Shyamalan’s ‘Glass’ to conclude unlikely trilogy
Follows ‘Unbreakable’ and ‘Split’
WARNING: The following contains spoilers for the movies “Unbreakable” and “Split.”
It was about as closely guarded as any movie secret can be in this spoilerrich age.
Two years ago, writer-producer-director M. Night Shyamalan went fullon B-movie bonkers with his creepy multiple-personality thriller “Split.” As entertaining as that movie was — due largely to James McAvoy’s fearlessly versatile lead performance — it was the final scene that most delighted the filmmaker’s fans.
A security guard sits in a cafe, calmly drinking a cup of coffee while the news on TV reports on the grisly events depicted earlier in the movie. But this isn’t just any security guard. He’s played by Bruce Willis, and his name is David Dunn, unseen on screen since discovering his abnormal strength and nearinvincibility in Shyamalan’s 2000 film, “Unbreakable.” When a woman sitting next to him at the counter struggles to remember what they called the guy in the wheelchair who was locked away in a mental hospital 15 years earlier, Dunn fills in the blank: “Mr. Glass,” confirming the two pictures’ shared universe — the “Shyamalaniverse,” if you will.
It might have been just a fun stinger, a wink and a nod from the director to his longtime fans. Then “Split” grossed $278 million worldwide at the box office — on a minuscule $9 million budget — and now the two films are set to collide in a shared sequel, “Glass,” which hits theaters Friday, Jan. 18.
Shyamalan laid much of the groundwork for the new movie in “Unbreakable,” which presaged the ongoing Hollywood superhero boom when it was released in 2000, the same year the X-Men debuted on the big screen. Shyamalan was following the previous year’s phenomenon “The Sixth Sense,” which pulled in $672 million at the worldwide box office, plus six Oscar nominations.
He essentially had free rein with his next film, and what he chose to make was quite possibly the quietest superhero movie we’ve ever seen. Lacking entirely in digital effects and apocalypses to avert, “Unbreakable” focuses exclusively on what is merely the first act of virtually every other entry in its genre — the origin story. It asks a question similar to that posed by “Watchmen” while answering it in a very different way: What would it be like if superheroes existed in the real world?
One man is convinced they’re among us, and he’s dead set on finding them. Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a serious-minded owner of a comic book store he treats as an art gallery, was cursed at birth with a frail body that has known a lifetime of injuries and sickness. He desperately believes there must be someone in the world who is his opposite. When David Dunn is the lone survivor of a train crash that kills more than 100 and later confirms he’s never been sick or injured, he has his man.
Reluctant at first, David eventually comes around to Elijah’s thinking and realizes the good he can do with his mysterious power. Then Shyamalan hits us with the revelation that we haven’t just been watching the origin of a superhero but a supervillain, as well, as Elijah outs himself as the mastermind behind a series of disasters in his search for David. “Now that we know who you are, I know who I am,” he triumphantly proclaims.
The movie unfolds at a ponderous pace, with Shyamalan burying us in the mundane details of the failing marriage of David and his wife, Audrey (Robin Wright, credited here as Robin Wright Penn), to distract us and disguise the stor y he’s really telling. The visual style, which relies heavily on long takes and wide angles, has a similar effect, even as the technique of frequently shooting the characters’ reflections in mirrors or windows rather than the characters themselves, creates panels within the frame that are not unlike those found on the pages of comic books. (It also reinforces the idea of David and Elijah as mirror images of each other.)
Though not on the level of “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable” was a hit, grossing $248 million worldwide, and Shyamalan followed that with a bigger success, “Signs,” two years later ($408 million). After another modest hit, “The Village,” in 2004, Shyamlan started churning out one disaster after another as the budgets and expectations grew larger — “Lady in the Water” (2006), “The Happening” (2008), “The Last Airbender” (2010), “After Earth” (2013). He started to right the ship in 2015 with “The Visit,” a fun, spooky take on the found-footage subgenre, then brought on the full-fledged “Shyamalanaissance” with “Split” in 2017.
In movies, the villains often seem to have the most fun, so with the big bad as its star, it should be no surprise that “Split” is such a blast. It might not have much to say about our world, or even the one it creates, but that’s OK, especially when you view it as part of the larger story that began with “Unbreakable.”
In the film’s opening minutes, a man (James McAvoy) abducts three teenage girls — friends Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), and outsider Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) — in a parking lot in broad daylight. The girls wake up locked in a small room and quickly become acquainted with their kidnapper’s bizarre behavior.
First, he comes to them as Dennis, a stern, physically strong neat freak. At times, he dons women’s clothing, speaks in a British accent and goes by the name Patricia. At others, he calls himself Hedwig and says he’s 9 years old. He’s really Kevin, a man with an extreme case of dissociative identity disorder, causing him to have 23 alternate personalities. Dennis and Patricia have taken charge, and are making preparations for the arrival of a 24th identity, an apocalyptic figure they refer to as “The Beast.”
McAvoy clearly is having a blast as the conflicted main character, altering his voice and mannerisms to create his varied personas — sometimes careening between multiple personalities in the same take. It’s both funny and disturbing, and the movie wouldn’t work without McAvoy’s go-for-broke performance.
Shyamalan approaches the storytelling with a similar attitude, reveling in its B-movie nature and playing up both the comedy and the horror. It’s the scariest film he’s ever made, augmented by the ominous camera work of cinematographer Mike Gioulakis (“It Follows”).
With “The Beast” on the loose as the movie ends, “Glass” will find David Dunn pursuing him “in a series of escalating encounters, while the shadowy presence of (Elijah) Price emerges as an orchestrator who holds secrets critical to both men,” according to the film’s official synopsis. It should be fascinating to see how Shyamalan navigates the intersection of two films with such different tones and styles, one so grounded in reality, the other ready to go off the deep end at any moment.
Shyamalan has insisted there will be no further sequels. Taking him at his word, “Glass” will conclude one of the most unexpected and creative movie trilogies in memory. And you just know he’s stored a few head-spinning tricks up his sleeve for this one.
“Unbreakable” Greg’s Grade: ARated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, including some disturbing violent content, and for a crude sexual reference. 106 minutes. “Split”
Greg’s Grade: B+
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language. 117 minutes. —
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From left, Samuel L. Jackson, James McAvoy and Bruce Willis appear in a scene from “Glass.” The movie is a sequel to writer-producer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s “Unbreakable” (2000) and “Split” (2017).