[MAJOR SPOILERS for Split ahead.]
Writer/director M. Night Shymalan's dramatic thriller Split is now playing in theaters and is earning the filmmaker some of the best reviews he's gotten in several years (as evidenced by the film's 76% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes). The movie is similar to Shymalan's 2015 release The Visit, in the sense that it's also a Blumhouse Productions-backed low-budget thriller based on an original, if also mysterious, concept conceived by Shyamalan. The basic premise for Split is likewise misleadingly straight-forward: three young women are kidnapped by a man (played by James McAvoy) with an extreme case of Dissociative Identity Disorder, who needs them to unleash his final personality, known as 'The Beast'.
The majority of Split plays out as a standalone narrative, weaving together two main plot threads: one in which one of the three kidnapped young women (Anya Taylor-Joy) tries to help the others and herself escape, and another wherein a therapist (Betty Buckley) tries to help McAvoy's character, whose main personality is named Kevin. However, the big Shyamalan "twist" this time around doesn't concern what's happening in these storylines so much as their context - as the final scene in the movie is an epilogue, revealing that Split takes place in the same universe as Shyamalan's 2000 film Unbreakable.
We previously broke down the mechanics of how the story and character threads in Split work, as well as what the film's ending means for those who are rusty on their Unbreakable trivia (or those who have never seen that film). Today, however, we're going to take a closer look at how Split's ending gives new meaning to much of what transpires over the course of the movie - and what it could mean for the potential sequel that Shyamalan has already begun working on.
Supervillains Are Real
Similar to how Unbreakable unfolds as a comic book-inspired superhero origin story for the character David Dunn (Bruce Willis), Split plays out as a comics-style supervillain origin story for Kevin - even if that's not apparent for most of the film. Split's true intentions aren't transparent until the second to last scene, in which the main personalities that now control Kevin (Dennis, Patricia, Hedwig and The Beast) have a conversation with themselves by way of a mirror. Kevin's personalities agree that now that they have unleashed The Beast - a personality who possesses super-human strength, nearly impenetrable skin and can survive multiple bullet wounds - they can do anything and there is no one in the world who can hurt them. It's a tragic but logical payoff to Kevin's story in the film, as we see how years of being abused as a child and retreating into himself (literally) has now led the character and his domineering personalities to a very dark place.
However, knowing that Split takes place in the same version of Philadelphia as Unbreakable gives new meaning to Kevin's backstory. The implication now is that Kevin's dad (who is said to have "left on a train") was actually killed in the train crash that takes place in Unbreakable - the same train crash that Elijah Prince (Samuel L. Jackson) was responsible for causing, as part of his ongoing search to find a real-life "unbreakable" individual. The timing works out too, as Kevin would have only been a boy when the train crash in Unbreakable took place, some seventeen years earlier; assuming the time that has passed between Unbreakable and Split is the same as in the real-world, of course. As such, Elijah might have been responsible for the event that resulted in Kevin's mother either suffering a breakdown and becoming abusive towards her son - or her becoming more abusive to Kevin, with his father now being gone and no longer around to help keep their family healthily functioning.
Either way, Split sets the stage for Elijah to return in the sequel, either as an ally to Kevin (who doesn't, per se, know that Elijah was responsible for what happened to his father) or an ally to David, who is now on a collision course with Kevin. If Kevin is now what can be considered a flat-out supervillain in the Unbreakable/Split universe, then Elijah is arguably more of a Magneto type: a character who is more complicated antihero than supervillain. Elijah might be more willing to help David deal with Kevin, after having (presumably) spent the last seventeen years in an institution for the criminally insane, following the events of Unbreakable. Then again, the Split sequel could instead see Kevin and Elijah temporarily team up like Magneto and Apocalypse did in last year's X-Men: Apocalypse - before Elijah changes sides and undergoes a redemption arc, or something to that effect. Whatever happens, the implication is that the story of Elijah Prince aka. "Mr. Glass", isn't over yet.
David V Kevin: Dawn of Justice?
The final scene in Split shows that David now knows about Kevin's existence, after having caught a news report covering the story (read: the events of the film), while out at a local Philadelphia diner. David has presumably spent the last seventeen years doing the same thing that he did during the third act of Unbreakable: discretely helping people by using his special powers of super-strength and his extrasensory ability to see when people have committed a crime, by making physical contact with them. It's safe to presume, then, that David will make an effort to deal with Kevin and stop him from hurting and/or killing anyone else, armed with the knowledge that the only person who is physically capable of stopping Kevin is David himself. How David will go about doing that, is the question that Split 2 or Unbreakable 3 (or Unbreakable 2, depending on how you look at it) will have to address.
Given that Shymalan's forte has long been atmospheric storytelling over action-driven filmmaking and that he would most likely stick to the low-budget aesthetic that has been working best for him of late on the Split sequel, it seems safe to assume that the showdown between David and Kevin will be more tense and dramatic than full of flying fists and spectacle. The importance of communicating with and having empathy for others is a theme that Shymalan has long explored through the course of his film work (going back to at least The Sixth Sense) and it's a key element of Split's narrative; as Kevin's descent into darkness is fueled by his dominant personalities' belief that they and they alone can protect him. Thus, David is less likely to "defeat" Kevin through sheer brute strength and more likely to save him, in some sense, through more compassionate means (ex. by helping Kevin to regain control of himself).
Point being, Split's final scene sets the stage for a more traditional Unbreakable sequel: one that brings Willis back as David for more than a cameo and, for the reasons discussed, also sees Jackson come back as Elijah/"Mr. Glass". It's looking as though Shyamalan will get to make his Split followup too, now that the film (made for only $10 million) is on its way to becoming a box office success. However, much like Shyamalan surprised most everyone by secretly making a second Unbreakable movie in the first place, the concluding scene in Split may yet give rise to a followup that goes in a very different direction than anything that we have outlined here. That itself would certainly be a Shyamalan-worthy twist, anyway.
- Split (2017) release date: Jan 20, 2017