I’m looking at you, M. Night!
I recently saw M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass. It’s exactly what you’d expect from the infamous director – shreds of interesting ideas, bafflingly unnatural dialogue, uneven performances, and… of course… a big “twist” at the end. The man’s work has almost become synonymous with the idea of a twist itself. And it’s why M. Night is often his own worst enemy. He undercuts his own ideas, which have enough potential to sprout in fruitful, interesting directions. But he’s obsessed with removing the floor upon which he sets his stage, and even though Glass is among the less-egregious examples of this, it’s a symptom of a man who doesn’t get his own genius.
The idea of throwing in a twist ending to surprise your audience is predicated on a set of ill-conceived ideas, ideas which M. Night must have ingrained in his skull:
Assertion – “Movies are about the plot – the audience is always waiting to see what happens next. By subverting their expectations, you deprive them of the predictability inherent in generic works of art. You create something fresh.”
This seems logical enough, and I’d even be tempted to consider it. But consider this – surely, you have a favorite movie. There is some movie you pop in every once in a while, or which you have seen countless times. Let’s take an example most of us are familiar with – Star Wars: A New Hope. We needn’t go into specifics, as the film is so iconic and ubiquitous in our collective conscience that people use salt shakers shaped like R2D2 – and you can easily picture this in your head. I truly do not know how many times I’ve seen A New Hope. The movie exists in my mind as a blur of images, sounds, feelings so deeply ingrained that I often forget about the plot itself. Rewatching the film is always, inevitably, a trip down memory lane. I know the film by heart, but am never positive that Luke will manage to destroy the Death Star. I always hope that Han Solo will show up at the end, distracting Darth Vader’s TIE fighter, to save the day. But I have to watch – just to make sure. So why, M. Night, do I return to A New Hope so often? I know the plot through-and-through. The movie has no surprises left for me. It’s a neat, predictable story of the hero’s journey. Everything can be linked to other classic works, great tales of folklore, mythology – its plot is among the least original. According to the above assertion, audiences should have moved on from A New Hope years ago. Nobody is surprised by it any more. One’s expectations cannot be subverted. And yet, millions still watch it. And I can’t help but be on the edge of my seat when I do. I’m waiting to see what happens next, even though I know what happens next.
Our favorite movies are not our favorite movies because of anything to do with plot. Plot and story are distinct, and it’s crucial to know this difference. Plot is what happens in your story: Darth Vader chases Leia, Leia puts the Death Star plans in the droids, the droids escape to Tatooine, and on and on and on. A twist is a function of plot – it is another “beat.” When Darth Vader tells Luke in Empire that he is his father, that is a plot point. It is something that happens. That is the realm of twist. Plot! But, if you noticed, plot is exactly what we don’t remember about movies, outside of the most important moments. How many times have you watched a movie and completely forgotten about a bunch of stuff that happens? “Gee, I forgot that R2D2 gets zapped by these little weirdos. The beginning of this movie is pretty boring!” Focusing on plot, on the details and details only, is where M. Night loses his audience. He forgets that the plot must only service the story, and nothing else.
The story is what the movie is about. A farm boy pursues the path to becoming a Jedi, to follow in the legacy of his father, and destroy the evil Empire. There. That’s the story. Everything that happens in A New Hope serves this purpose.
What’s the story of Glass? That’s where M. Night shines. Superheros are given reason to doubt that they are superheros. They fight to reaffirm their own powers and to live out their superhero destiny. Now isn’t that one of your better ideas, M. Night? And his stories are usually decent. There are the germs of good ideas in all of his work. But the details betray him. I don’t think M. Night knows a good idea when it hits him in the face. In an age over-saturated with superhero films, we need stories doubting the validity of their power. We need renunciation and reaffirmation. We need development. I want to see them doubt themselves – surely this is inevitable as the genre stagnates. There’s a moment when super-genius Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) enters the room of Kevin (James McAvoy) in an attempt to convince him that this is all an elaborate scheme. That he is a mastermind of unprecedented proportions. That he planned everything. And we have every reason to doubt him. Jackson plays it perfectly – we can’t tell if he’s lying, genuine, crazy, or just messing with Kevin. It’s ambiguity for the story’s sake – it pushes us deeper into the shadow of doubt. Who should we believe? Is Mr. Glass capitalizing on his circumstances, or is he really living out a comic-book drama? A showdown will set things straight. M. Night builds anticipation to his climactic finale beautifully. I really felt the momentum of the story gaining. My heart was beating. The movie had finally kicked into gear. I couldn’t wait to see what happened next.
But M. Night squanders his story in service of his plot. He throws in a twist ending – the insane asylum holding the superheros actually belongs to a secret order, committed to shutting down and murdering real-life superheros. When this is revealed to us, it comes off like a balloon being gently poked with a sharp pencil. It pops. We realize that they were really super-powered the whole time, and that everything up to the end has been a lie, an attempt to fool the audience into questioning their powers. We never should have doubted them! But, but… M. Night! It was interesting when you made me question whether or not Bruce Willis actually has a kryptonite-like aversion to water, or whether it’s all in his head. I liked when James McAvoy’s “Beast” became less literal, and more symbolic. When Sam Jackson might have just been another crazy person. This is the story! This is what makes the movie good. And M. Night doesn’t even know it.
Another twist retroactively links Split to Unbreakable, the two prequels to Glass, also undercutting the stories of those films. It’s just… dumb. Predictably, M. Night loses his grip on the film. This is an argument against twists for twists’ sake. Writers – use twists at your own peril. Ask yourself – am I trying to keep the audience guessing? Or am I pulling together the strings of my story? Aim for the latter.