Thursday, May 30, 2024

Metaphors and Themes Collapse in Brittle ‘Glass’

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Warning: This review contains spoilers.

Glass is the frustrating conclusion to a trilogy of movies that never felt like a trilogy, to begin with. To be fair, you don’t walk into an M. Night Shyamalan movie not expecting to be frustrated in one degree or another. I don’t mean this as a knock against him, I quite enjoy him as a director. But much like another director I love, John Carpenter, he has his hits and he has his misses.

I just wish I knew how to classify Glass.

Glass is unique. Unlike the other two, we know it’s a comic book movie about comic books. As a shared universe the films have little in common, style or otherwise, aside from the core belief that people are capable of both unspeakably evil and brave things.

Speaking of brave, Shyamalan footed the bill for Glass himself. In order to secure complete and total creative freedom, he financed the movie out of his own pocket. A show of utter faith both in himself and in his ideas. Underneath all the comic book stuff is a very real desire to explore faith. Shyamalan films are so often ridiculed for their frills and thrills, or lack thereof, that we often overlook what he was trying to do in the first place.

Yes, Glass is a team up movie. The Avengers on a much smaller and less fantastic scale. But as the movie goes along we begin to sense roiling anger on Shyamalan’s part. Not at the film, or at his characters, but at Hollywood, and to some extent, us the audience. Taking these disparate characters from different movies and throwing them together into a confined space and stripping them of their agency is a plot device as old as time. But the anger simmering beneath the film’s surface by the end is somewhat new.

At the same time, Glass feels about ten years too late. Comic book movies have gotten to the point where they comment on themselves during the movie either ironically or unironically. So seeing Sarah Paulson as a Dr. Ellie Staple attempt to deconstruct character tropes through psychological jargon is hardly new. But Paulson is one of those actresses who makes every film she’s in just a bit more watchable if she’s in it.

She has a way of affecting a mood by posturing or smirking. Her eyes dancing over whomever she’s speaking to in such a manner as to hint to us that she knows full well what they’re hiding. Despite all of this Paulson usually finds herself in small roles or bit parts when it comes to the movies. Television has recognized her talents long ago and has utilized her at every chance it gets. Shyamalan, whatever his faults, seems wiser than most directors for this one choice alone.

Dr. Staple is the benevolent doctor trying to help these poor deluded souls who believe they have “powers”. But red flags start to appear, such as when she repeatedly states she only has three days to study them. Not to mention putting both Kevin (James McAvoy) and David Dunn (Bruce Willis) into rooms specially designed to contain them with what they perceive to be “their weakness” seems ominous at best.

Kevin is in a room full of strobe flashes that go off whenever he crosses a line, thus triggering another personality to the forefront. A literal visual interpretation of Kevin’s description of each personality coming to the surface as, “holding the light,” from Split. David, on the other hand, is put into a room equipped with dozens of water nozzles hooked to a massive drum of water should he try and escape.

Staple is shocked, and somewhat delighted, to discover that another patient is already residing at the hospital, Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson). To give Shyamalan some credit he holds off uniting the three for a great deal of the movie leaving the audience waiting for the inevitable scenes we know have to happen.

We know David and Elijah will meet again. Though Elijah is drugged to a near comatose state, we know that he is probably faking it and is merely biding his time. And no movie, even a comic book movie directed by Shyamalan would have characters called “The Beast” and “Mr. Glass” and not have them team up at some point.

So much of Glass is Shyamalan building tension. Tight camera angles, long medium shots cut to extreme angle close-ups, eerie music, and dimly lit rooms. Except something feels off. Shyamalan has never had a problem holding a shot for longer than necessary but with Glass, he seems gun shy. Shots are too short by mere seconds. The suspense is there, but it’s hollow suspense as opposed to his usually well-crafted blanket of unease. Maybe that’s intentional. We’ve come to expect the long takes so he’s trying to subvert the expectations. Mike Gioulakis, the cinematographer, is given precious little to work with because of Shyamalan’s sparse set designs.

Gioulakis is also hampered by the sort of dank dimness that pervades much of Glass. I can’t tell if it’s because of budget constraints or by design but much of the movie has a drab ugliness to its veneer. The colors are there but unlike Unbreakable, they are used more cinematically. In that film, the color was used almost like another form of music, an underlying thematic element that enriched each scene and gave us clues as to how the characters felt.

Now the colors are used simply to say this is Elijah’s house. Elijah’s color is purple, so his curtains are purple. That’s how we know where the scene is taking place. The use of color has been reduced from a narrative device to tools for visual shortcuts.

Which would be okay except Shyamalan has packed his script with endless monologues that never go anywhere. Characters drone on about how “if this were a comic, this would happen now”. Then the stated thing happens. Mentioning a trope and then following the line with said trope is not meta or metaphorical. It’s just shy of lazy.

Lazy would be an inaccurate insult to lob at Glass though. McAvoy, for instance, is chewing away at the scenes with such fevered energy I’m shocked there was anything left to project onto the screen. Shyamalan sets up a scene where McAvoy’s Kevin attempts to cross the line, setting off the strobes.

What we get is a wonderful moment of McAvoy playing an array of characters within a span of seconds. It’s fun the first time. Less so the second time. By the third time, we’re wondering if maybe Shyamalan just wanted an excuse to watch McAvoy go nuts.

Glass starts to take off when the heroes have established they are heroes, and the villains have established they are villains. It’s then Shyamalan begins to kill innocents, and not so innocents, alike. When super-powered beings collide there is collateral damage. People will be hurt, possibly even killed.

Superhero movies are packed with action scenes featuring mass destruction, typically in small towns or densely populated metropolises. But people began to complain, especially since some of the imagery used in these epic fight scenes were eerily reminiscent of 9/11. The studios seemed to be caught flat-footed.

We had never cared about such trifling matters such as the people who so clearly died when aliens blow up a tower. But because there was a new generation of audience members who had grown up seeing the towers fall, we had an intimate and too powerful reminder that, people do die when buildings collapse. Explosions have consequences. You can’t call yourself a hero and then destroy half a city and pretend like no one was hurt.

But again, Glass is behind the curve. The studios, each in their own way, have addressed the issues either thematically or merely setting the action in unpopulated areas. But that’s on a mass scale.

When Elijah slits the throat of one of the orderlies, it’s a visceral reaction. Comic book movies have always been violent, such as Logan, but Glass keeps it’s violence intimate. Shyamalan plants the camera behind the orderly’s head. Elijah’s hand flies up in a clear line with a shard of glass. A light spurt of blood sprays out.

He doesn’t revel in the violence. I don’t even think Shyamalan is even comfortable with violence, both in his own work, but also in the increasing return to violence without consequences we’re seeing in big-budget Hollywood movies. Again, anger pumps through the heart of Glass.

Subverting expectations is essentially the third act of Glass but it is not at all what you might think it is. The movie spends so much time building toward a particular moment and then denies us that very moment. I kind of loved it to be honest.

I loved it for no other reason because once the showdown between the three started I began to yawn. Almost a decade of superhero movies and a lifetime of great to downright awful action movies have left me inured to people throwing punches without consequences. But then something surprising happens.

The anger I had mentioned before, which had merely spiked in small doses earlier in the film, came out in full bore. The showdown becomes a fight for survival not from each other but from something else. It is a fight that the heroes, nor the villains, win.

The deaths are sudden, humiliating, and ignoble. Because death is like that sometimes. Being a hero doesn’t mean you die a heroic death and being a bad guy doesn’t mean you die unloved.

Something Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) discovers as she struggles with the man who kidnapped her. Shyamalan’s storyline for Casey made me uneasy if only because of my conflicted love of Split. A movie that understood the term “broken” in a humane way but I cringed at the ending which made the exploitation of Casey’s circumstances feel exploitative in the way that makes me feel ill.

Thankfully the storyline between her and Kevin in Glass goes in a different direction. Taylor-Joy is an actress with such an expressive face it’s a pity silent film is dead. She seems tailor-made for it. Something Shaylmanl and Gioulakis must also feel as the camera lingers on Taylor-Joy’s eyes for longer periods of time than almost anything else in the movie.

The finale of Glass feels like a rebuke to the entire modern cinematic landscape. But then I think about Shyamalan’s fascination with faith, not as a concept, but as a legitimate power within ourselves. I don’t know. I can say this: it has stayed with me, and probably will stay with me for a long time to come. For better or for worse, I’m going to remember Glass, and more importantly, I’ll be thinking about it too.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

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