[This story contains spoilers for the Universal thriller Glass.]
Ever since The Sixth Sense revealed Bruce Willis was a ghost, M. Night Shyamalan’s reputation has been first and foremost as “the plot-twist guy.” In recent years, he has also received criticism for how his films treat mental illness and physical disability. Both of these observations are relatively well established, but what has gone largely unstated thus far is how these two items are fundamentally connected.
Horror and thriller films have more or less always been enamored with the plot twist, and annals of mental disorders and physical disabilities have been regularly mined as prime plot twist material since at least the 1930s, a “golden age” of Hollywood horror that featured physical and mental differences front and center. In James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), the root of the eponymous doctor’s trouble is his hunchbacked assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye), who brings his employer a criminal brain for his creature after accidentally destroying the normal brain he was sent to steal. In a lesser-known example, Doctor X (1932), five scientists must figure out who among them secretly moonlights as a serial cannibal. The others quickly rule out Dr. Wells (Preston Foster), as he is an amputee and therefore deemed physically incapable of the brutalities committed by the killer. But fast forward and surprise, it was Dr. Wells after all, with the help of secretly developed “synthetic flesh.” Cue a hero saving the day and Dr. Wells dying a true villain’s death — a fall from a great height, lit on fire for good measure. Those are just two examples of many.
What makes physical disabilities and mental disorders extremely fruitful for plot-twisting purposes is that the former comes with certain sets of problematic presumptions that can be easily manipulated — namely, that disabled people are weaker or otherwise at a disadvantage — while the latter enables filmmakers to manipulate audience presumptions about the “reality” of what they see onscreen. Many of the most famous plot twists in movie history have been made possible by unreliable narrators, and several mental disorders make for fundamentally unreliable narrators, including amnesia (Memento) and schizophrenia (A Beautiful Mind).
With this in mind, it is hardly surprising that Shyamalan’s filmography is full of characters with physical disabilities or who battle mental illness.
Unbreakable, Split and Glass have Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), who has dissociative identity disorder (DID), and the brittle boned Elijah “Mr. Glass” Price (Samuel L. Jackson). The Village has the blind Ivy Elizabeth Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Noah Percy (Adrien Brody), who suffers from an unspecified developmental disability. The Sixth Sense has Vincent Grey (Donnie Wahlberg), a disturbed former patient of child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Willis), as well as Mrs. Collins (Angelica Page), a woman who has Munchausen syndrome by proxy. The list goes on. But all of this begs the question: Are there limits to when and how filmmakers should utilize these real conditions for entertainment purposes?
To be clear, when criticizing how various identities are depicted onscreen, the answer to the problem is never “no representation.” And it’s not about all representation needing to be “good” — that is, flattering — or leaving no room for creative license. It’s about balance. Having a villainous character with mental illness is not necessarily an issue. Having a body of work in which all characters with mental illnesses are murderers, however, is problematic. And with the release of Glass, M. Night Shyamalan’s filmography is firmly within that territory. Not only have his pics featured characters with mental illnesses, but they are consistently killers, and their victims almost always mental health professionals trying to help them.
In The Sixth Sense, Dr. Crowe is killed by former patient Vincent. Because Ivy makes the mistake of treating the developmentally disabled Noah with kindness in The Village, he kills her beau Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) in a jealous range. In The Visit, teenagers Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are horrified to discover that the estranged grandparents they are visiting are not their grandparents, but escaped patients from the mental hospital where their grandparents had worked and who killed their real grandparents and stole their identities. In Split, psychologist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) is brutally murdered by “The Beast,” Kevin’s monstrous 24th personality.
Ultimately, the problem is not about using mental disorders to pull off a plot twist, but in how Shyamalan turns them into a gimmick. In Glass, the meta comic book commentary of Unbreakable and the mental health commentary of Split are brought together towards the ultimate end of legitimizing the former at the expense of the latter. Kevin’s DID becomes even more of a gimmick thanks to a handy strobe light that can flick through his 24 personalities like a TV remote does channels, and said personalities, which were already campy to a point of questionable taste, are repeatedly manipulated for comedic effect. Mental health experts are nefarious — psychiatrist Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) proves to be a member of a League of Shadows type anti-superhuman society — or slow-witted cannon fodder.
Generally speaking, films take artistic license with reality, whether that be with regards to legal procedures or the laws of physics — but with respect to mental illness, there are ways of doing this which still treat characters with empathy and some degree of nuance.
Looking beyond Shyamalan’s filmography, when it comes to physical disabilities, recent horror pics have featured an interesting trend of plot twists involving apocalyptic scenarios in which disabilities become advantageous.
In A Quiet Place, the Abbott family’s American Sign Language skills, as well as the cochlear implant belonging to congenitally deaf daughter Reagan (Millicent Simmonds), prove vital to their survival. In Bird Box, an otherworldly evil which turns all who view it suicidal leaves society in tatters — with the exception of blind communities, as blindness leaves them immune to this scourge. These films similarly use physical disability as plot devices, but they are not stigmatizing.
Physical disability and mental disorders have long been utilized for movie plot devices. The issue is not that Shyamalan’s films partake in this trend, but that they consistently do so in demonizing ways that have grown evermore trite, gimmicky and, at this point, even predictable.