Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Starring Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson
I’ll bet you cash money that Glass director M. Night Shyamalan has spent a lot of time thinking about the Dunning-Kruger effect.
I know I have. It’s funny and it’s terrifying. For those not looped in on this one, Dunning-Kruger effectively states that, just like dead people don’t know they’re dead in Shyamalan’s breakthrough film, The Sixth Sense, dumb people don’t know they’re dumb. People overestimate their own capabilities, particularly cognitive skills, and so they speak and act as though their understanding of or ability to perform whatever the subject at hand might be is a cut or two above where they really stand. Check out the Wikipedia article, and note with wry amusement that one of the researchers the phenomena is named for, David Dunning, is a syllable away from David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the hero of Shyamalan’s 2000 film, Unbreakable, and one of the triumvirate of main characters presented here in its long-awaited sequel, Glass.
Dunning-Kruger is funny because it explains so much about certain human behaviours, from attitudes towards complex subjects like climate change or gender theory, to pull two frequent internet battlegrounds out of a hat; to the popularity of TV series like Nailed It! and The Voice and, well, any given showcase where the object is to pour scorn on people whose assessment of their own talents far exceeds their actual manifestation. I mean, Jesus Christ, don’t these idiots know they suck?
Dunning-Kruger is terrifying because if you’re in its grips, you’d never know. That’s a chilling thought for everyone bar exceptionally stoic Zen masters; the idea that while you’re doing your thing, that thing that makes you you, working in your wheelhouse and articulating your truth, the people around you are thinking, “Jesus Christ, doesn’t this idiot know he sucks?”
Now, if you perform in public, you’re going to have no shortage of people lining up to tell you how much you suck, and part of the skill set you need to develop in order to operate on that turf is the ability to shrug that off to as large a degree as possible – to (hopefully) take on board the constructive criticism, ignore the bile and vitriol, and keep on keeping on. But our old friend Dunning-Kruger is a largely subjective experience, and how can you tell whether you’re doing the right and appropriate thing, which is to learn and live and press on, or the wrong thing, which is not realising that, hey, you suck?
And how much more difficult is it when you’ve failed rather spectacularly in public more than once like, say, the director of Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth?
With all that in mind, it’s no accident that a large part of Glass‘s running time deals with Sarah Paulson’s psychiatrist, Dr. Ellie Stapler, trying to convince Willis’ Dunn, James McAvoy’s Kevin Wendell “The Horde” Crumb, and Samuel L. Jackson’s Elijah “Mr. Glass” Price, that they do not, in fact have superpowers.
We, of course, know they do. Hailing from Shyamalan’s low-key, pre-MCU metatextual superhero movie, Unbreakable, David Dunn and Elijah Price have super strength and super intelligence, with the latter also shackled by a disease that makes his bones as brittle as glass (hence the nickname). Crumb was the antagonist of the 2016 thriller, Split, a man suffering from dissociative identity disorder whose most dangerous persona has superhuman strength and agility – and a taste for human flesh.
Split turned out to be not so much a sequel as a same-world neighbour to Unbreakable, with Willis cameoing as Dunn in the closing scene, and so the stage was set for a trilogy-capping third film bringing all three characters together – and no doubt digging deep into the mythic and cultural resonances of superhero comics, as Unbreakable was wont to do at the drop of a security guard’s cap.
Glass ticks both these boxes, managing the plot mechanics of getting its three leads together in a special sanatorium by dint of Dunn getting pinched while he’s investigating the string of kidnappings and murders that Crumb is responsible for (his 23 personalities more or less cooperate in kidnapping small groups of teen girls to feed to the Beast). Price has, of course, been in the slammer since Dunn fingered him for a string of large scale terrorist attacks in Unbreakable. From there we’re in for a fairly lengthy second-act talkathon as Stapler tries to convince the three that their so-called super powers are all scientifically explicable, and that the pulpy origins they’ve ascribed themselves are delusions rooted in trauma.
This is the meat of the film right here, and while it creeps right up next to the “believe in your own exceptionalism” theme that Shyamalan handled so poorly – and smugly – in Lady in the Water, here it comes tempered with humility, but it’s also bringing some home truths with it. If you step outside of accepted behaviour and achievement, there are people who will try and hammer you flat, and while Stapler speaks with the measured, reasonable calm of a professional (or say, ahem, a more empathetic than usual critic), her purpose is still to rein in our, for want of a better word, heroes. To not only make them believe they are unexceptional, but to convince them they were literally insane for ever thinking otherwise.
And when a voice invested with authority tells you that? Well, that brings us right back around to the works of Drs Dunning and Kruger. Jesus Christ, don’t these idiots know they’re crazy?
Glass stumbles when it comes to its metatextual murmurings on the “shape” of superhero stories and how its own narrative fits into the conventions of the genre. To be fair, in hindsight Unbreakable was guilty of that too, but it came out almost 20 years ago and we weren’t drowning in capes and secret identities then. Now it’s a bit patronising to have Sam Jackson delivering, in the most ponderous tones imaginable, proclamations on how this scene or that act fits into this story form or that trope like a one man Greek chorus.
More damningly, the film lets a potentially great bit of metatextual commentary slide by, hinting at a showdown at a newly opened office building clearly meant to echo Die Hard‘s Nakatomi Plaza, and the notion of Bruce Willis’ character effectively revisiting the site of Willis’ first major act of big screen heroism is so perfect it’s ridiculous. Even more ridiculous, though, is not following that thread once it’s introduced, with Glass doing a bait-and-switch on us and setting its inevitable action climax in the hospital parking lot. Boo.
That climax is also hampered by Shyamalan’s insistence on introducing a light, fairly nonsensical, and also fairly predictable twist into the proceedings, which is supposed to reframe all that has gone before but only serves to raise more questions – and they’re not even interesting questions, frankly. But there are people who enjoy moments of revelation even this clumsy, so we’ll walk away from this particular element.
.And instead note that the performances are good across the board. the difference between “engaged Bruce Willis” and “bored Bruce Willis” is subtle but palpable, and here he’s definitely the former. Glass‘s David Dunn now has his own security business that he runs with his son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clarke), who is also his “guy in the chair” when he’s on his vigilante street patrols. He’s still a quiet, understated, somewhat morose guy, but he’s a guy who has found his calling and takes comfort and strength from his role in the world. There’s a clear line of evolution between 2000-era Dunn and 2019 Dunn – they feel like the same character.
Samuel L. Jackson spends much if the film in a seemingly catatonic state, his Machiavellian, hyper-intelligent Mr. Glass now confined to both a wheelchair and an asylum. When he does come alive (and that’s not a spoiler, folks – he’s in the trailers), it’s electric – Jackson clearly loves playing this character, with his clipped delivery, his piercing stare, and his plans within plans within… you get it.
Still, it’s McAvoy who gets the showiest role, flipping between personalities at the literal flick of a switch (you’ll get it when the time comes), and eventually going toe-to-toe and punch-for-punch with Dunn. McAvoy certainly goes big with his acting here, but surely that’s to be expected in this kind of four colour commentary piece – for all that it purports to be “realistic”, Glass is still a somewhat impressionistic and genre-avowing work – just check out the shot framing and character-coded lighting from cinematographer Mike Gioulakis.
Ultimately the film doesn’t fire on all cylinders, though, and that’s largely down to a confused third act and a rather old-fashioned understanding of how audiences interact with genre tropes these days. When it does work it works brilliantly, though, and the themes its addressing feel honest and personal, which is refreshing. Glass will doubtless disappoint a lot of people, some because they’re used to the nine-figure spectacle of tentpole superheroes, and some because at numerous points the film goes out of its way to subvert audience expectation pretty hard. It’s still well worth a look, though, and I suspect that over the years it’ll build up a small but strongly appreciative audience.
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan