An Exploration of M. Night Shyamalan’s Fascinating and Extremely Frustrating ‘Glass’

by Chris van Dijk

The first wave of lackluster reviews of Glass, M. Night Shyamalan’s highly anticipated third and final installment of his superhero trilogy, from critics naturally worried me. But when it came to Glass, there was only one critic that really mattered to me: my sister.

My sister has always been a devout M. Night Shyamalan’s apologist, despite all the times he disappointed her. I remember how eager she was to see The Last Airbender, M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action adaptation of Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender. Reading the early reviews, I already anticipated that it wasn’t going to live up to anyone’s hype. But she was positively heartbroken when she discovered that it wasn’t just disappointing, it was barely watchable.

His filmography is littered with all kinds of bad films. From downright dull (Lady in the Water, which involves a scene where an important plot point involves a kid reading a cereal box) to hilariously bad (The Happening; “what nooooo…”). We also shouldn’t forget about Will Smith’s ego-stroking After Earth. Even so, even after one bloated cringe-fest after another, he kept on receiving chances.

And finally, his films were starting to get a little better. The Visit, while certainly nothing astounding, was an enjoyable found-footage thriller, featuring a scene where an old man shoves his soiled diaper in a kid’s face. (You can’t go wrong with a film like that.)

But it was 2016’s Split that managed to transcend M. Night’s annoying quirks mostly because of James McAvoy’s delicious performance. It still had its problems, especially in the dialogue department (more on that later) but it was a solid thriller. And when Bruce Willis suddenly appeared at the end of Split, my sister went absolutely berserk.

My sister adored Unbreakable, which she considered his greatest film. The idea that there was actually going to be a sequel to it excited her to no end. I kept telling my sister, “wait until you see it, it’s still Shyamalan. He could easily screw it up.”

So came the day when my sister finally saw it. I hadn’t seen it yet, but being aware of the lackluster reviews, I just hoped M. Night didn’t disappoint my sister again. Her one word review was summed it all up: “meh.”

She couldn’t get into why because that would mean delving into spoilers but she said the best thing about it was James McAvoy. And to my surprise, I liked it better than I thought, even though I completely understand the critics’ issues with it. It has all the cringy hallmarks of M. Night Shyamalan’s filmmaking. It’s filled with painful leaps of logic and even worse dialogue. But it’s redeemed by solid performances, an atmospheric soundtrack and a few suspenseful sequences.

But boy can it be incredibly stupid too. So let’s take a deeper look. (This is your spoiler alert!)

Okay, First off, Cool it with the Damn Close-ups…

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Samuel L. Jackson as Mr. Glass. Image via Espeak.In

M. Night has got his own style, and many people seem to dig it, so maybe this is just personal, but I can’t be the only one whose sick and tired of his excessive use of close-ups. Sometimes I’m impressed with his inspired choices of camera angles — Glass admittedly has more than a few of them. But just like many of his other films, it’s also bogged down with his obsession with this particular technique.

Many times it just takes you out of the scene. In the case of Glass, for example, I was frequently distracted by the make-up lines on Sarah Paulson‘s face. Often times, there’s no point in these close-ups.

The point of a close-up is to take a more intimate look at the performer’s face. A close-up can also be used to give the character a sense of his space being invaded. Sometimes M. Night’s use is understandable, but it’s often overkill.

In Glass, there’s no significance in these close-ups, no emotional weight. You just wish the camera would pull back.

Oh Boy, the Dialogue…

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Just let Bruce Willis’ face do the talking… Image via

If his obnoxious camera angles don’t take you out of the film, often times his dialogue will. Luckily for all of us, Glass didn’t have many instances where the dialogue made my skin crawl. But it wasn’t immune to this common M. Night screenwriting problem.

Sarah Paulson suffers the most since her character is given the task to explain everything to all the characters. Paulson does the best job she can, and she’s not awful in the film and I bet no one could have delivered those lines any better.

It’s easy to pick and choose the worst instances of dialogue in M. Night’s filmography. I bet most people would gravitate to The Happening mostly due to Marky Mark’s natural goofy delivery. But since that film belongs to the category of “so bad it’s good”, the dialogue isn’t as painful, just hilariously bad.

The biggest problem with M. Night’s use of dialogue is his need of over-explaining everything. One of the most frustrating examples comes in Split, with the character of Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). Her character has multiple scenes where he shares her ludicrous theories of multiple personality disorder. Besides this, she also at one point spells out her entire character motivation, that she doesn’t have a family and lives for her patients. You should always adhere, unless you’re David Mamet, to the logic of “show, don’t tell.”

There’s a great scene in Glass where David Dunn (Bruce Willis) comes home to an empty house. He sits there and he thinks about his wife. That’s all the information we need. We understand then that he’s alone and that his wife passed away. It’s a great example of “show, don’t tell.”

M. Night’s tendency to explain everything in-depth cheapens the emotion the viewer is supposed to feel. It feels like he’s telling us how to think about this character or how to feel about what’s happening, rather than just showing us.

Another issue with M. Night’s dialogue is that it doesn’t feel natural. It’s often stilted and forced. The reason why McAvoy seems to work so well in both Split and Glass is that his line delivery feels weirdly natural. I suspect one of the reasons being that he was allowed to ad-lib some of his lines. Ad-libbing can sometimes alter some of the forced clunky lines, can enhance the chemistry in conversational dialogue and in turn, make the scene feel more natural.

The Necessity for Suspension of Disbelief

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The Beast unleashed — a particularly jacked James McAvoy. Image via Uproxx

We all know how dumb the finale of Signs is. Aliens came to invade earth despite their weakness for water. It makes no sense. There are a few particular memorable scenes in Signs, like the Brazilian footage of the Alien in the alley or the dinner scene, but the finale has ruined the movie for many people.  And I can completely understand.

You can make excuses for that film, say it’s “all about a preacher reclaiming his faith” but that doesn’t make up for the stupidity of the climax. Couldn’t the Alien just slip on water and break his neck or something?

We can suspend our disbelief either through emotional resonance or because we are just swept away by the story. But M. Night can really stretch this to the breaking point.

There’s some head-scratching moments in Glass. This hospital only has one or two nurses guarding a mass-murdering terrorist and a supernaturally strong serial killer? Why isn’t Kevin and Co. (James McAvoy) chained up while David Dunn is?

Then there’s that ending. If you think about it long enough, the cracks begin to appear. Never mind the questions we can raise about the secret society that existed for hundreds of years and were duped by Mr. Glass. But this footage of McAvoy and Willis fighting is supposed to proof the existence of superheroes to the world? Most rational people will not be convinced by this. They will probably comment below the video on YouTube that it’s “complete bullshit.”

Again, I can forgive the film because I adored the soundtrack and the performances, but you can’t fault people for not buying it.

Undeveloped Ideas and M. Night’s Incessant Need for a Twist

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The Horde (James McAvoy) and Casey (Anna Taylor-Joy). Image via Rolling Stone

Like many of his films, Glass doesn’t fully explore many of its interesting ideas. The notion that there’s a secret society out there making sure the existence of superheroes remain a secret could make a for fascinating singular movie. Similar to the idea that the three superheroes are actually mentally ill and have developed some grandiose alter ego.

The drawback is that the film already has many things going on. We don’t really know much of anything about the secret society because it’s introduced in the last 10 minutes of the film. We know they harbor some sort of clover logo, that they always meet in the same restaurant and that they have been doing this for years. The reason why the film didn’t go deep enough is because it already clocks in over two hours.

The same goes for the possibility of mental illness driving these three superhuman characters. It’s understandable that the film doesn’t dive deep enough into David Dunn’s existential quarrel of whether or not he really is a superhero or whether he was merely deluding himself. It’s understandable because the film needs to build up the super secret society twist, needs to build up Mr. Glass’ nefarious escape plan, and needs to build Kevin and Co.’s insecurity about the tangible reality of The Beast.

The film also didn’t need several of its twists. The twist in Unbreakable, that Elijah was a super-villain felt natural to the story and it enabled the themes of the movie. But not every movie needs to have a twist.

So besides the secret society twist, there’s also the twist that Mr. Glass inadvertently created The Beast as Kevin’s father was in the same train as David. Was there really a need for that? Apparently this had been fan-theory of many and the reveal does make Glass officially, the third and final installment of the ‘Eastrail 177 Trilogy’, based on the name of the train that crashed and killed all passengers besides Dunn.

In a way, I do feel the script just needed some polish, just to flesh out some of its ideas. And while that’s going on, perhaps he should relax his tendency of putting a twist in every one of his stories.

M. Night’s Personal Beliefs

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Image via The Daily Beast

I’ve always been a firm proponent that a filmmakers personal beliefs, political or religious, shouldn’t matter to the viewer. I’ve rarely, if ever, let that affect how I enjoy a film. I consider Clint Eastwood one of the greatest filmmakers of today, despite the fact that he supports Donald Trump, someone who I perceive to be the embodiment of everything that is ugly about American culture.

I’m not particularly religious but I can still appreciate films with deeply religious overtones. Some have even become one of my favorite films, such as Roland Joffé’s The Mission or John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary. I don’t need to watch films that conform to my own personal morality. I like to watch a film that views the world from a different side and dares me to even empathize a little with people whom we normally consider villains.

But I’m not a big fan of preachy films, even if they preach to my particular choir. A lot of Oliver Stone’s work infuriates me because of their preachy nature for that very reason.

M. Night Shyamalan, while you might not think so, has a tendency to preach his personal beliefs too. It’s not political or even religious but rather spiritual. More than that, he seems to have a particular annoyance with realists and the supremacy of science. In Signs, its fallen preacher Graham (Mel Gibson) speaks about two kinds of people: the ones who perceive their luck to be a sign or evidence of something greater, and the ones who see their luck as just that.

Naturally it’s the former kind of people who Shyamalan feels attached to. There’s a distinct sense of characters in his films having a deeper purpose, that they aren’t victims of circumstance but are part of a grand narrative. This can also be seen Lady in the Water and Unbreakable. The latter was the most interesting because it had a particular dark twist: where Elijah discovers he’s there to be a supervillain, a darkly existential twist on an initial hopeful belief.

M. Night doesn’t seem to be a particular fan of science and seems to criticize people who base their beliefs on empirical evidence. In The Happening, we have a rather cringeworthy monologue by Marky Mark where he states that “science will come up with some reason to put it in the books but in the end it’ll be just a theory… we fail to acknowledge that there are forces at work beyond our understanding…” Naturally, anybody who knows a little about science knows that a scientific theory isn’t merely “a theory.” Oh, and Wahlberg’s character is supposed to be a “science teacher.”

In Glass, Elijah also refutes science, saying it’s part of a component of the magical, rather than the ultimate explanation of the unexplainable. The most telling however was when he tells Kevin (or actually Hedwig) that this superpower is always perceiving the “truth”, since he’s always a child.

To me it shows M. Night’s belief in the imaginative powers of childhood and how adulthood and its pesky realism seems to intrude on its magic (also hammered home in Lady in the Water). I think that M. Night considers his critics to be part of those pesky realists, people who fixate on the logic of the narrative rather than being swept away by cinematic magic. M. Night’s bitterness against his critics is no more obvious than in Lady in the Water, where the character of Harry Farber (Bob Balaban), a cynical film critic, gets eaten alive.

These personal beliefs of his don’t matter so much but M. Night often feels the need to infuse it in some preachy dialogue. The anti-scientific slant of his is also painfully present in Split, with the character of Dr. Karen Fletcher, who drones on and on about her insane theories on DID and rallies against her more scientifically minded peers.

Unsurprisingly, Split has received criticism from mental health experts on its portrayal of DID. I personally find the idea that Kevin’s DID spawned from parental abuse rather than genetic factors a bit troubling. The notion that mental illness comes from personal experience rather than genes has always been prevalent in media. The idea that it’s usually genetic disposition seems to make people uncomfortable, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

Having said that, I am able to set aside my annoyances with M. Night’s spiritual mumbo-jumbo. He can believe whatever he wants. I just wish he wouldn’t preach so much in his films. Let the magical “happenings” speak for themselves.

So What Do We Make of All of This?

M. Night is a filmmaker who made, in my mind, one of the worst films I’ve ever seen: The Last Airbender. His personal cinematic quirks often deeply annoy me as well. I consider him to be like Dan Aykroyd, a great idea man but someone who needs other people to properly flesh out some of his ideas.

Unfortunately, he has been known to be rather antagonistic against naysayers. Famously, he had clashed with Former Disney President of Development Nina Jacobson on the script of Lady in the Water. Her critical notes on the script pained M. Night, who then left Disney to produce the ill-fated Lady in the Water with Warner Bros. despite the fact that Jacobson was still willing to grant him the budget to produce the movie even with her doubts about the script.

As an artist you should always be open to feedback. It’s easy to blinded by your own creation. And I think if M. Night had been more receptive to naysayers throughout his career, his films might have fared much better critically.

But despite all criticisms, I do like Glass. I have some deep problems with it but the atmosphere and performances, particularly James McAvoy and Samuel L. Jackson, entertained me throughout. I like its bleaker tone, even though I wish he would push the horror more. I have similar feelings with Split, which despite its horror overtones, had to dial a lot of it back in order to gain its PG-13 rating.

It’s a film that takes some chances and it’s nice to see a superhero film where there’s not a single explosion. There are some intriguing if undeveloped ideas in the film, and I was also quite surprised how it killed off its three stars. There seems to be no hint of a follow-up, and I’m happy about this.

But I don’t consider M. Night a great filmmaker, even though there’s no denying that he has talent. He just needs to learn from his mistakes and be open to some critical notes. Glass was the only film of his, in many years, that I kind of looked forward to, even though I still throttled back my expectations.

I just hope that whatever comes next, it will be closer to either Unbreakable (restrained, meditative and atmospheric) or The Happening (a hilarious trainwreck). I hope the success of his latest films won’t go to his head because he needs to understand that he’s not the new Steven Spielberg. He never was. He’s M. Night Shyamalan. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

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Image via PhillyVoice

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1 comment

Nick Kush January 30, 2019 - 6:49 pm

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