More Than Just Unbreakable (And Yet So Much Less, Too)
It is worth noting, right up front, that I don't hate everything M. Night Shyamalan has ever made. I thought The Sixth Sense was an interesting film the first time I watched it, and while I actually hated Unbreakable after my first viewing (because of it's twist ending), I was able to get into the movie after a second viewing at a friend's request. My enjoyment of his movies, though, ended with those two films. I thought Signs was forced and didn't make much sense and The Village was an absolute chore. From there I skipped Lady in the Water and The Happening after they both got terrible reviews. I did watch The Last Airbender because the reviews for it were so bad, and, yes, it sucked.
I basically knew all I needed to know about an M. Night Shyamalan movie: it was start out decent enough (well, except for The Last Airbender, which was just awful through and through), and would have a decent hook that at least kept you interested for a few minutes. Eventually, though, the film would settled down into it's slow-burn mechanics until, inevitably, building to a twist ending that either made no sense or was so obvious it barely counted as a "twist" (points to The Village for being both). Once you knew the mechanics of an M. Night Shyamalan, you knew all you needed to know for every one of his movies. Only his early work was at all watchable -- after his first two big movies he crawled up his own ass, becoming an "auteur" director (which, in his case, mostly meant he thought his ideas were super brilliant, all evidence to the contrary). I had to stop watching his films.
But I did notice when people were raving on and on about Split, a low-budget horror film starring James MacAvoy. I certainly didn't expect the movie to be any good -- it's an M. Night Shyamalan, after all -- but I gave the film a quick watch just to see what it was all about. And, I will note, it was actually pretty decent, although not because of M. Night Shyamalan. MacAvoy absolutely sells his character, Kevin Wendell Crumb aka The Horde, a man with 23 distinct personalities. Each and every one of them is truly distinct, with MacAvoy giving a tour de force performance, acting each and every one of them wonderfully. The movie, of course, has a twist (more than one, really), and gets a little weird in the back half (just like you expect from M. Night Shyamalan), but on the whole the film was pretty interesting.
The thing is that Split was actually a back-door continuation of the Unbreakable universe, setting up the Horde was a supervillain to stand against The Overseer, hero of Unbreakable. After Split, M. Night Shyamalan started promising (or, maybe in the case of an M. Night Shyamalan movie, threatening) a sequel that tied the two films together. Three years later we have that crossover film, Glass. And, well... it's certainly an M. Night Shyamalan movie.
In Glass we have two converging plot lines that kick off the movie. On one side we have David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a home security salesman by day who goes out at night as the Overseer to find bad guys and beat them up (street justice, if you will). He's been on the case of the Horde for a while now, patrolling the streets searching for this villain. That's because the Horde is also a prolific serial killer, regularly kidnapping groups of girls, playing with them and then slaughtering them. At the outset of the movie he's already captured a quartet of cheerleaders, so Dunn takes it upon himself to chase down, and stop, the Horde. Unfortunately then both are captured by the police and sent to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation.
At the hospital, both are introduced to Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist whose specialty is people that think they are superheroes. She think everything these people experienced is in their heads, simple things that can be explained away with practical solutions instead of people resorting to calling themselves superheroes. Dunn and Crumb aren't her only patients, either, because this hospital has, for years, held Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), aka Mr. Glass, the villain of the first film in the series. Now, because the doctor has put all three super-beings together, Mr. Glass plans to break them all free and stage a superhero battle that will expose the world to how super these people really are.
Glass is, at its core, about two-thirds of a good movie. The opening section feels like pure superhero pulp with the hero and the villain having their first confrontation. Having the police get involved is inevitable, and it helps to push the story forward into an exploration of the real world consequences of people that think they're superheroes. I honestly didn't hate much of the material at the hospital, either, finding this whole explorational middle-act fascinating in its own way. It feels like it's building to a big, overblown superhero spectacle in the third act, one where the super-beings reveal who they really are and the doctor is left questioning everything she believed in.
There are problems, though, building even in that second act, though. The movie tries so very hard to make the characters question everything they believe in -- are they heroes? is it all in their head -- but it never makes that same convincing argument for those of us in the audience. Presumably we've already seen Unbreakable and Split before coming in to this movie so there's no question in our eyes whether Dunn and Crumb have powers or not; we already know they do. Instead of trying to make us question basic facts that we already know are truth, it would have been better for the movie to spend it's time having the patients try to teach the doctor the truth. They could reveal themselves to her (not in a pervy way), opening her eyes to greater mysteries.
But therein lies the real problem: M. Night Shyamalan had to get very M. Night Shyamalan in the last act. Instead of having everything build to a traditional superhero battle (one the movie was clearly telegraphing for half the film and that we, as the audience, need as a form of narrative release), the film undercuts the whole story with three different twists (that I won't spoil) layered one after another. It makes the last act more convoluted than it needed to be and, worse, totally robs the ending of any power. The film deflates right when it should be getting good, and then had a questionable "super happy ending" that really doesn't make any sense if you think about it for even five seconds. In essences, it' classic M. Night Shyamalan.
Without that big last act bombast, the film had to carry through on its characters instead, and, for the most, part, we can at least derive enjoyment here. MacAvoy is, once again, superb as the Horde. He's the real star of this movie, more engaging and interesting than just about anyone else in the film. His character is absolute fascinating and, as before, each and every personality is its own distinct, fully-realized character. Much of the time I found myself waiting for MacAvoy to come back on screen so we could spend more time with any one of the 23 personalities he was playing.
Samuel L. Jackson is also great in the movie but, weirdly, for a film named after his character, he's really not in much of the film. He's missing from the entire first act (because he's in the hospital, of course), and even when he's on screen he's catatonic for much of the movie. Still, once his character wakes up, he's a true menace. We get to see all thing vile evil in his role, a menace kept just under the surface. I just wish he had more time on screen so we could enjoy him further.
Unfortunately, Bruce Willis is the weakest part of the lead cast. He is, once again, in his checked-out actor mode (much like he was in A Good Day to Die Hard), barely investing in what's going on around him. David Dunn should be the character we rally behind, the main force of the movie, the protagonist, but in Willis's hands, Dunn is a non-entity. We have a void at the center of the movie, so the villains get to shine and the hero doesn't exist (almost the exact opposite of what happens in most Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. films.
That said, even if Willis were invested in this movie I don't think it would have been a real success. If with all three actors giving there all, there just wouldn't be any well to sell the ending as written. The movie needed at least another half hour to flesh out all its twists and make them stick. It's too rushed, too poorly thought out, and betrays all the setup that came before. It is exactly what you expect when M. Night Shyamalan signs his name on to a project. The film has potential but never can quite get there, and all the blame for that had to lay at the writer/director's feet. This is why I can't trust M. Night Shyamalan to make good movies -- the next time he comes out with a film I plan to do what I've done for so long: skip it and save my money.