Everything is relative. Life is graded on a curve. What’s amazing today becomes commonplace tomorrow. What was unthinkable in the past is boringly routine in the present. This is true in relationships, politics, economics, and even art and entertainment. Very few of us hold true to any sort of permanent standards or expectations. Which may explain why what should be the best of all possible worlds frequently isn’t.
This edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown is considering a filmmaker who’s relying a lot on our shifting assumptions in order to keep making movies. M. Night Shyamalan erupted into the public consciousness with “The Sixth Sense” (1999), affirmed his brilliance and popularity with “Signs” (2002) and then…oof. After a string of motion pictures as embarrassingly bad as anything a big name creator has ever produced, Shyamalan is trying to claw his way back to respectability.
"Did you take my sandwich?"
That journey started with “The Visit” (2015), a horror flick that garnered attention for being the first Shyamalan film in a decade to not suck out loud. He’s now trying to complete his career resurrection by completing a trilogy that began all the way back in 2000 with “Unbreakable,” Shyamalan’s still critically acclaimed but financially failed attempt at real life super-heroes. Now he’s tied up the loose ends with “Split” (2016) and “Glass” (2019). How does his original vision hold up in the age of Marvel flicks making billions of dollars around the world? It’s all relative.
“Split” is a three-track tale of survival that’s built on a really clever hook and help up by narrative density and the scenery-chewing performance of James McAvoy. He plays Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man with 23 split personalities, who starts off the movie by abducting three teenage girls. Held captive by three of Kevin’s personalities, the repressed OCD sex fiend Dennis, the chillingly proper Patricia, and the perpetually nine-years-old Hedwig, the girls are imprisoned in an underground lair to await the arrival of a new and monstrous 24th personality known only as The Beast. A second storyline focuses on Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), her efforts to help Kevin through interacting with a fashionista personality named Barry, and the goal of convincing the medical community that multiple personalities are capable of manifesting themselves physically in seemingly unexplainable ways. And while twisting those two plot threads together, Shyamalan sprinkles in a series of flashbacks of one of the captive girls (Anya Taylor-Joy) and the horrific underside of her idyllic appearing youth.
"You can tell me if you did."
“Split” is…okay. That may not seem like high praise but remember, this is all relative. After the progressively more spectacular dumpster fires that were “The Village” (2004), “Lady in the Water” (2006), “The Happening” (2008), “The Last Airbender” (2010), and “After Earth” (2013), seeing a Shyamalan flick that didn’t make you want to go to his home, cut off his face, and make him eat it was a refreshing surprise. It’s low budget, PG-13 suspense schlock elevated by a truly gifted filmmaker and a talented leading man into something worth watching.
Shyamalan’s screenplay is smart. And I mean legitimately smart, not just the prettied up stupid ideas of a smart person. Some of the dialog is still cringingly awkward and makes you wish young Shyamalan had never picked up his first thesaurus and the tension suffers a little from two of the captive girls disappearing from the story for a long stretch, but this story not only unfolds in a believable fashion but it’s all happens to believably human characters.
"I won't get mad or nuthin', honest!"
This film is also a powerful argument in favor of limitations. It was made for very little money by Hollywood standards and those restrictions forced Shyamalan to focus his talents like a laser on getting the most out of what he had. Or perhaps it was the lack of all the creature comforts or cinematic bells and whistles you get with eight- and even nine-figure movie budgets that freed him to concentrate on simply telling his tale in the most effective way possible. Either way, the entire motion picture industry should take note of this proof that you don’t always have to spend money to make money.
“Split” was, in fact, so successful commercially and critically that it set the stage for “Glass” to be a minor cultural event. Does it live up to that hype?
"JUST TELL ME IF YOU TOOK MY SANDWICH!"
“Glass” is…okay. A lot of the things that went right with “Split” go right here again. The difference is that “Glass” is what I mentioned before, a smart person’s genuinely stupid idea. It brings Kevin Wendell Crumb together with the two main characters of “Unbreakable.” David Dunn (Bruce Willis) discovered he was a nigh-invulnerable hero with a weakness for water and the supernatural ability to detect evil thanks to the machinations of a brittle-boned genius who calls himself Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson). Now they and Crumb are imprisoned under the care of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a woman who specializes in treating people with delusions of being super-heroes. She says she has three days to convince Crumb, Dunn, and Glass they are just ordinary folks or…well, the movie’s not entirely clear what happens. After a whole lot of talking, The Beast and Mr. Glass team up to battle Dunn until a twist ending that sadly reminds us of why we stopped watching M. Night Shyamalan movies in the first place.
“Glass” is a very well-structured screenplay that ties a lot of elements together in often unexpected ways and successfully builds to a underwhelming conclusion that both fulfills and defies your anticipation. The problem is that it never quite overcomes its fundamentally dumb origins. I don’t want to spoil a lot because it is a watchable flick and a lot of that depends on not knowing every twist and turn that’s coming, so let me give you just one example of the stupidity anchor weighing this thing down.
I can't tell if Paulson is giving a bad performance or a good performance of a woman who is a really bad liar.
When Dunn and The Beast are captured, they are held captive in a psychiatric hospital. Dunn’s son shows up and tries to convince Dr. Stapler that his dad is innocent and should be set free, except all he offers her is a badly conceived excuse. Why didn’t he bring a lawyer with him? I mean, he’s in his early 20s which is more than old enough to know that if your father gets arrested while trying to save some cheerleaders from a psychopath, the first thing you do is find an attorney. On what legal grounds is David Dunn being held prisoner? What is he charged with? What evidence exists against him? Why is there some three-day time limit hanging over them? The film never asks nor answers any of those questions.
You might think those are supposed to be the sorts of things covered by suspension of disbelief but when that sort of idiocy is running through a film’s foundation, it undermines all the other fine work that goes into it. And that idiocy then erupts to the surface during a triple-twist ending where Shyamalan completely misses the emotional mark, much like he did in “Unbreakable.” That film fizzled with audiences because as wonderfully crafted as it was, Shyamalan delivered dread and gloom where both the viewers wanted and the story demanded joy and exhilaration. Which is something highlighted in “Glass” by a scene with Dunn and his now-grown son and the fun they have talking about dad’s super-hero exploits. There’s NOTHING like that in “Unbreakable” and it rendered a masterfully made film ultimately unsatisfying.
I mean, there's no water in here. Why doesn't David at least TRY and break those chains?
Which also describes “Glass.” It’s certainly worth seeing relative to the other garbage that comes out in theaters and there’s some comfort in knowing that Shyamalan has now made three films in a row that don’t qualify as cinematic atrocities, but this Throwdown definitely has to be awarded to “Split.” When that movie ends, it leaves you interested in what comes next. “Glass” fails to live up to those expectations, even relatively speaking.
Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
Starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Izzie Coffey, Brad William Henke, Sebastian Arcelus, Neal Huff, and Ann Wood.
Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
Starring James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard, Adam David Thompson, and Luke Kirby.
Am I the only one a little creeped out by Shyamalan's "physical affection heals mental trauma" thing? Especially with such a young actress?