I saw M. Night Shyamalan’s new film Split last week, and considering that it took a few weeks to be released where I am, and the amount of time I spend reading movie coverage online, I’m honestly quite surprised that I managed to get to the film unspoiled. But Split is a film that I just can’t discuss without spoilers because of everything I want to say, so if you’ve also managed to avoid spoilers for the film, I’d advise seeing it without knowing anything more, and please consider this a FULL SPOILER WARNING for this post.
Though it proved still a little divisive, many fans and critics felt that 2015’s The Visit was something of a return to form for M. Night Shyamalan, something that was much needed and long-awaited following his string of high-profile failures that saw his once golden reputation completely in tatters. Whatever you thought of the finished product, moving to make more low-budget original fare with Blumhouse productions seems like the best thing for him right now, and I’m glad to him stick with it for another film. For the most part I enjoyed Split, a disturbing thriller about a man called Kevin (James McAvoy) with dissociative identity disorder that renders him with 23 distinct personalities (its title in Korea is in fact 23 Identities). The film opens with him capturing 3 teenage girls and locking them in his basement for reasons we do not yet know, and the majority of the film unfolds from the perspective of one of the girls called Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy).
I had a couple of problems with the film, it’s treatment of some serious subject matter whilst trying to retain a PG-13 rating seemed a little wrong-headed, though these a briefer moments, and Shyamalan gives himself a distracting cameo as a security guard espousing the greatness of ‘Hooters’, but in general I was positive on the film, which has a great central performance from McAvoy. Initially I found the film’s unpredictability quite intriguing, but as it progressed further into its third act I began to become a little frustrated with it. The film presents a couple of moments that don’t appear to make much sense, but also suggests that a 24th and much more dangerous personality is about to form in Kevin called “The Beast”.
I wasn’t so interested in this as it showed the film moving in a sillier direction, and also hinting, yet not quite confirming whether or not Kevin’s condition was supernatural. When ‘The Beast’ appears, he initially appears not to be, mainly as his threatening presence is conveyed by McAvoy’s performance rather than many effects, but then he literally starts crawling on the ceiling. Okay, I thought, this was more of a monster-themed B-movie than the hostage thriller it first appeared, I thought maybe this was the twist that Shyamalan was going for. Whatever, it would still have been a fun enough movie if that had been it, but it wasn’t.
Despite continually hinting that Casey has some shotgun skills that will be vital to her eventual defeat of Kevin, it is fact something completely different that leads to her escape; that Kevin sees she has a history of self-harm. This revelation comes out of nowhere but still doesn’t have an obvious explanation, other than the obvious sense that Kevin is a very unhinged person, but it was then when I suddenly regained all interest in what Split was doing, this was the good kind of unpredictable again, I was fascinated with what this meant for both characters.
So while Casey does escape, Kevin remains at large. The film could have ended there, and apparently did in some test screenings, and the film would have still be fine, but nothing particularly special, I’d have probably written a short, 3-star review of it and moved on. However, while Kevin gives a final monologue (dialogue?) switching between personalities, a somewhat different music cue hits, cut to a diner where people are discussing the media coverage of Kevin, who they have dubbed ‘”The Horde”, someone mentions their coverage of a terrorist 15 years prior, and then, in the final seconds, Bruce Willis appears to say that he was “Mr Glass”.
So yeah…this movie is a sequel to Unbreakable.
Now I must admit, it’s been a while since I saw Unbreakable, and when a bit of its score hit I knew I recognised it but didn’t place it and then assumed it was just a piece of recycled music rather than a clue for what was about to happen. But Willis’ appearance isn’t just some fun little nod, plenty of writers have suggested that stories of theirs take place in the same universe like Stephen King, and it isn’t Nick Fury showing up at the end of Iron Man either to tease more movies. It’s something totally different, and it completely re-contextualises the entire movie we’ve just seen.
It’s a happy co-incidence that I actually saw Split just after I’d seen Logan, so I’d been thinking a lot about superhero movies as a genre already, and it’s one of the things that makes me respect Unbreakable more in retrospect than I did upon its release. The film came out 17 years ago, the same year that X-Men did and started the modern superhero movie trend, so while it existed, a notion of the ‘superhero movie’ was far less ubiquitous. Unbreakable’s gradual reveal that it is a superhero movie is something that makes the film feel far more unique now, as it takes such a vastly different approach to the concept than pretty much any other movie has.
Then, the events of Split, when suddenly put in A) the context of a superhero story, and B) the existing world established by Unbreakable take on a whole new meaning. The sequence in the train station suddenly makes sense, Kevin’s motivations reflect that of Samuel L. Jackson’s “Mr Glass”, the reason why he kidnapped the girls makes sense, and why Casey wasn’t supposed to be part of that, as do his motivations for releasing her, it all relates back to Unbreakable. Similarly, his transformation into “The Beast” suddenly seems far less silly, while Unbreakable was effectively a stealth superhero origin story, Split is a stealth supervillain origin story so of course he must get away at the end.
As great as all this is, I have to give further praise to Shyamalan and Blumhouse for allowing this to happen as it did, because of course this is also a stealth sequel.
In our current environment driven by franchises at higher and higher budgets, seeing huge surprises in mainstream multiplex films is an increasing rarity. I’ve long bemoaned the desperation for name recognition, how much marketing gives away so much and just how many moments I’ve witnessed that would have been so much more satisfying if they had been surprises. For a prime recent example; Spider-Man’s appearance in Captain America: Civil War. They didn’t need to announce he would be in the film at all, it was a guaranteed money-maker, and yet not only did they, they put him in the trailer. Even worse so, Darth Vader in Rogue One, I wrote in my review at the time that if his earlier appearance in the film and awful dad joke weren’t there it would have vastly improved anyhow, but imagine the reaction it would have got if not only his first appearance was the corridor lightsabre scene, but if you didn’t even know for sure that he’d be there? It would have been so much better, but not only did they have him appear earlier, of course they put him in the trailer as well. Studios are so afraid of not getting in all the audience that almost all “surprise” cameos nowadays are known and advertised well in advance; I think Wolverine in X-Men: First Class was the last time there was a genuine surprise, even if it was just for a fun, throwaway moment.
Of course, on the flip side there will likely be a good number of people unfamiliar with Unbreakable who see Split and have no idea who Bruce Willis’ character is and what he means, but it’s a risk worth taking for a moment like Split’s conclusion. M. Night Shyamalan used to be primarily famous for his twist endings before his critical downfall, and it’s so great to see him pull off something like this, something that I did not see coming in the slightest. And to do so in 2017 seems even more impressive. Even if Split is not his best film, it’s certainly not as good as Unbreakable, I have to truly commend Shyamalan here, for pulling off a trick that I have never seen a movie do before.