Written By: Daniel Kinsley
EDITOR’S NOTE: SPOILERS FOR SPLIT AND OTHER SHYAMALAN FEATURES
With the massive success (both financially, and largely, critically as well) of Split (2017), it seems that M. Night Shyamalan is back. It is worth noting, however, that his previous film The Visit (2015) was the film in which the pivot back to mainstream success began. The film partnered Shyamalan with the Blumhouse production house (the guys behind monster hits like the Paranormal Activity series; among a good deal of others). For those who do not know, the Blumhouse model is simple and often very successful; the films are notoriously inexpensive to produce, and allow for considerably more artistic freedom as a result. In the case of The Visit, the film reportedly cost about $5 million, and went on to make four times in that in its domestic opening weekend. The film itself is just okay * but it is important for context for several reasons. For starters, it seems to have given the filmmaker some sense of creative control back (after his well-documented creative fall from grace) and it began the relationship with Blumhouse that may have breathed entirely new life into his career.
(NOTE: One last chance to turn back if you haven’t seen Split).
The big twist of Split, of course, is that it is a stealth sequel to Unbreakable (2000), which opens up a need to reevaluate all that came before. Frankly, it is the best “twist” that the filmmaker has employed since the latter film, and this writer would argue that is not an accident. Unbreakable is a superhero origin story made at a time when that sort of thing was just taking off. Even now, it remains Shyamalan’s best, most personal film **
Unbreakable is a story about a security guard named David Dunn (Bruce Willis) who survives a devastating train crash. Out of over 100 passengers, he is the sole survivor. Dunn is soon approached by an eccentric comic book specialist named Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson). Price has a very rare disease that causes his bones to be very fragile, and he believes that he and Dunn are “linked by a curve, but sitting on opposite ends”. Over the course of the film, Dunn discovers that he has never been sick, has never been hurt, and has seemingly unusual strength. As Dunn comes to realize his role as a hero, so too does it become clear that Price’s intentions are far more nefarious than they first appeared. The twist at the center of the film is so successful not because it pulls the rug out from under the audience *** but because it reinforces the emotional center of the film, and most importantly, gives meaning to the actions of the players. It is best summed up by the final lines of the film, when both Dunn and Price realize who the latter man really is.
“Now that we know who you are, I know who I am…It all makes sense! In a comic, you know how you can tell who the arch-villain’s going to be? He’s the exact opposite of the hero. And most times, they’re friends, like you and me! I should’ve known way back when…You know why, David? Because of the kids. They called me Mr. Glass.”
It is a brilliant, chilling ending that gives Shyamalan the ability to have his cake and eat it too, as the twist redefines the film, but in a way that is deeply thematically relevant.
In Split (2017) genre breakout Anya Taylor Joy (The Witch ) is the lead protagonist as Casey, the odd one out in a trio occupied by two other more popular girls Claire and Marcia (played by Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula). Within the first minutes of the film, the girls are stalked and kidnapped by Kevin (James McAvoy) a man who suffers from dissociative identity disorder (DID), a condition that in his case manifests itself as 23 distinct personalities all occupying one body. The girls are knocked out and taken to an undisclosed location where Claire and Marcia quickly begin plotting the best method of escape while trying to contain their panic. Casey maintains an eerie sense of composure at first, seemingly understanding that survival will require something more of her. Before the girls become privy to the truth about their kidnapper, however, the film introduces Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley) a DID specialist who has taken a particular interest in Kevin and his many personalities; most often led in her presence by Barry, a fashion designer.
While McAvoy gets to have most of the fun, manifesting a number (8, to be exact) of the personalities onscreen, ultimately the emotional center of the film lies in the push-pull relationship between Kevin/Barry/Patricia/Hedwig (etc). and both Casey and Dr. Fletcher. The film is as much a thematic sequel to Unbreakable as a traditional one; ultimately, Shymalan seems most interested in exploring identity and the ways in which they are formed and manipulated, specifically by trauma. The film plays out this conflict in both Kevin and Casey. Over the course of her captivity, bits of Casey’s past are revealed, pulling back a curtain on a life that was less sheltered than her companions, resulting in a deeper understanding of cruelty in the world. Similarly, Dr. Fletcher reveals throughout the film that Kevin’s disorder stems from a childhood trauma that his psyche could not sufficiently bear the weight of alone. In order to survive, his mind fractured, resulting in his many personalities.
Since this is a genre film, and a Shymalan joint at that, there is a 24th personality that nearly all of Kevin’s others speak in reverence of: The Beast. The kidnapped girls are there to feed the transformation, so that Kevin’s weakness can be fully consumed by his other personalities and made whole in the form of this new manifestation. The film plays its cards close to the vest for a time as to whether or not The Beast is real, and if so, what exactly that means. As the film goes on, things quietly begin to escalate until the final act turns a corner from psychological thriller to outright horror. There are a few twists along the way, although none that feel so dramatic and grandstanding that the entire film hinges on them. It is what makes the film’s final turn so effective.
In the film’s final scene, news of what happened to Casey and the others plays out on a television in a diner; the camera pans across the patrons, settling on a woman who is reminded of an event years before; a man who purposefully derailed a train, killing hundreds. She is unable to remember his name, until it is revealed that David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is sitting next to her. “Mr. Glass,” he offers. “They called him Mr. Glass.”
For this writer, the reveal made a pretty good movie into something much more exciting. **** It may be the filmmaker’s greatest reveal, as it takes a film that plays well enough on its own, and then completely re-contextualizes it into a companion piece to his best film. If Unbreakable was an origin story for a hero, then Split is very much the yin to its yang, as it details the arrival of a worthy counterpart.
Following the success of Split, a final film was announced to cap off this unlikely trilogy, one which will see the return of David Dunn, Elijah Price, Casey and The Beast. It feels fitting, as toward the end of Unbreakable, David is speaking to Elijah Price’s mother in the comic gallery, where she describes the graphic design of the “soldier villain” who fights the hero with his hands, while the arch-villain fights the hero with his mind. With the introduction of The Beast, all the players are now in place for a final showdown. If Shyamalan is able to pull off a satisfying final chapter, well, wouldn’t that be one hell of a twist?
*It is by no means as good as his best, but not even close to as bad as his worst.
** All due respect to The Sixth Sense (1999)
*** While The Sixth Sense was a tremendously effective use of this sort of twist (and it largely holds up), Shyamalan eventually gave into this game of one upping himself until it reached parody levels.
**** While my girlfriend looked at me puzzled, I was near manic with joy, and trying very hard not to jump out of my seat.