[MAJOR SPOILERS for Split ahead.]
The Shyamalanaissance is real. M. Night Shyamalan famously entered a massive slump in the naughties, following up his success on films like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable with a series of critical duds that include Lady in the Water, The Happening and The Last Airbender. Following the out-right failure of After Earth, however, Shyamalan did some course correction. The director’s 2015 film The Visit saw him take a step back, making a low-budget movie high on ideas. Now Shymalan has followed that project up with Split, his most layered movie in well over a decade. It may not quite balance its campy tone – too weird to be fully scary and too intense to be overly funny – but it’s a film full of interesting concepts and set-pieces. And what an ending!
Shyamalan’s movies always have complicated endings that leave you with boundless questions and lots to discuss and Split may be the most overwhelming one yet. There’s a drip-feed of information about the main plot, a frankly haunting background to one of the main characters and, without a hint of hyperbole, arguably the best twist that Shyamalan has executed since The Sixth Sense.
Split (read our review) follows three high school girls who are kidnapped after a birthday party and locked up by Kevin, a man (James McAvoy) with 23 distinct personalities hidden within him. Two of the darker personalities have taken over and hope to use the girls as part of a dark evolutionary plan, leading to a film that’s one part mystery, one part horror, one part out-there, Shyamalan-style. But what does it all mean?
What Was Up With Kevin?
McAvoy’s “main” character is Kevin, a regular guy who due to a series of traumatic childhood events (we’re told he was left by his father and mistreated by his mother) has created a string of alternative personalities, most of which are mentally stronger than he was initially. In this world, dissociative identity disorder doesn’t just lead to a psychological change, but also a physical one; Kevin is able to actually alter his body with each switch, meaning some personalities can have OCD and need glasses, while others need insulin shots. Who Kevin is in any given moment depends on who has stepped into “the light” in his mind, something typically controlled by the personality known as Barry.
In the movie itself, the core personalities we meet are Dennis, Patricia, Hedwig and Barry. The former two – who call themselves the Horde – are the darker sides of Kevin, who have previously been pushed down by Barry and the rest but break out by manipulating the childlike Hedwig, who is able to take control of the light at will. Others try and break through to make a cry for help, but the Horde repeatedly pushes them back. It’s important to note that while this is Kevin’s body, his personality doesn’t seem complicit in either side of this – when he finally does emerge, he begs to be killed, revealing that even though Barry and co are the good guys, they’re still going against the original personality’s will.
The Horde’s plan is to “unleash the Beast”, a mythical (at least in Kevin’s psyche) 24th personality. It’s only alluded to in the film, but it appears to be based on the animals in the zoo above where Kevin lives. In the third act, the Beast breaks out thanks to Dennis and kills two of the kidnapped girls, but allows protagonist Casey to live due to her own troubled past (which we’ll get to in a minute). After this murder spree, Kevin appears to have reached a point where the Horde is in full control and are able to bring the indestructible Beast out at will, making it him an almost Jekyll and Hyde superhero. And, yes, superhero really is the word.
While the film is ostensibly concerned with Kevin’s past, the person whose backstory we see elaborated on most explicitly is Casey’s. She’s introduced as the weird kid who’s always on her own and constantly getting into trouble, only invited to the birthday party from which the girls were kidnapped out of pity. Despite these social defects, over the course of the film, she shows a proactiveness and understanding of the dire situation that allows her to succeed where the others fail.
The truth behind this, however, is rather haunting. In a series of flashbacks we see her being taught to hunt by her father, at first assumed to be the cause of her skewed view on the world, but later revealed as context for the horrific abuse at the hands of her uncle. The film provides a chilling representation of pedophilia – the grooming scene, with the adult wanting to “play animals” is terrifying, as is the power the uncle wields even when held at gunpoint – and goes to great efforts to show how it affected Casey’s life growing up.
The story resolves itself with Casey finally finding the power to talk about her experiences, a decision in stark contrast to Kevin; rather than letting a troubled past manifest, she chooses to deal with the problem, which ties directly into the film’s core theme.
The Scars of Abuse
On a thematic level, Split is predominantly about how people deal with abuse. Both the protagonist and antagonist are the product of turbulent childhoods that have led to them becoming outsiders. For Casey this manifests in her desire to be alone, with silence essentially her coping mechanism – she causes trouble so she can be sent to detention and get away from everyone. Kevin’s is a more extreme case, hinted to come from a darker past, where he’s completely repressed the pain and in doing so birthed new personalities to cope with the trauma.
There’s an interesting connection between those “damaged” people. Casey is able to use a vague grasp of Kevin’s mental fracturing to try and help herself escape while the other hostages can’t concentrate, while the Beast doesn’t kill Casey because he sees from her self-harm scars that she’s similar to him. What Shyamalan seems to be saying is that people suffering from mental health issues can view themselves as alone, not seeing their connection to the wider world. This ties into the bigger solution to this insular thinking that the director presents; finding and accepting the compassion and understanding of others.
Throughout the movie, Kevin is offered empathy from Dr. Fletcher in spite of the mocking from her neighbors and peers, but the Dennis personality keeps ignoring it, willingly leading him down the dark Beast path – literally finding comfort in only himself. In contrast, Casey learns to address her past, making an active move against it and starting herself on a better trajectory. It’s a rather simple notion, but a well-meaning one all the same. The film preaches acceptance and openness, both to yourself and others.
It’s Actually Unbreakable 2
Of course, all of that is nothing on the biggie. For the past few years, Shyamalan has been teasing a sequel to 2000’s Unbreakable, his dark superhero drama; he’s cited Bruce Willis is interested and stated that if it ever did happen it would be a totally different type of movie. It turns out he wasn’t lying – in a jaw-dropping rug pull, it’s revealed in Split‘s final scene the film is actually Unbreakable 2.
The coda – it plays immediately after the end credits title card – shows a diner where a TV report on Kevin is playing and customers comment on its similarity to an event from fifteen years ago involving a guy in a wheelchair. The camera then tracks over to reveal Bruce Willis, reprising his role of David Dunn (evidenced by his nametag), who dryly confirms the old villain’s identity as Mr. Glass and walks out. They’ve been in the same world all along!
No matter your thoughts on Split‘s effectiveness as a thriller, this is an astounding twist. It’s completely unexpected and more audacious than any other movie before; Split a surprise sequel and nobody had a clue (the closest pre-release chatter comes from ScreenCrush calling it a “thematic sequel”). It’s almost like 10 Cloverfield Lane, except instead of the connection being revealed at the end of the trailer, it’s after the film itself. Building to this shocker is likely why some parts of the film feels a bit scattered or off base – it’s fair to assume this scene was one of the first conceived – but it does retroactively make the whole thing a lot more intriguing.
In fact, it pretty much reshapes the entire purpose of the film; Split isn’t a hostage thriller, but a supervillain origin story. By the time he’s able to control the Beast, Kevin has essentially become the sort of monster that a traditional comic book hero would take on, and that seems to be Shyamalan’s real goal; as with Unbreakable (which had the twist that Samuel L. Jackson was the bad guy), he’s exploring the psychology of what would make someone become a maniacal villain.
What it means for the future of Unbreakable is unclear – the twist has been tight under wraps, so there’s no official word from Shyamalan or Willis. It’s very open-ended and seems to be setting up a third film in the world that would either see Dunn take on the Beast or Kevin team up with Mr Glass. This is something that Blumhouse, the studio currently revolutionizing low budget horror and who distributed Split, would be interested in. Most of their big hits have become franchises (and in the case of The Conjuring, spun-off into other franchises). Shyamalan has definitely put his big-budget days behind him, enjoying the freedom that a small pot of cash and a hot idea can allow,so there’s a lot of scope for intense, low-budget superhero riff here.
Whatever he’s cooking up next, he’s going to need one heck of a twist to top this one.