Split – January 20, 2017
Written and Directed by:
M. Night Shyamalan
Genre: Psychological Thriller / Horror
The Rebel Domain Score:
These days, when the name “M. Night Shyamalan” appears on the credits of an upcoming movie it tends to elicit one of two responses: at it’s a mildest, maybe an audible groan, and at its worst, a question like, “Who keeps giving this guy money to make more movies?” But it wasn’t always this way. I would argue that in the early days of his career he was actually one of the most promising directors in the business, especially for serious cinema buffs like myself.
Night’s first four movies, “The Sixth Sense“, “Unbreakable“, “Signs“, and “The Village“, form a tetralogy (or quadrilogy?) of sorts. They were all slow burners that relied on nuanced and impeccably written dialogue and used quiet moments between characters, usually just talking, to build character, suspense, and a sense of the supernatural. Night had a way of really bringing out and showcasing the talent of great actors like Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Mel Gibson, and Joaquin Phoenix, just to name a few. Visually, the films showcased striking cinematography with unorthodox camera placement, and deliberate emphasis on specific colors in sets and costuming. All of this was capped by the incredible scores of Night’s collaborative partner James Newton Howard, who seemed to always go the extra mile on Night’s movies. While the quality of his films may have lessened some after Unbreakable, I will defend those first four films as masterclass examples of dramatic film making till the day I die.
Out of those original four my favorite has always been “Unbreakable“, which is a criminally underrated movie. Unfortunately, it didn’t get the recognition it deserved for the same reason many of his films post “Sixth Sense” weren’t well received. They were always marketed wrong. “Signs” was marketed as an alien invasion film when it was actually a family drama about faith. “The Village”, marketed as a monster movie, was actually a love story. Same was true for “Unbreakable”, a movie about comic books, marketed as a supernatural thriller. I have always held this movie in high regard, even calling it the “greatest comic book movie of all time”, which I only revised last year with the release of “Batman v Superman”.
If we’re speaking in a broader sense, about comic book movies in general, and not an adaption of an established property, it still is the best. The movie explored the idea that comic books originated from real life people throughout history with extraordinary abilities whose stories got passed down in pictorial form and became the mythology of comic books. It would go beyond the scope of this review to cover all the reasons this movie is amazing (just watch it), but I’ll summarize by saying that the best comic book related media (at least to me) are the ones that explore what it would really be like if superheroes existed, especially in our fucked up world. It’s why I prefer DC’s dark, complex, philosophical superhero universe over Marvel’s, and why out of Marvel, Spiderman and X-Men have always been my favorites. It’s also why Unbreakable is so good. The point for now is that this is one of Nights most popular films, especially among fans, and for almost 2 decades he’s been talking up doing a sequel to no avail which has been a bummer.
In 2006, Night indulged a little too far into his own personal life and released “Lady in the Water”, which was literally a movie based on a bedtime story he and his children made up together, and in which Night himself played the role of a writer prophesied to change the world. It was ego stroking at its worst, and despite the career best soundtrack by James Newton Howard, the movie was absolute garbage. From that point forward it marked a continual decline for the director, including a rather odd detour when he was chosen to adapt Nickelodeon’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender”, which again, he only agreed to do because of his kids interest in the show. As someone who had never seen the show, I actually liked this movie, but only as a guilty pleasure. The truth is it was terrible.
Eventually, after a series of duds, Night returned to the thriller genre with “The Visit”, but only to capitalize on the “found footage” trend that had been making a resurgence ever since “Paranormal Activity”. Despite being well reviewed and liked, this movie didn’t do much for me. It was decent, but it didn’t feel at all like an M. Night Shyamlan movie, and as a lapsed fan, that’s ultimately what I was longing to see again.
Enter Shymalan’s latest offering, “Split”, a psychological thriller about a man with a split personality of 23 different identities who kidnaps 3 young girls and holds them in an underground lair for a mysterious purpose. Split is really the tale of two movies. There’s the movie you think you’re getting when you first start watching it, and then there’s the movie you realize it is when you reach the end. This affects how one must review the movie. I won’t spoil anything here, but there will be a separate section at the end that will go into spoilers to address this.
The film stars James McAvoy as Kevin, a man with the controversial diagnosis of dissociate identity disorder (or D.I.D.) that causes him to go in and out of 23 different personalities. I say controversial because there’s some dispute in the medical community as to whether the disorder is even a real thing, which the movie does touch upon, but buying into the premise, one could see quite easily why this would be an actors dream role. You get to play 23 characters rolled up into one. Of course, that means the whole movie falls into the hands of one person to sell the performance, and if they can’t pull it off, the whole movie falls apart.
Fortunately, McAvoy has more than enough talent for the task and acts his ass off through this movie. Aside from Kevin, we get to see several of the 23 identities “take the light” (to use the movies wording). Of these we have a pervy creep with OCD, a fashion conscious gay dude, a British woman, and a nine year old little boy. McAvoy is able to completely sell the transformation into these characters, and in some scenes, is able to go in and out of them flawlessly in a single take.
Out of the three girls, we have 2 ditsy teens, who really don’t do a whole lot, and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), an unpopular girl who probably would fit into whatever passes for “alternative” these days. Casey is the focus here, and at first her reaction to the situation seems strange, almost too calm, but as her backstory unfolds through a series of flashbacks her more calculated approach to figuring out a means to escape makes more sense.
Even though the story was entertaining enough to keep me interested from scene to scene, it holds back almost the entire time on what Kevin and his personalities have in store for the girls. Sure, they’re told they’re being held for the arrival of the 24th personality, which is ominously named “The Beast”, but it’s never clear how everything is going to unfold, and a feeling started sinking in that the whole movie was going to rest on how good that final payoff was, especially knowing M. Night’s propensity for twist endings.
There’s also Kevin’s psychiatrist who suspects something is up with her patient, something even stranger than the fact that he has 23 personalities. In her analysis of D.I.D., she talks about the human mind being powerful enough to cause physical changes in the body, such as some patients requiring insulin shots to treat diabetes, but only for one of their identities. Going off of this assessment, and the description we’re given of what “The Beast” looks like, I was worried that they would make the transformation too unbelievable, but I thought they did a good job skating the line between something clearly out of the ordinary but still within the realm of possibility.
So at this point you might be wondering, is this Night’s return to form? Well, in some ways yes. Many of his classic signatures are there: such as the exploration of the dark nature of humanity. It really get’s under ones skin with some disturbing stuff, although it’s mostly just hinted at due to the films PG-13 rating. On the other hand, it didn’t really have the intricate dialogue and steady pacing of his past films, and James Newton Howard oddly didn’t work on the picture. I almost wonder if he couldn’t afford him, since it only had a budget of 9 million, which would be a shame.
“The broken are the more evolved.”
The third act of the film is its most interesting talking point. There’s a moment when the original person, Kevin himself, “takes the light”, and see’s all the things that his other personalities have done while he “was away”, which is especially heartbreaking. As we dive deeper into his thinking we realize that he’s succumbed to Nietzschean morality and, like a lot of people with debilitating conditions, has convinced himself that people who haven’t been psychologically damaged in life aren’t strong or pure, stating “the broken are the more evolved”.
There’s also a part in the character arch for Casey that is left open ended, and might bother some people given the ambiguity of her fate, but I felt Night added enough subtle suggestions, especially in the imagery, that there was a clear resolution, if you looked hard enough.
Overall, Split is a solid thriller but not a particularly ground breaking release, especially when judged solely by itself outside of the extra “twist” that basically changes how the entire movie must be perceived. I will get into that now so if you haven’t seen the movie don’t read beyond this point.
SPOILERS! Don’t read beyond this point if you haven’t seen “Split”.
Ok, so we have to discuss the big revelation at the end of the movie. I knew going in that Split was being called a “spiritual successor” to “Unbreakable”, but I wasn’t sure what exactly that would mean. I thought maybe it would just explore similar themes or something. After the scene with Casey being picked up by the cops a piece of music started playing that I instantly recognized as the Main Title theme from Unbreakable. We then find Kevin, well, Patricia really, and Dennis, Hedwig, and the other personalities, talking about how they survived, with Kevin being seemingly ok after taking 2 shotgun blasts point blank.
At this point, I knew this film was directly connected to Unbreakable, but still wasn’t quite sure how until the final scene in which the camera takes us through a diner with a reporter on TV talking about what Kevin had done, and revealing that due to the nature of Kevin’s split personality the press had given him the moniker “The Horde”. A woman sitting at the counter overhears this and remarks how it reminds her of a man in a wheelchair who was arrested 15 years ago who also had a “funny name too”. As soon as she asked aloud, “What was it?” I scooted to the edge of my seat and shouted in the theater “Mr. Glass!” At that moment, the man beside her was revealed to be Bruce Willis, reprising his role as David Dunn, and he uttered those very same words.
If you weren’t able to put it together, or have never seen Unbreakable, this was confirmation that yes, this movie is set exactly in the same universe as Unbreakable, and not only that, the movie we had just watched was not just some psychological thriller, but a super villain origin story. In Unbreakable, the mother of Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), says to David Dunn (Bruce Willis), “there’s the soldier villain — who fights the hero with his hands; and then there’s the real threat — the brilliant and evil archenemy — who fights the hero with his mind.” We find out by the end of Unbreakable that Price, aka “Mr. Glass”, is this archememy. With Split added into the mix it becomes clear that “The Horde” is the solider villain who will go up against David Dunn/Unbreakable.
Upon further research I also found out The Horde was actually originally conceived and included in the script for Unbreakable before being subsequently dropped because Night felt it was too much to have both villains. It makes even more sense when you consider that Mr. Glass is physically broken, whereas The Horde is mentally broken, and David Dunn is “Unbreakable”. Even the posters are an obvious giveaway to this.
One other possible connection is the train that Kevin leaves flowers at before becoming “The Beast”. We can assume this is because his father died on a train, but what if that train was the one that Elijah Price caused to derail in Unbreakable, leaving David Dunn the sole survivor? Honestly, the more I think about it, the more brilliant it all seems, and while the movie itself is only just “good”, the revelation that it’s connected to Unbreakable, and how well it all fits, is mind blowing, opening the potential for a third and final film that could be incredible.