The author is behind an analysis project about M. Night Shyamalan‘s films. There are several articles on each work: The Sixth Sense (1999, here, here and here), Unbreakable (2000, here, here and here), Signs (2002, here, here, here and here), The Village (2004, here, here and here), Lady in the Water (2006, here and here), The Last Airbender (2010, here and here), After Earth (2013, here and here) and Split (2016, here, here and here). Pieces on The Happening (2008) and The Visit (2015) are forthcoming. All the articles can also be accessed through this overview, which also contains statistical information and links to external articles.
To preserve a pristine experience you should watch the film before reading this article. (It is also obligatory to have seen Unbreakable and Split to appreciate the full force of Glass.) It will start out, however, with some general comments and when entering spoiler territory this will be clearly marked.
(This piece is written as an initial response after three viewings, subsequently updated after more revisits, and the author will return with further analysis upon the Blu-ray release.)
Glass (2019), at 129 minutes M. Night Shyamalan‘s longest film, is the final work of a trilogy. Spanning seven important characters and an extraordinary amount of events, it is a narratively complex work. In this, the finale proves to be as tonally diverse as the previous instalments: Unbreakable (2000), a meditative mood piece, and Split (2016), a character-oriented suspense film.
With Glass, Shyamalan has gone for his new Split team of cinematographer Mike Gioulakis and composer West Dylan Thordson. This probably means a definite change of style. However much I like the director’s rejuvenation with the last three films, I still feel his four contemplative, methodical, often bleak mood pieces from 1999 to 2004 are in the long run artistically and visually richer than his new more energetic works. At 49 Shyamalan’s films are more youthful than at 29! They are very vigorous, however, and Glass is far from bereft from visual style – there is even a Wes Anderson trick at one point, with a 360 degree camera movement, swish-panning between four clearly marked stops on each side of the “square”.
Early parts of Glass deliver quite a few rather static, dialogue-heavy situations – normally not this author’s cup of tea, but the considerable amount of information is conveyed through well-acted scenes that generally contain enough character moments and are shot in a sufficiently interesting way to avoid the info-dump feeling. The chess-like battle of wills makes situations transcend mere dialogue. There are also an emotional intensity and an authorial vision to the proceedings that convince one to go along, and it definitely leads somewhere. (The deepened perspective of repeat viewings reveals the full extent of the tiny touches, discipline and meticulousness of the calmer parts of the film.)
The puzzle pieces are so complex and intelligently handled that I left my first viewing in a state of euphoria. The many twists and turns, the ever-expanding narrative, the plans-within-plans-within-plans and – mostly felt at first but confirmed and enriched on subsequent viewings – a structural beauty both within this film and in seamless communication with the previous instalments: all this provided a tremendous uplift. (Later viewings have produced another form of ecstasy as it becomes clearer, from the point when Mr. Glass becomes active, how seamlessly, efficiently and methodical the events, and mini-events within each scene, are orchestrated, with super-intense effect, also greatly helped by composer Thordson’s hypnotic growlings and rumblings.) The experience was not purely intellectual, however, for the dying seconds of the film inspired a profound emotional response.
Feelings were also stirred every time Anya Taylor-Joy graced the screen as Casey. Even though her part is much smaller than in Split, her elfin face, dark eyes and intensely sincere demeanour turn her into an emotional force of nature. Her bravery and spirited connection with Kevin and his identities are always moving – even the hostile personalities can sense her compassion – especially her physical proximity, always free from all reserve or hesitation, to a sometimes dangerous entity. Like water is for David Dunn, The Beast’s weakness is precisely the emotional bond with her that was forged in the transcendent moment facing Casey in her cage in Split, two victims of abuse recognising each other. As if a harbinger of her future importance to the plot, it is her arrival at the hospital that opens up the geography of the location: for the first time we see the long, narrow park leading up to the building, and when she exits on the other side, the soon-to-be-pivotal shiny skyscraper in the distance is revealed. (Later, a view of that long park is spliced with the dizzyingly long pink room in an inspired touch of editing.) Taylor-Joy is a gift that keeps on giving inspiration for Shyamalan: Casey’s epiphany while finding truth in comic books is hallucinatory and hypnotic.
Otherwise and even though lurking in the shadows early on, as the title indicates, this is Samuel L. Jackson‘s film, as Mr. Glass. (He does not speak until more than an hour into the story!) His criminal mastermind projects superhuman calm and gravitas while mercilessly manipulating his surroundings – and like in Unbreakable he is still providing running meta-analysis of the action seen as an archetypal comic book plot. When he eventually takes over the film, Jackson does a marvellous job of “selling” the whole thing, acting with infectious relish and a number of great lines. His behaviour towards Kevin’s identities is fascinatingly split: he is genuinely respectful and honest with them, while at the same time telling them exactly what they want to hear, in order to win them over to his cause.
As the story’s centre, he gets fierce competition from James McAvoy as the multi-personality Kevin Wendell Crumb, including The Horde and The Beast, who probably has more screen time and gets to show us some hitherto unseen identities that Split did not have room for. He performs The Beast with absolute, fearsome conviction and the other identities with richly detailed, quicksilver precision. It is only with the now firm connection back to Unbreakable that we realise how ideal, with his chorus of competing feelings and fears, Kevin is as an embodiment of the earlier film’s themes of faith and doubt. Bruce Willis as David Dunn, the unbreakable man from the first film, is still stoic but more anonymous. In the early stages there is a recurring motif of interweaving scenes involving all these three characters, through unexpected crosscutting, as if David and Elijah (Mr. Glass) are added to the identities of Kevin, as further manifestations of the same phenomenon and possible mental cases.
It was a pleasure to see Spencer Treat Clark again as David’s son Joseph, pushing thirty but boyish, naïve and socially awkward. Charlayne Woodard returns too as Mr. Glass’s now elderly mother. Sarah Paulson is the only new element in the mix, cool and intelligent, as the android-looking Dr. Staple, a psychiatrist who tries to convince the three captured superbeings that their powers are merely products of their delusions.
Two of her battle-of-the-will dialogues with respectively Casey and the Patricia personality are executed in tight close-ups playing hypnotically on her large dark eyes (although Casey’s eyes are even more intense). Another duel scene, with Elijah, starts with Dr. Staple dominating the image, but then the camera sneaks up to her, to look over her shoulder at the silently scheming Elijah, who is now dominant in the shot, the camera movement hinting at a shift in power between them. (Here a hypnotic musical theme is introduced ever so slightly, which will return at a later important moment concerning them.) The scene where Elijah springs Kevin from his cell is shot in virtuoso fashion – but very discreetly, it took many viewings before I realised its complexity – in an almost two-minute single-take shot, the camera calmly pirouetting around the room and each time it reaches Kevin he has changed into a new identity. The freedom of camera movement, in stark contrast to the controlled style so far, reflects the villains’ liberation.
Glass is a very serious and sincere film. Shyamalan mainly stays away from the humour that has not always served him well – although the terrific The Visit (2015), maybe his most audacious work so far, succeeds splendidly with its bizarre mix of youthful naivete, crazed humour, and mental illness. Comic relief in Glass is mainly provided by McAvoy’s dependable Hedwig personality, and a couple of other new identities, and some slightly odd guards at the mental institution. Clark, who also collects local slang, is delightful in a scene where he thinks he can get his father easily out, and Samuel L. Jackson has a couple of wonderful moments when his intellectual mask is dropping, replaced with a childlike, half-insane grin, as if he is actually confirming the authorities who “almost convinced me I was crazy”. Finally, some of The Beast’s behaviour during the climax is clearly intended to be lightly absurd, and there is a priceless here-we-go-again moment when the Dennis personality replicates his abduction from Split by throwing two hospital volunteers into a van, shown in a brisk overhead shot that makes it look very matter-of-fact.
The (few) fight scenes are meant to be down-to-earth, in contrast to the hugely more expensive Marvel and DC superhero films. Those are also mischievously commented upon by a comparison with a new building in Philadelphia, a tower that is called a technological “marvel”, with a cheaper arena for super-heroics, a very mundane parking lot.
SPOILER WARNING – the rest of the article will concern itself with references to the earlier two films of the trilogy and many other structural items, in the process revealing many important plot points.
Unsurprisingly, Glass is teeming with references and callbacks to the two earlier films of the trilogy. (The following is probably just the most obvious ones detected so far.)
- The colours green and purple are still connected to David and Elijah respectively (and yellow to Kevin). Green is the prime colour of the Dunn family’s security shop and like the swimming pool that almost became David’s death trap in Unbreakable was covered with a green tarpaulin, the same is the case with the water tower meant to keep David in check at the psychiatric ward. In a late scene at Mrs. Price’s home, purple is everywhere: in the curtains, which are then reflected in a tabletop and finally in her computer screen. The super-villain The Penguin wears a purple hat in a clip from the 1960s Batman TV show, and the film’s end titles are purplish white.
- When David returns home in an early scene to a house full of memories of his dead wife Audrey, as he enters we see the important staircase in the background, where he carried her upstairs in an euphoric late scene in Unbreakable. He also hangs his coat up on an empty row of hangers, contrasting the moment before that staircase scene…
- Elijah’s traumatic childhood flashback is concluded with him lying on his bed after having undergone an operation:
- The shot of Mr. Glass as he emerges clad in his old purple clothes is reminiscent of several shots in Unbreakable with the same composition. (And pricelessly, in real comic book fashion, at this point of full reinstatement as a super-villain, his old parting of his hair has returned too, instead of his unruly, circular mane so far.)
- When David is in his most dejected state in Glass, he sits with head bowed close to the cell wall and a distorted reflection of his face is seen on it.
- This Youtube video perceptively points out that in the late scene with Elijah’s mother at home, children can be heard playing outside, which points far back to the 13-year-old Elijah and his first comic book in a playground outside his apartment. The video also links the members of the secret society in Glass having clover tattoos on their wrists with this scene in Unbreakable…
- Like in Unbreakable, there are (several) pivotal moments caused by discoveries made in a comic book store. The “literal turning point” device from Unbreakable returns too: in Glass, Joseph suddenly realises that a comic book cover he just passed contains a vital idea. This turning point is marked by him turning physically around to face the rack of comics…
- Christopher Bostin amusingly returns as a “comic book counter guy”…
- When Dr. Staple shakes David’s hand to reveal her real purpose in the plot…
- When David touches people like this he will have visions, where criminal perpetrators stand out with strong colours:
- There are many overhead shots, a Shyamalan trademark prevalent in his earliest films, and many shots from under the water, looking up at the world through its distorted surface, like in Unbreakable. (This also happens in the climax of Lady in the Water.)
- The first time we finally see Dr. Staple in profile, there is a lateral travelling shot from a close-up of her to Joseph on the other side of the desk and back again – this replicates a memorable shot from Unbreakable when Elijah was trying to convince David and Joseph that superpowers do exist. In Glass, however, the doctor tries to persuade Joseph that such powers are delusional.
- When Elijah is transported to a lobotomy session there is a point-of-view shot of him looking up at the ceiling that is reminiscent of Casey, she too drugged, being transported through the corridors of The Horde’s hideout after she was captured in Split.
- Casey is still wearing the same jacket, emblazoned with Philadelphia Zoo, which she got to keep her warm when being led up from the cellars of the zoo in Split, and which she also wore in the police car when deciding to break with her abusive uncle:
- During the climax The Beast drags one of his police victims out of sight behind a car, a visual nod to a situation in Split, as Casey discovered one of her fellow captives in the process of being devoured by him:
- When Kevin is forced into the light during the pink room scene, there is a subtle Vertigo effect, where the background comes closer but the framing of his close-up is unchanged. This manipulation is reminiscent of the memorable opening scene of Split:
- There is a travelling shot along a restaurant counter during a revelatory scene that is replicated from the equally revelatory diner epilogue in Split.
- A train is seen passing near the end in a symbolic shot (we will come back to that); this is reminiscent of the railway bridge in Split towards the end as part of the clues piling up that it is a sequel to Unbreakable.
- Mr. Glass uses a shard of glass to kill a nurse, calling back to a Shyamalan film outside this universe but the link is so emphatic that it must be included: the heroine of The Visit has a phobia against mirrors and uses a shard from precisely such an object as a weapon.
- As already pointed out on the internet, the water-filled hole in the ground in which David is drowned has a form suspiciously similar to the swimming pool in Lady in the Water, in both films this can only be seen in overhead shots.
Visual shards from Unbreakable and Split are elegantly fused into the narrative pane of Glass. (In hindsight, this assemblage technique is another reason for the surprising choice of Cinemascope for Split, essentially a chamber piece, to make it fit visually with the rest of the trilogy.) There are four “deleted scenes” from the earlier films, the three first ones in the list from Unbreakable:
- A moving situation in Joseph’s bedroom where the boy, overcome with emotion, declares his belief in his father’s superpowers. Here there is a nice touch in the enveloping Glass shots: the flashback starts when Joseph is out on the street but as it ends he sits in the car – wrapped up in memories his body has moved on its own volition. Immediately before, the power of the memory is signalled by an overhead shot that, after the camera pans, turns into an upside-down image, of which there were many in Unbreakable. (This is the first of the scenes “lifted” from the earlier films – with the strategy still unknown, an eerie feeling is produced when David Dunn steps out of the shadows to reveal the Bruce Willis of 19 years ago.)
- (The next three are traumatic childhood recollections on the part of the superbeings.) David relives the situation where he almost drowned in a pool as a boy. This scene is only talked about in Unbreakable.
- A horrifying scene where Elijah sneaks into some sort of pendulum ride at a fairground but his makeshift padding gives way, leaving him with multiple fractures after being thrown around in the cabin. (Elijah is about seven here, an age period not portrayed in Unbreakable, so this could theoretically have been specially made for the new film.)
- Split provides a short scene where Kevin’s abusive mother is hunting him down with a steaming iron in her hand, providing a brief return for Rosemary Howard in that role. (Might the mother too have had Dissociative Identity Disorder? It is said that Kevin’s father is looking for a doctor to treat her abusive behaviour and before his death we see him looking at information about DID. Most likely, however, this is because Kevin already has developed the disorder: in Split Dennis says Kevin was abused already at three, and that was the time the Dennis personality emerged, and the boy at the train station in Glass is about ten.)
The markedly different styles of James Newton Howard and new composer Thordson serve to emphasise the long time passed since the action of the first film and when Howard cues do turn up it is as if distant memories are conjured up. The sometimes fusion of Howard’s Unbreakable and Thordson’s Split and Glass themes produces an eerie effect. They are transplanted both ways. Howard cues appear in related scenes in Glass. Furthermore, not only may Thordson themes from Split accompany scenes in Glass, but they will also colour shards from Unbreakable. This happens most memorably when a new scene, depicting Kevin’s father getting on the train, is fused with the old scene that first introduces us to a depressed David Dunn in Unbreakable, now with a mournful Thordson touch…
This brings us to one of the many revelations in Glass: that Kevin’s father was actually killed in the same derailing that killed everyone else on the train except David Dunn. (Yet another resonance: it is Joseph, the son of the sole survivor, who breaks the news of this to Kevin/The Beast.) Thus, Kevin’s multiple identities and ultimately the super-villain The Beast was yet another creation by Mr. Glass. This was telegraphed, rather heavily one might add, when Kevin in Split put down a bouquet on the railway platform, obviously in memory of his father, before turning into The Beast for the first time.
Still, I could not get this to fit. I was working under the false assumption that Kevin’s family lived in Philadelphia proper, and it is said that Kevin’s father left the family never to be seen again. (His mother has obviously kept his father’s death in the wreck a secret.) So how could the father be killed on a train that was arriving in Philadelphia? The answer is of course that Kevin’s family lived in Trenton and got on at the same station that we see outside in the scene that introduces David Dunn:
This train situation returns in Glass in the sense that like Elijah killed everyone else on the train to find his superhero, at the end of the new film he also kills the superbeings he has found, including himself, in order to reveal the existence of people with extraordinary powers, not only to himself like in Unbreakable but to the whole world. Also, he is not only a creator of superbeings, he is a recreator, because in Glass he is restoring the others’ faith in themselves and thus their superpowers, and an immortaliser by making their super-feats transcend their deaths. (Through his self-sacrifice Elijah atones, on the some level, for the cruelty of killing all those people in the past. This ruthless manipulator and mass murderer has lived a life in pain and social isolation so his personality is born out of that – and like some hurt people he will try to hurt others – so it is possible to feel sorry for him.)
Somehow he knows there exists a secret society to suppress the knowledge of superbeings, which has to be outsmarted. This is why it is said in the film that he is on a “suicide mission” and he himself calls it an “origin story”. The revelation that goes viral, the recording of the protagonists doing super-feats, seems meant to inspire other superbeings that must exist in the world to acknowledge their powers. (On a metaphorical level the “message” of the film is not to let conformity – represented by Dr. Staple who try to convince the superbeings they are nothing special – quash individual visions and capabilities, in all walks of life.)
As the writer Adrian Pennington pointed out to me on Facebook, the credits sequence foreshadows Elijah’s endgame trick by showing the punks who film their own acts of violence and post them on social media – while even play-acting to have superpowers. And as the IMDb trivia states, the comic book clerk tells Casey about Action Comics No. 1, “whose cover classically portrays Superman holding a motor vehicle over his head, shaking the crooks out of it,” and the very last second of Glass includes a TV screen showing The Beast upending a police car to eliminate the cops in it. So a similar image “that kicked off the world of [superhero] comics reveals the ‘Unbreakable’ universe to the ‘real’ world.”
That last shot (above, top) takes place in a railway station: when the camera has pulled further back, the TV screen appears in the rightmost part of the frame, where a newscaster reports about the breaking story of real superbeings, then the reportage cuts to The Beast and the police car. (The similarity is most certainly not a coincidence – we speak of the most iconic comic book cover of all time.) I can myself add that this connects very nicely to the fact that the title (Active Comics) and logo iconography of Elijah’s very first comic book, which ignited his superhero obsession, is an obvious reference to that very Action Comics. And we have already seen how Elijah’s comic foreshadows the battle between David Dunn and The Beast decades later. Glass is truly a hall of mirrors of structural beauty!
So ultimately, the multiple revelations in Glass include the fact that what we have thought of as the protagonists turn out to be mere transitional figures in a larger scheme of things. The revelation of the secret society is a quietly astonishing coup de théâtre, as an everyday restaurant scene is twisted into something sinister in a split second.
Have there ever been more death scenes in a film? Not only do all three superbeings die, but Shyamalan carefully lets a number of Kevin’s personalities show themselves as he lays dying, in an overwhelmingly resonant scene with Casey looking down at him, accompanied by this supremely sorrowful music. Kevin’s only friend in life is giving him peace in his dying moments. (But having prevented him from leaving the scene she has also caused his death.) Shyamalan and McAvoy make it so heartrendingly clear how they are all tragic figures born out of immense pain – even the Dennis personality, the abductor and abuser, causes great empathy in us, a helpless victim to his obsessions even in his last seconds. The idea of Kevin’s various identities “having the light” is movingly transformed as Kevin himself decides to hold on to it to the end, since seeing a blinding light is commonly connected with dying. And in death everyone is equal, with no more need for the identities to fight for having the light. (Later, there is another achingly emotional moment when Casey’s face is reflected in a computer screen watching Elijah’s recordings of The Beast.)
David Dunn’s final moments are filmed from below water while his head is pressed under again and again in an exceedingly powerful and mystical shot, stretched out in time, his entire body shrouded in his dark uniform billowing about him in the water. The bullies that almost killed him by drowning as a young boy have metaphorically returned to finish the job. It is also satisfying to see Dr. Staple taking care to give both Elijah and David closure before they die.
It happens in threes
Three superbeings, three films titled after each of them, three flashbacks to traumatic childhood scenes, and like in Split three people attempting to break out of confinement, with Mr. Glass taking Casey’s place as the analytical mind in this process. Even Shyamalan’s cameo in Glass fits into this threefold motif. The dialogue of his appearance here sums up his early antisocial behaviour dealing drugs at David’s stadium and squares it with his current position as a janitor (as we saw in Split). He has righted his life through “positive thinking”, spoofing a public persona of the director often connected with new-age-like thinking and also how he has turned around his directorial career over the last few years.
In addition to the death scenes, the emotional climax of Glass comes at the very end. (It is gently followed up by the end titles presenting iconic moments from the whole trilogy, captured in 27 shards of glass – where also the hypnotic Dr. Staple/Elijah musical theme returns, triumphantly played at full force.) I was wholly unprepared for the power unleashed by the final three clips from the predecessors of Glass, all reprising pivotal moments for each of the three prime supporting characters in the last film: Casey, Joseph and Elijah’s mother.
We have Casey’s look at The Beast as he turns away outside the cell and leaves her, sparing her life, and via the clip bidding her a final farewell. The most heart-breaking of them all: the sudden glimpse of David indicating to Joseph that the boy must keep David’s secret identity from his mother during the kitchen scene in Unbreakable – the reason I selected that shot for the top image of this article. The images of a benign father and the son responding with all his heart in this shard formulated the essence of mutual father-son love with utmost clarity. It is even more resonant since just before, Joseph observed a lady watch his father’s super-feats in the viral video – in the end the son broke his vow of silence but the legacy of a great man is secured. (Both Casey and Joseph’s shards can be seen here.)
In another sign of the immense structural richness of Glass, in the early scene when David comes home, we see Audrey in that kitchen, preparing food with her back to him. This is soon revealed to be just David’s memory of her, but as he sees her he says “I have to tell you something”. The reason for her position is that in that very kitchen scene between David and Joseph, she was standing in the exact same way, with her back to them making food. Now David regrets never having told her his secret before she died of cancer five years ago. He even sits at the same place at the table as in the long-ago scene (and the kitchen still have the same green chairs). The scene ends with his head turned ever so slightly towards where the vision appeared: his grief and longing for her is a constant in his life.
Above is the third clip, connected to Elijah’s mother: she sits on a bench with her son and the life-changing present, his first comic book. In Unbreakable she says, very fittingly, “they say this has a surprise ending.” The clip is silent, however, we only see her lips moving, and since it appears while her 19-year-older self says “I know what this is – this is the moment we are let in on the universe,” it looks like she is not only saying this to her two companions in the railway station, but also to her son across time. (All three clips are silent and somehow they become even more moving by being accompanied by the musical theme connected to Elijah, who has orchestrated the events leading to this meeting and thus caused these reminiscences.)
The three prime supporting characters are brought together gradually along the way. Joseph and Casey are shown intersecting thrice in the film: (1) there is a photo of the former pupil Joseph as we see Casey at school, (2) as Joseph leaves the hospital Casey is arriving, and (3) they visit the same comic book store without seeing each other. Furthermore, all three are having individual interviews with Dr. Staple. Narrative screws are later tightened in a memorable shot of them arriving individually at the psychiatric hospital to join forces.
Near the end we see all three of them separately receiving Elijah’s all-important digital message, and these scenes form a curious countdown in their number of shots: 4 to 3 to 2 until the film’s last scene is kicked off with an enigmatic shot of the city. This actually carries symbolic meaning, because it contains a skyscraper, a train and a railway station. Not only does this fit the threefold motif but the objects are linked to the three superbeings: the glass-facade skyscraper that was important to his plan (which I suspect is a touched-up Cira Centre) is obviously emblematic for Mr. Glass; a train accident uncovered David Dunn’s superhero persona; and the station was The Beast’s birthplace.
Following on with even more closure, in the final scene the supporting characters have formed a new trio to supplant the super-powered troika, including replicating their colour schemes: Joseph has a dark green jacket, Elijah’s mother a purple outfit, Casey a jacket with yellow flowers.
In Glass the shards of three shattered families will fuse into a new constellation. Inside the railway station that is such an important location in this universe, the mother who has lost her boy again sit on a bench, having gained two new children: a girl and a young man who both have lost their parents.