Usually, our policy is not to have spoilers in our reviews, and when regarding M. Night Shyamalan's films, it's hard to get around the twists that have been a hallmark of his career, for better or worse. That said, the "twist" in his new film Split is more of a reveal, and has implications that go beyond the film itself, and honestly, I think it's something we should talk about, because fans of Shyamalan’s earlier work will be in for a huge treat.
In the interest of saving the surprise while also breaking down what that surprise means, this review comes in two parts, non-spoiler and “OH MY GOD WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU??” heavy spoilers. If or when you see Split, feel free to read all the way through, but until then, the first half is more than enough to let you know that this is a film you want to see.
The title Split is apropos in more than one way. For one, there are definitely two films (and more than one genre) at play here, but in a simple sense, it is the story of divisions. On the immediate surface, the story is about Kevin (James McAvoy), a man suffering from dissociative identity disorder (DID), previously known as multiple personality disorder (MPD), who kidnaps three girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula), locking them in an undisclosed location, for purposes not totally known.
Other splits include the division between the kidnapped girls, with Casey Cook (Taylor-Joy) being the odd person out as she’s picked on for being the “weird” girl, but who also is the most knowledgeable in dealing with their captor, as she’s the first to understand Kevin’s multiple personalities, and the only one who tries to appeal with those personalities in various ways.
With a modest budget of $5 million, there isn’t much room for special effects, but Split features an effect more explosive than any CGI creation can offer: James McAvoy’s performance.
With 23 possible personalities to choose from, McAvoy dives head long into Kevin and his many identities, including nine-year-old Hedwig, prim Englishwoman Patricia, civilized brute Dennis and flamboyant fashion designer wannabe Barry. Each personality brings their own level of pathos, and McAvoy handles each with a distinct energy that makes Split a must-see on its own.
Part of the success here is in McAvoy’s choice not to make a parody of DID. There is never one point in the film where he plays Kevin and his personalities as some sort of blanket crazy stereotype. In fact, by seeing his struggle, and how he describes how each personality emerges and recedes, mentioned in the film as “sitting in the light”, he and Shyamalan actually give viewers possibly a deeper glimpse into a mental disorder than filmgoers have had since Sally Field’s acclaimed performance in 1976’s Sybil.
Of course, this is an M. Night Shyamalan film, so it was only a matter of time before the compelling nature of Split would have to give way to a monster movie, hinted at throughout the first half of the film, as some of Kevin’s personalities await the emergence of a 24th personality, known as “The Beast”, a being who brings terrifying power and is believed by the personalities to bring forth a new age, or some similar monster movie trope.
It’s here were we begin to lose some of the goodwill gained in the first half of the film, and as the film devolves into a game of cat and mouse between McAvoy and the girls, who all end up separated in captivity, the suspense is palpable enough to excuse some of the hokier moments, and to be honest, this sort of low-tech filmmaking forces a much purer vision for Shyamalan, and with McAvoy in tow, Split never completely runs off the rails.
Once The Beast finally shows, and we’re in full-blown monster movie mode, Split does almost run off the rails, and it’s a shame, because as we move closer to Kevin’s transformation, we learn more about Casey, and as a heroine, she begins to share more and more parallels with her captor, and this compelling story is tossed away as the film shifts gears from psychological drama to horror/action.
Just as the film reaches its conclusion and all hope for a good film seems to go out the window, the final scene, the twist, the reveal comes and changes everything in a good and unexpected way. If the film ended with the previous scene, Split would’ve been OK enough on its own, buoyed by a McAvoy performance that hopefully gets remembered come next award season, but now…now we have something even bigger and a challenge that has the potential to be career-redeeming for Shyamalan, who definitely needs his win streak to continue after 2015’s The Visit.
And now, the spoilers. Until you see Split, go away…but make sure you come back.
After 17 years, who in the hell would’ve thought we’d finally get a sequel to Unbreakable?
Of all the things that Split presented, what wasn’t completely clear was the idea that viewers were watching a full-blown origin story, and not just one, if we’re being honest. By the time the film ends, Kevin gained a new moniker in the press: The Horde, the same name Kevin’s other personalities gave to the triumvirate of Dennis, Patricia and Hedwig, all working together to suppress each of the other personalities in order for The Beast to emerge.
The other origin story was that of Casey’s who not only survived The Horde, but is looking for a certain amount of payback by offering information to the press. By the end of the film we know she has more than a little hero inside of her, but not enough to go it alone.
When we enter the diner at the end of the film, it was clear there was one more surprise to be had, and as two of the patrons mentioned Mr. Glass, the villain of 2000’s Unbreakable, a tinge of nostalgic joy absolutely emerged, but when we saw David Dunn (Bruce Willis) himself stare at the TV reporting the events of the night before, it was clear that not only was this a call back to what some consider Shyamalan’s best film, it was obvious that the main event was still to come.
Whether it was hubris or lack of ideas, Shyamalan’s aversion to making what was, prior to the arrival of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the best superhero movie we had to date, seemed like a bad decision mixed with a belief that he didn’t need a sequel to establish himself as a visionary filmmaker (Spoiler alert: it didn’t quite work out for him).
However now, with a clear sequel and what seems like full participation from Bruce Willis—who could also use a hit or two—the sky seems the limit, but the question remains: now that we’re in the era of the superhero in film, is a sequel to Unbreakable truly necessary? Will it compare to what we’ve seen from Marvel or even DC (on the low end)?
These are all natural questions, but when it’s all said and done Split gives us a very worthy and surprising sequel to a film that certainly deserved it. Maybe this doesn’t create a new franchise, but as unsung superheroes go, David Dunn needed a supervillain as powerful as he, and McAvoy’s turn as The Horde feels like a missing piece of a puzzle that could make for an amazing film.
One can only hope Shyamalan can stick the landing.