Is M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Glass’ a win or a lose for mental illness in film?
Our favorite on-again, off-again director, M. Night Shyamalan, has added a new instalment to the surprise Unbreakable series. After 2016’s Split revealed a twist ending that connected to 2000’s Unbreakable a whopping sixteen years later, the film world essentially lost its mind.
The 2018 San Diego Comic-Con unveiled the highly anticipated Glass trailer, with a returning lead cast of Samuel L. Jackson (Unbreakable), James McAvoy (Split), and Bruce Willis (Unbreakable), plus the addition of the beloved Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story).
Shyamalan is no stranger to the idea of portraying disability and mental illness on screen. In 1999’s The Sixth Sense – arguably his most iconic and shocking work to date – memorably gut-wrenching scenes depicting a mother with Munchausen syndrome by proxy shook audiences to their core.
Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a super rare disorder, has not had much screen representation in film history; The Sixth Sense and Takashi Miike’s Japanese horror One Missed Call (2003) are two of the few examples in mainstream cinema.
But in today’s era of hashtags and righteous uproar, problematic portrayals of mental illness don’t go down so well – cue to 13 Reasons Why and the season two backlash. Woke entertainment audiences and critics alike are not allowing any room for flaws in representation from here on out.
Are the Unbreakable films and the Glass trailer guilty of misrepresentation, or alternatively is Shyamalan portraying mental illness as ability rather than a disability? Let’s burrow into the dirty details of Shyamalan’s intentions and depictions of his protagonists in this context.
The controversial complexity behind the tragedies of Unbreakable
Alright kids, don’t say we didn’t warn you – major spoilers lie ahead.
The twist ending of Unbreakable reveals that the brilliant and comic-book-obsessed Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) – nicknamed Mr. Glass due to his diagnosed type 1 osteogenesis imperfecta, which makes his bones extremely fragile – is the evil mind behind three terrorist attacks, including the train wreck that David Dunn (Bruce Willis) was the lone survivor of.
In the end, Price is put in an institution for the criminally insane. Price had been searching for an unbreakable superhuman (the opposite of himself) for years, as if to find his comic-book-trope-inspired “archenemy”. Some claim that this is a prime example of ableism, as the physically disabled Price winds up the villain, and Dunn, who possesses superhuman abilities including physical strength and clairvoyance, comes out on top as a protector.
In 2013, Cinemablend labeled Unbreakable’s twist ending as a “tacked on” unnecessary mistake, serving only to continue Shyamalan’s career as “that guy who finishes his movies with a twist.” Then again, in 2017, Syfy viewed Unbreakable as a successful character trope study, involving “an exploration of the nature of the hero.”
So are Shyamalan’s themes and characters offensive, or are they metaphors for real-life societal problems? This is just the beginning of the controversy surrounding Shyamalan’s characters within the film series.
The great split: Split’s touchy premise does not sit well with all audiences
James McAvoy plays Kevin Wendell Crumb, among 22 other characters in 2016’s Split. Yes, in case you have not seen the movie, you read that right – McAvoy plays 23 characters, or personalities should we say.
Crumb, who has dissociative identity disorder (DID), kidnaps three girls and holds them hostage. Our leading lady, Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), attempts to use Crumb’s varying personalities to her advantage, hoping one of them will set the girls free. Crumb’s most dangerous personality, known as The Beast, possesses superhuman powers, such as extreme agility and the ability to bend steel.
The public was not too fond of Shyamalan’s connection of violence and mental illness to say the least, as the world does not need more attention brought to negative stigmas surrounding certain mental conditions. People protested the film altogether and the internet became a chaotic dumpster fire of people expressing how disturbed they were by the portrayal of DID in the film.
However, Crumb made some interesting comments at the end of Split: “We are what we believe we are,” and “let him (The Beast) show the world how powerful we can be.” These are significant statements in themselves and can even be perceived as positive (despite coming from the mouth of Crumb), as they encourage an idea, which suggests that illness and disability do not define the power we possess as individuals.
Shyamalan tackles mental illness once again in the new Glass trailer
In the Glass trailer, psychiatrist Dr. Ellie Staple (Paulson) introduces us to our heroes / antiheroes, as the trio of Elijah Price, Kevin Crumb, and David Dunn sit before her while she explains the subject of her psychiatric studies.
Staple specializes “in those individuals who believe they are superheroes,” and explains that she questions whether or not they truly believe they are something more than human. This serves as the most important motif of the Glass teaser. Staple questions the abilities of the trio, just as society may question the power of disabled individuals in reality. Is Staple’s study a metaphor, or does Glass’s premise simply treat mental illness and disability as a scientific experiment?
Taking a look at the FX series Legion, protagonist David Haller (Dan Stevens) – a twenty-something psychiatric hospital patient – has been diagnosed with schizophrenia in the past and struggles mentally with the mundane aspects of day-to-day life. After an unexpected incident with a new patient (Rachel Keller), Haller begins to think that the visions he sees and the voices he hears may actually be something superhuman.
Although Legion appears to have a similar plotline to the Unbreakable films in this sense, here is where it differs: the government knows full well that Haller is a mutant, which explains his experiences with mental illness. Essentially, Haller’s “illness” is his power. In Unbreakable, Split, and Glass, it tends to be the opposite; power, or at least perceived power, is seen as an illness.
In entertainment, metaphors are often hidden between the lines of the story. While some work Shyamalan has released throughout his career does not totally illustrate disability and illness in the fairest light, some of it provides us with an exaggerated take on societal misconceptions. The question remains: is power an illness, or is illness a power?