I’ll admit, the first shot of Glass didn’t fill me with much confidence. A masculine bodied person, wearing a dress, stalks into a room to intimidate a new batch of abducted young girls. It spoke to everything that I hated about Split: its stigmatisation of non-normative bodies, the casual nature of its depictions of abuse. Our first glimpse into the lives of our self-identifying heroes and villains disappointingly confirms that not much has changed.
James McAvoy’s DID suffering Kevin is still capturing teenage girls in order to feed his animalistic alter ego, The Beast. Bruce Willis’ David Dunn is walking the streets in the same green mac doling out justice to petty criminals — in this case a couple Logan Paul esque youtube pranksters, their depiction is baffling and leads into a bizarre extended riff about salt bae. Shyamalan is never so strange as when he tries to be relatable. Samuel L. Jackson’s Elijah Price is detained and kept under sedation after his arrest for causing the train derailment those eighteen years ago.
Stasis can be comforting in its own way, but it is overwhelmingly empty. It robs us of the chance to evolve, leads us to repeating the same patterns of failure that we come to believe define us. The news is baffled by the kidnappings, headlines in every background read, ‘Who is The Hoard?’ Conspiracy theory websites are abuzz over recent sightings of The Overseer. Dunn and his son own a family security company and have settled into a comfortable routine; Kevin might still be a murdering abductor but at least, we are told, has managed to reach a consensus between their various identities that this is who they want to be.
Then Shyamalan enters, in traditional cringeworthy style, reprises his role from Unbreakable and tells us what the movie is going to be about. He was a drug dealer down by the stadium, now he’s finally cleaned up his act. Getting better is always possible when you put in the work, you just need to make sure you’re expending the energy in the right places.
Split was a film that wallowed in abuse, that which its leads’ suffered, that which they would inflict upon each other. In the singularity of its obsession, the text itself became abusive: condemning its leads for the way that they survived their past. Distilling the totality of their experiences down into a simple monster/martyr dichotomy confined them both. They were not allowed to engage with their trauma yet it could dictate their actions all it pleased.
It’s no coincidence that the majority of this joint, one which concerns itself with healing trauma mostly takes place in a psychiatric institution. See, at the opening, while the characters remain static the filmmaking proceeds at a pretty solid clip. The father & son crimefighting duo put in some detective work, find the abandoned lair where the captives are being held, free them and proceed to get into a tussle. Then the police arrive and the film reverses its approach.
A new character is introduced, a psychiatrist played by Sarah Paulson.
These men are ill, we are told, and will be detained until they get better. For the whole of the second act we barely leave their padded cells as they put in the work to truly understand who they are. It’s hard for me to convey how exciting this is, watching these people forced into dialogue with themselves. All at once, Kevin’s condition is destigmatised, Dunn forced to grapple with his years spent unexamined.
I will not wade too deeply into spoiler territory, you’ve seen the trailers I’m sure. You will know that the catatonic Mr Glass will not always stay that way. Let it be known though that the climax of this joint is one that proposes radical self acceptance as an ultimate form of healing. Outside of the institution each of our characters has a significant other — mother, son, former victim — who are trying to make sense of the incarceration. They actively reject the traditional notions of wellness trying to be enforced, approaching their charges with understanding and compassion.
Shyamalan, along with Split cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, shoot with empathy in mind. We will slip freely into seeing characters points of view for extended periods, we wants to encourage us to notice the difference between seeing and regarding. A notable shot has McAvoy pacing uncomfortably across an inconsiderate frame, uncaring of his character’s distress. Find the contrast to later, the peace with which it falls upon his eyes when he is confronted with someone who sees more than the pathology.
As the piece comes to a close, it more knowingly toys with its own artifice. Repeatedly cutting to security camera footage invites us to consider the nature of audience as spectator. As we remember from Unbreakable, Mr Glass is fully invested in his own self-mythologisation, every event as seen through his eyes must be interpreted through their lens. As he asserts his will over the film, it loses its iterative nature. The promised climax does not arrive, the requisite twists are ran through hurriedly, disrupting the prior languorous pace.
When did it become so important to us as an audience to know things? Reward perhaps, the idea that a complete knowledge of the facts represents a complete knowledge of a character? Their lives deterministically laid out for us, either to be unsurprising or disappointed. Shyamalan realises the emptiness of such an approach, and rather than succumbing to it chooses instead to blow the whole thing up.
Glass is a movie about unwell people who don’t need to be fixed or understood. That’s not their role in life, either as characters for an audience nor people for their acquaintances. The only person that we owe that understanding to is ourselves. This film breaks down how this can be achieved, in our lives and our stories. It demonstrates these lives and offers them potential avenues for growth, both in healthy and unhealthy directions and then leaves the audience to decide what to do.
It ends on the characters looking out over the world, a world that they have given the possibility of improvement. But, as over the course of the film we have learned, they are also looking out at us. Can we learn from them, or are we just destined to make the same mistakes?
Glass is currently screening in UK cinemas.