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Saturday, 9 February 2019

Movie review: Glass, dir M Night Shyamalan (2019)

This ambitious, low-budget production relies heavily on dialogue to create drama and as far as it is a success it is a solid antidote to the more-common mediocre big-budget CGI extravaganzas that we tend to think about when superheroes are discussed. The plot is a bit complex but it hinges on what goes on inside a mental institution in Philadelphia where three men under the care of a single doctor named Dr Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) are being treated because they think they are comic-book heroes.

Elijah Price (Samuel L Jackson) calls himself Mr Glass although for most of the movie he is mute, apparently bound up in a chemical straitjacket by antipsychotics. He is joined by David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a vigilante who uncovers the whereabouts of a group of schoolgirls who had been abducted by the Beast (James McAvoy). Staple is in charge of the treatment of all three of these men and all goes according to her plan until one night Price escapes from his cell and with the man who manifests the Beast (who has multiple personalities) gets out of the building. Dunn also escapes and there is a fight in the parking lot.

While the fight and its aftermath are conclusive, Price has the last laugh. Staple turns out to be an operative of a shadowy organisation that tasks itself with uncovering people who have unusual physical and mental powers, and eliminating them. But even when Staple thinks that the danger has been subdued, Price’s revenge emerges.

Apart from the major roles named there are some strong secondary characters. Spencer Treat Clark plays Dunn’s son Joseph, Anya Taylor-Joy plays Casey Cooke, a woman who had survived an earlier encounter with the Beast, and Charlayne Woodard plays Price’s mother. There are also two nursing staff who are given a fair amount of work to do: Pierce played by Luke Kirby and Daryl played by Adam David Thompson.

The institution is suitably creepy and Pierce is a suitably uncaring staff member, and the place does its job in the wider scheme of things. There is a message here about exceptional individuals and the way that they tend to be ignored by the mainstream, and if the movie can be seen to have any coherent idea it is that everyone is due respect for the things that they can do, even if what that is at first appears to be a little strange. So there is a redemptive theme that ties together all of the different threads in the movie (about childhood abuse and neglect, about compassion and the transformative power of love, and about the sanctity of the individual). So far so good.

A lot of the movie’s power stems from the acting of the three main players, and McEvoy has to be singled out for the creative way he interprets the different personalities he is tasked with conveying to the audience. I think however that he slightly overdoes the transitional phases that he uses to cut between the different characters he has to communicate. A little less growling and grunting would have been appreciated.

In true Hitchcock mode, the director makes an appearance in Dunn’s security products shop posing as a customer. You can see how he wants to be thought of, and the reliance in this movie on the things the characters say underscores the resemblance with the master of suspense in the 20th century.

There are some strong pieces of directing beyond the routine growling McEvoy treats the audience to. Near the end of the movie, when Cooke grasps with her hands the heavyset arm of the personality played by McAvoy, you sense something subtle taking place. The mere fact of physical contact in a way that is meant to convey kindness and empathy serves to communicate more than any number of words might do. Little highlights of cinematic excellence such as this remind you of the director’s skill, especially since the props used in the movie cost virtually nothing and there is minimal reliance on special effects.

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