Why 'Glass' Is M. Night Shyamalan's Rubicon
[This story contains spoilers for the Universal thriller Glass.]
The following is a conversation about Glass — the new M. Night Shyamalan superhero film — conducted by The Hollywood Reporter contributors Simon Abrams and Steven Boone. This conversation doesn't feature much discussion of the plot, mostly because you probably already know the basic setup (which is all you really need). But still: Glass — a sequel to both Shyamalan's Split and Unbreakable — pits Bruce Willis' soft-spoken super-security guard against Samuel L. Jackson's diabolical, wheelchair-bound arch-nemesis and their new frenemy, James McAvoy's split-personality-having super-freak. If you need more plot than that — or would rather not read a piece that is mostly positive about Glass — then please think long and hard before reading on.
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Simon Abrams (AKA: Son of Hudson Hawk): Glass is the most spectacular recent example of a semi-renowned filmmaker biting the hand that keeps feeding him. At least, it's the most spectacular example since last year's The House That Jack Built, a quasi-Dante-esque A) horror-comedy (about a self-destructive serial killer); B) passion play (about a self-critical agnostic); and C) auto-critique (about a self-loathing artist) that invites viewers deep inside the navel of its provocative (ugh) creator, Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier. I could rewrite that same exact sentence about Glass without replacing too many words, except maybe to change a proper noun here and an adjective there.
I think it's important to introduce Glass as a work of self-mythologizing pop art. Because for many viewers, the personal aspects of this film will either make or break it. Glass is, as I joked with you earlier, the Shyamalan Rubicon. It's a movie that could only be made now. It was also always destined to be hated by (many) fans and critics. I think Shyamalan knows that. I also think he knows that, with two successes just under his belt with The Visit and Split, now is the best time to shoot the works. And how: Glass features some of the most conceptually nutty ideas and technically accomplished execution in any Shyamalan movie. Glass is not a film I can recommend, but it is one that I cherish since — for good reasons and rotten ones — we won't ever see another (Shyamalan-directed) movie like it.
Let me back up a moment: Glass really was doomed from the start, even if it also really had to be made now-ish. Sure, Shyamalan may have been planning a trilogy of wonky superhero films since 2000. But I don't think that he could have made Glass in this way without the successes of The Visit and Split, both of which were critical and financial hits. I believe that Shyamalan found a great collaborator in producer Jason Blum, who previously worked with Shyamalan on both The Visit and Split. Blum is also arguably a terrible collaborator for Shyamalan, since Blum helped Shyamalan to do exactly what he wanted to do, only now with greater technical facility and emotional conviction. Glass is a movie by and about working through some stuff, namely the sort of personal traumas and self-doubts that can cripple you and lead you to want to stay at home and never believe in yourself ever again. I imagine that Glass is, in its current form, the best version of this film that we will ever see (until the director's cut hits Blu-ray, gimme gimme gimme).
Still, Glass is going to piss off a lot of viewers. I disagree with this review by Uproxx's Mike Ryan, but I understand where he's coming from when he calls Glass "one of the biggest personal disappointments I’ve ever experienced in a theater." I've been there with other filmmakers that I love, so I get the kind of crushing regret and anxiety that Ryan works through in his piece. I also find it striking that many of the qualities that he disliked about Glass are aspects that I either didn't care about, or interpreted in another way. That's the strength and curse of a pic that's as brazen and alienating as Glass: It's a Rorschach test for viewers, and many will, I think, agree with Ryan when he writes that "Glass is a statement movie about superhero movie culture today."
Ryan's not wrong, but I think that Glass is a film that's much more about how Shyamalan feels, as a fan and artist, after he saw Unbreakable fail to get the love and attention he thinks it deserved (I like Unbreakable, too). Nineteen years have passed: What do superhero movies — and cinematic power fantasies in general — look like to Shyamalan now, after several financial flops, numerous critical dings and innumerable fan backlashes (remember those guys who wanted to pay for Shyamalan to go back to film school? I bet he does!)?
This is just a long-winded way of saying, I saw something in Glass that I can't wait to see again, if only by rewatching it in theaters as much as I can. Because again, I don't really want to ask you if this movie is merely good or flat-out bad. I do want to talk about the qualities that made me want to stay in my seat throughout its 139-minute duration (which is no small feat, since I had to pee throughout). I also obviously want to hear what you saw in Glass. Because Glass is a whole lot of movie, and I think you also enjoyed yourself because — and not despite — of how messy and strange it is. Shyamalan has unleashed the Beast, and it's thankfully not our job to recapture it. Instead, let's talk about this thing the way that Ryan himself wishes our critical peers would — for the sake of discussion, just to see where the film has taken us.
Steven Boone (AKA: Still Def by Temptation): Low-budget horror maestro Larry Fessenden once said that he'd love to give a Spielberg or Scorsese a million dollar budget to see them "return to their roots." Imagine that. Die Hard director John McTiernan once insisted that he could have just as easily made a version of that action-thriller set around a conference table. What matters, in other words, is not the scale of events, but the dynamics between characters, the storytelling. I think this is where Shyamalan is with the concept of "blockbuster" — doing more with less. His recent Vulture interview with Adam Sternbergh makes it plain that he also enjoys a freedom at $20 million that he wouldn't have at $150 milllion. He's already flown two sci-fi CGI-laden behemoths into the sun with After Earth and The Last Airbender. He's done with that stuff.
Glass is the work of a free man trying to free his audience. It's just that his methods here are more along the lines of a certain health nut character in the film, who lectures his co-worker about nutrient absorption. We hear a lot about overcoming trauma/limits/bullies/programming/self-
Like you, I anticipate Shyamalan getting a lot of hate from fans who were expecting he'd finally flesh out the comic book world that he incepted in 2000. But he's more in the mindset of the angry young George Lucas who made THX-1138 on real locations than the comfortable old Lucas who greenscreened his prequels from a director's couch. As you might tell from a recent publicity photo, the 48-year-old Shyamalan is still irrepressibly boyish. His films contain darkness and depths, but there is always this resilient, virginal, motivational way of seeing. You get the sense that the worst thing that's happened to him personally is poor box office.
Abrams: Glass will test your patience, mostly because of how pissy and strident it is.
Just look at the way that some of our friends and colleagues have responded: Stephanie Zacharek, in her characteristically direct and smart Time review, is ultimately down on the film, but I love the way she conveys her disappointment. She writes that "the mythology [Shyamalan] tries to build in Glass is rushed and sloppy; the surprise twist at the end is really just more of a damp wrinkle." Zacharek continues: "Shyamalan believes so strongly in the dramatic impact of this trilogy that he almost makes you believe in it too — that’s his secret superpower."
Zacharek's interpretation is fair: "[Shyamalan's] deep thoughts this time around are supposedly a continuation of those he posited in Unbreakable: that comic books are mankind’s way of passing deep historical truths down through the ages." Still, I don't go to Shyamalan movies for deep thoughts, and I don't think he wants us to, either (like Elvis Costello, M. Night Shyamalan thinks that we all need the human touch).
I also think that Shyamalan knows exactly what he wanted to do, namely make an often blackly comic, if tonally berserk, essay movie (to use your words from our post-screening discussion) about how let down he feels about the superhero movie landscape. I think that Glass' superhero commentary is, in that sense, just one part of a larger, more baroque and self-absorbed critique of what didn't happen to superhero films after Unbreakable, a movie that was clearly very important to Shyamalan's career and sense of self. Just look at his Hitchcockian cameo in Glass! It's his best one yet because he's simultaneously making fun of himself and the people who tried to dissuade him from making more movies like Unbreakable.
Glass consistently won me over — despite its dorm room philosophy pitch — because of the forceful way that Shyamalan argues that post-Unbreakable superhero movies did not learn the lesson he (I guess?) tried to impart: that it's wrong to try to divide superheroes into neat, psychologically compartmentalized categories of Victim, Hero and Villain. Glass' biggest lesson is, in that sense, harmlessly aspirational — we are all heroes, we are all villains, we are all victims. We need to forgive ourselves and proceed from the assumption that we all have good in us, and that we don't need to judge ourselves too harshly. Don't listen to the voices in your head when they try to keep you down. Because they're all you talking to you. And you don't deserve that.
At the same time, Glass seems to be have been made by an angrier, somewhat older and definitely more conflicted artist. I’d say people don’t care about the film as a reflection of Shyamalan's personality, but Ryan and Zacharek's pieces suggest otherwise. I think that Ryan wanted less of Shyamalan’s worse impulses, while Zacharek wanted more of his films' better ideas. And vice versa! That’s fair. But Glass isn’t Lady in the Water, another passion play about how everybody is wrong about Shyamalan’s two favorite subjects: storytelling and himself. Lady in the Water is half great and half awful, but the division between those two qualities is glaring. Glass is everything at the same time, in each scene, non-stop. It’s knowingly silly (look at Jackson’s Herbert-Lom-worthy eye twitch) and deeply over-serious (listen to those non-stop monologues)! It’s deeply suspicious of psychology (seriously, listen to those monologues!) while also being reluctantly seduced/reliant on them (my roommate, upon hearing me rave about Glass: “So the characters are Id, Ego and Super-Ego”). Glass is obvious and obtuse, thoughtful and moronic, thrilling and laughable, pushy and meek. I adore Glass; I also know that Glass is a hot mess.
Boone: I agree with your reading of Glass as a parable on overcoming trauma and self-doubt to reach one's full potential, but I have a different take on its attitude toward contemporary superhero flicks: If Shyamalan wishes they rendered character in more shades of gray, he hasn't been watching the past 12 years of flawed heroes and relatable villains (though I concede that the heroes in those films always return from the dark side to their default status as trusted guardians. Status quo). It seems the lessons he really wants to impart to Marvel and DC are in economy of means and the rewards of patience. Your average Avengers movie has no shortage of psychological backstory and complex relationships; what it tends not to have is any time to let character observations develop cumulative power. They're bumper-to-bumper traffic of CGI set pieces and snarky jokes, avoiding moments that don't promptly "get to the point."
By contrast, Glass moves at the speed of its three central performances. Its grandest flourishes play out in the faces and bodies of James McAvoy, Samuel Jackson and Bruce WIllis. Shyamalan trusts them to achieve effects that bigger, busier films would leave to the desktop animators. As with Shyamalan's best pics, Glass has a very 1970s faith in the power of a magnetic presence moving through space to keep us on the hook. Jackson's apocalyptic hair, Willis's blunt profile, McAvoy's repertoire of character tics — this film loves its people, beyond even a love of comic book tropes. So I feel your characterization of Glass as being fundamentally generous in spirit.
And, yeah, it probably won't feel that way to those coming to the film for a triple-down showdown. It might even feel like punishment for expecting the launch of a dependable franchise or even a plot that lines up/rounds out as elegantly as Shyamalan's early efforts. His screenwriting has grown shaggier while his direction of individual scenes remains bravura-ish. For someone like me — who barely registers plot but responds to sounds, movement, shapes and colors — that's no harm, no foul.
Zacharek says this movie isn't as deep as it thinks it is, but I'd say the same for just about any Shyamalan pics. His films' slavish belief in their own mythology sets them apart from standard genre exercises, since cult believers are always more striking than Sunday churchgoers. (Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino's long, two-movie journey on Kung Fu Road to a climactic lecture on Superman comes to mind.) For the record, no, I don't believe comic books are some indispensable source of Wisdom of the Ages. They're cheap picture books meant to keep kids distracted and buying toys. The complexities and layers they've accumulated over the past 50 years are undeniable, but are as much the product of the particular "kid" reading them as of their writers and artists. With Glass, Shyamalan seems to be saying as much: These books are nothing much without you, the reader, applying something more than just passive consumer response and score-keeping. Though he's nobody's kitchen-sink realist, he's more interested here in the everyday troubles and people who inspire and consume comics than the spectacle.
Glass ends with a summation that I took as a revolutionary Molotov cocktail tossed (lightly) at the windows of those media giants who profit from fantasies that celebrate the "exceptional" among us while stealthily reinforcing the idea that we, the people, are just their mere helpless subjects. And all of it set in the cradle of American democracy, Philadelphia. OK, maybe it is that deep. Maybe I drank the Kool-Aid, too.
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