clever and contrived. Anya Taylor-Joy, so good in Split, seems completely wasted here.
It’s a shame, because Glass has a few strong points that pop up over its 130 minutes of runtime. McAvoy alternately cowers and crows as the fractured Crumb, and his performance sets the screen ablaze. Willis and Jackson slip into their old roles with casual brilliance, it’s just too bad they’re not given more to do. Paulson elevates an underwritten part that requires her to seem ingenious and oblivious at the same time. This strong cast keeps things fairly watchable, but Glass could’ve been so much more than kinda adequate. Shyamalan’s quirky cinematic tics have long polarized audiences and critics alike, and they explain so much of what makes this story an even mix of fascinating and frustrating.