Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
In 2019 director M. Night Shyamalan released the final film in his ad-hoc nineteen-year trilogy starring Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, and James McAvoy. With their unique character arcs and story beats ostensibly complete it becomes possible to explore the trilogy in its entirety as one holistic piece of storytelling. It will also be valuable to explore these films in the cultural context in which they were received, which evolved a great deal over the extended period of their release. It all begins with young Indian-Pennsylvanian writer-director Manoj Nelliyattu working under his now household pen name. M. Night began his career making a huge splash with The Sixth Sense (1999) which he followed up by penning the script for the remarkably successful family film Stuart Little (1999). With a huge amount of goodwill he then released a gloomy little picture about a security guard from Philadelphia (Willis) who becomes convinced by an eccentric and physically infirm art-gallery owner (Jackson) that he is indestructible. The film was received well-enough but it helped to cement M. Night’s reputation for using “twist” endings to his films on top of the overt supernatural elements; a predilection which polarized audiences, and critics. Following the great live-action Superhero Revival of the early aughts (which continues, unabated, to this day) Unbreakable found itself re-evaluated by audiences, becoming a cult classic
I. Unbreakable (2000)
Though M. Night set out to create a superhero film, he came to the conclusion that origin stories are the most interesting comic book stories, which restrained the scope of the film. The film is a slow and plodding picture lit in moody blues and grays. Characters wear muted colors almost exclusively, the musical score is restrained, and much of its run-time is devoted to quiet moments in a failing marriage. The origin story introduces both a hero in David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and a villain in Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) who forge a relationship in the aftermath of a train crash which leaves David the sole survivor. Fascinated by comic books, and crushed by his own illness, Elijah comes to believe that there must be some members of humanity who are endowed with gifts that would counter-balance his own physical fragility. * He comes to the conclusion that there must be someone out there who is un-breakable. He further feels that he has been gifted with great intelligence to compensate for his physical illness. In the film’s great twist it is revealed that in order to find such a person Elijah deliberately orchestrated several disasters which resulted in the deaths of hundreds. A hotel fire, a plane explosion, and a commuter train derailment. The East rail 117 train heading to Philadelphia had one miraculously unharmed survivor: David Dunn.Though the film opens with some statistics about comic book sales it ends, curiously, in the manner of a biopic or true crime film. As David walks away from Elijah after learning the truth, words appear on-screen to inform us that Dunn led police to Elijah who was arrested and incarcerated in an institution for the criminally insane. This may have simply been the result of a last-minute editing decision but it lends the film an odd touch. Perhaps even an air of verisimilitude. Turning the whole film into a kind of “dramatic reenactment” you might see on TV. In the end Unbreakable’s stated themes are David’s relationship with his family, especially his son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), and our place in the world. David’s relationship to Joseph is easy. To Joseph, his father is already a hero. Being told and discovering that his father has genuine superpowers compels him deeply and galvanizes their relationship. Though this does lead to some erratic acting out (Joseph misguidedly tries to rescue a classmate and later desperately pulls a gun on his father) the secret he shares with his father forges in them a powerful bond. David’s relationship with Audrey is a little more complicated, but also relates directly to the theme of belonging. Audrey apparently knew from a young age what she wanted out of life, and it didn’t include being married to a football player. This caused David to fake an injury in college and abandon his promising football career in order to settle down with Audrey. Though Audrey is as dissatisfied with their marriage as David is, having seemingly asked him to move out, she is happy with her career as a physical therapist which she treats as a kind of calling. On the other hand, David, despite finding work protecting people is depressed and “wakes up feeling sad”. Elijah also is also chronically upset, doubts himself and doesn’t understand where he fits in the world. In his worst moments he believes himself to be a mistake. Helping David to find his place in the world as a Hero helps Elijah to find his as a Villain. Though Elijah is obviously “defeated” and about to be locked up he seems to find peace in this revelation. **
II. Split (2016)
Split is a tense psychological thriller surrounding the abduction of three young women. Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula), and our main heroine Casey Cooke*** (Anya Taylor-Johnson) who are taken by deranged serial-killer Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy). Crumb grew up abused by his mother which has supposedly resulted in the creation of several alternate personalities or “alters” most notably the pathologically neat Dennis (who believes he was born to avoid upsetting Kevin’s short-tempered mother) and the domineering controlling Patricia who seems to be patterned off Kevin’s mother complete with explosive reactions when things are out of place. Kevin’s therapist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) radically believes all of Kevin’s twenty-or-so alters are their own unique identities (a notion which is ultimately proven correct). Though the film eschews a more drastic re-contextualizing “twist” it does deal in character revelations which it slowly unspools throughout the course of the film. Details from the characters’ pasts which have obviously been informing the performance from the beginning. Specifically, Kevin and Casey are each shown to have been abused as children. One of the film’s themes here, as stated by its villain but backed up by the heroine, is transcendence through suffering. A process Kevin considers “purification”. When Casey’s multiple scars are finally visible after her clothes have been torn he decides to let her go. This theme is supported by Casey’s further actions in the film which suggest that surviving this ordeal has steeled her into finally standing up to her abuser. Shyamalan considers the film to be a “wish-fulfillment story about how the thing you’re most scared of, once you overcome that, it releases you.” It is a functional enough idea but remains at odds with the characterization of Kevin Crumb as a man who constructs new identities in order to retreat from the trauma of abuse. When one of his identities turns out to be a super-powered cannibal, Kevin pleads with Casey to euthanize him.
In the years following Unbreakable, M. Night Shyamalan’s career had suffered from several critical failures in a row. Audiences grew openly tired of the now predictable “twist ending”. In M. Night’s own words: ****
“It’s a form that’s inherent to a thriller. A thriller’s a mystery, right? So as soon as you think, What’s going on? … that means there will be a moment of revealing an answer. So you might as well learn that answer along with the main characters.”
However, not only are the answers often unsatisfying conclusions to an overwrought mystery but this has been a running theme in Hollywood, especially speculative fiction, where a deep desire to “outsmart” the audience results in third-act character revelations that don’t do much to improve the film and instead hobble it for the first two acts by forcing the audience to try and connect with incomplete characters. Shyamalan’s latest outing, The Visit (2015) had nevertheless been received quite warmly as a kind of return to form. Split, relying on a breathtaking performance from rising superstar James McAvoy and Taylor-Johnson’s huge doe eyes was a smashing success, which turned out to be exactly the popular momentum Shyamalan needed to begin work on a sequel.
III. Glass (2019)
Glass is first and foremost a compelling film. At the top of his game, Shyamalan is able to construct some of the most watchable dialogue and action in cinema. The second-act of the film, however, sucks all momentum out of the picture. The chief reason for this is that the movie knows something we don’t know. It’s trying to break its characters, which is tough to watch, but it does so meticulously while trying to lay the pieces for its final set piece. But most egregiously, it has minimal pay-off. The idea is there, the idea is properly executed, but it’s not a satisfying watch. It’s perfectly acceptable for films to challenge an audience and their expectations, but I feel that this is a problem that goes away on a second pass. If the audience can be in on the game they can better appreciate how it is played. Dramatic irony can be fundamentally more satisfying than a “twist”. So let’s talk about Glass.
The movie begins with vigilante hero David Dunn (Willis) patrolling the city in search of Kevin Crumb (McAvoy) and his latest victims. David gets lucky and is able to track down Kevin’s hideout with the help of his son. After freeing the victims David and Kevin have a big fight which is brought to an end by the police after which the two are taken to Raven Hill Memorial Psychiatric Hospital under the care of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson). There she attempts to cure Kevin, David, and long-term patient Elijah Price ***** (Jackson) of the “delusion” that they are superhuman. To keep us busy during this time we’re treated to Joseph and Mrs. Price (Clark and Charlayne Woodard returning from Unbreakable) coping with the incarceration of their loved ones along with survivor Casey (Anya Taylor-Johnson) struggling to square the good doctor’s flimsy explanations with what she witnessed firsthand. An endeavor that, despite being filled with fine performances (we’re once again subjected to McAvoy rapidly shuffling through alters like he’s auditioning for SNL), is almost totally devoid of either dramatic tension or narrative propulsion.
Eventually, Elijah and Kevin escape and are confronted by David in the Hospital parking lot. The showdown is then broken up by a squad of paramilitary enforcers who execute the super-humans. It is then revealed that Dr. Staple is a stooge for a secret organization, to which the enforcers belong, responsible for “neutralizing” super-humans in order to keep the knowledge of the existence of superhuman abilities under wraps and prevent conflicts between “good” and “evil” super-humans from causing collateral damage. That Dr. Staple was acting in bad faith from the get-go might have been the sneaking suspicion of many an audience member, but stringing us along for so long feels unwarranted in retrospect. She argues her case methodically and patiently but often does so ludicrously and naively. One is in fact very nearly forced to conclude early on that she is either a deluded fool or purposefully deceitful. If she’s a fool, her crusade is pointless and a waste of time until her ultimate comeuppance, but if she’s a liar then let us know so we can appreciate her skill or feel tension when she’s blowing it.
The three leads all die ignominious deaths in the parking lot, all ushered by a condescending and insincerely empathetic Dr. Staple. Yet we are led to believe that Elijah Price aka Mr. Glass gets the last laugh. His dying words are “This is not a Limited Edition. This was an Origin Story the whole time. I was not a mistake.” The latter is an obvious retread of the ending of Unbreakable but the former presents a particular conundrum. In the twenty or so years since Unbreakable’s release the term “origin story” has become a common phrase. We have seen dozens of them on screen from a dozen studios. Split, yet another origin story, also ends anticlimactically with Kevin simply leaving Casey alone and running off into the night. A confrontation with David is teased at the very end of Split which fueled expectations for Glass, which then ends with the proclamation that it too is still just an origin story. With the main players dead, however, it is difficult to surmise what precisely we are meant to be witnessing the origin of. Traditionally origin stories champion the arrival of a champion. The transformation of some ordinary person into someone extraordinary. This is, perhaps, what M. Night Shyamalan has in mind. While tidying up the aftermath of the battle and executions Ellie Staple (if that is her real name) discovers to her horror that footage of the event has been leaked online. A final message from Mr. Glass sent with the footage urges us to believe in ourselves and to believe in the power of what humans can achieve when they have faith in themselves. Or as the director puts it:
“What I’m interested in saying now is that everyone is super-powerful. You’re incredibly powerful. I’m incredibly powerful.”
Watching films can be a tricky experience. As audiences, we might try to second-guess the film and get to where it’s going first. Or we might be so swept up in the way the film is manipulating our emotions as to have no time to reflect on or appreciate what we are watching. Sometimes we come out of the theater in a daze, confused by what we’ve just seen. There is a certain thrill to novelty, to being surprised. When the awe and wonder of childhood fades with age, many movie-goers complain they feel jaded. Many are convinced the quality of motion-pictures has decreased. Regardless, the funny thing about re-watching movies is that the movie never changes. Unlike a friend re-telling a story, or a singer singing a song, a movie hits the exact same beats, frame by frame, and ends exactly the same way every single time. The viewer though, does change. And yet no matter how many times someone re-watches their favorite movie it still works its magic on them. We all still feel the emotions. We can know exactly what happens next and still grip our seats in suspense. When you’re not worried about how it’s going to end, when you know it’s good, it can even become easier to be transported by the movie experience. Crucially, when you’re not trying to outsmart the movie, you can spend more energy observing it. Spotting things you missed the first time. In the editing room a director might watch their film dozens of times from multiple angles before it’s ever screened. They craft the picture after already knowing it like the back of their hand. This puts the audience at a disadvantage. We’re forced to watch the events unfold with an incomplete picture of how they all fit together, like watching someone play a game or solve a puzzle without understanding the rules ourselves. If we know what the end-state looks like, however, we can better follow along. M. Night likens thrillers to mysteries. Stories that begin with a puzzle and end with a solution. Bad mysteries trick the audience, or present inconceivable solutions full of novel details. But the very best mysteries make us flip all the way back to page 1 so we can experience it all over again, this time fully equipped to relish the clues and navigate the twists. Great films function along the same lines. Knowing the ending or the “twist” spoils nothing. Instead it opens a window into the characters, or the narrative, or the filmmaking process. So-called “spoilers” don’t ruin movies, they make us better viewers.
*Superman Syndrome, though unmentioned in these films, is a genetic condition caused by the existence of an extra Y chromosome in men and is often exaggerated in popular culture to include exceptional muscle or bone density.
** It actually quite beautifully mirrors a scene earlier in the film where Elijah falls down a flight of stairs. His leg is shattered but he rejoices because his suspicion has been confirmed regarding one of David’s supernatural abilities.
*** Like David Dunn before her, this is another alliterative name quite popular in classic comic books. Compare with Clark Kent or Peter Parker.
**** The full interview can be read here: https://www.vulture.com/2019/01/m-night-shyamalan-in-conversation.html
***** From his introduction in Unbreakable to his introduction in Glass the character of Elijah Price by Samuel L. Jackson claims to have suffered an extra 40 broken bones in his lifetime from his tally of 54 in the first film. We know he shatters his right leg in Unbreakable but assuming that’s 1, 2, 3 or even 4 bones (Femur, Tibia, Fibula, patella) still leaves us with three dozen breaks while incarcerated at Raven Hill Memorial Psychiatric Hospital over a period of maybe 19 years while supposedly heavily sedated. A rather astonishing tally.