Has director, writer, and producer M. Night Shyamalan returned to form with Split, or is this potentially over-hyped and under-cooked, as some thought his previous movie, The Visit (2015)?
Kevin Wendell Crumb suffers from a particularly intense form of dissociative identity disorder: Kevin’s body harbors twenty-three distinct personalities. Some are not as pleasant as others, and when one of these darker identities, “Dennis,” takes the helm, Kevin-as-Dennis kidnaps three teenage girls, Claire, Marcia and Casey. While the girls attempt to escape, Kevin’s more compassionate and law-abiding personalities also struggle to break free and reach out for help to Kevin’s doctor, sending midnight emails which “Dennis” later plays down. Will “Dennis” win, or will the girls get away? What if there’s an even more menacing presence—a newly arisen twenty-fourth personality—at work?
Shyamalan is back.
First, his casting is inspired. James McAvoy (who broke his hand during the filming, but finished the take anyway) delivers a virtuoso performance, and Split merits viewing on those grounds alone. Of Kevin’s twenty-three personalities, McAvoy gives us at least seven: Dennis, Patricia, Hedwig, Kevin, Barry, Orwell and Jade. Each of these is distinctly realized, and represents an individual of a particular age, gender, accent, worldview, and, as nine-year-old Hedwig is so fond of saying, “etcetera.” From the supporting cast, I’d also single out Betty Buckley for her solid performance as Dr. Karen Fletcher and Anya Taylor-Joy for her heartfelt, nuanced turn as Casey Cooke. The film is driven by a small ensemble, but when the players are at this level, you don’t need more.
Shyamalan’s pacing is also to be commended, for its deliberateness and the way it expertly ratchets up tension during the film’s final act. It pays off to be observant to details during the first hour plus, because many of these, even things that appear trivial at the time, become plot-essential as things progress. Reviewers sometimes complain that characters in Shyamalan movies behave unrealistically, but I would challenge this: at first we viewers simply don’t have all the information that the characters have, but their choices do make sense a posteriori, when we understand their contexts and experiences.
In Split this enhances rather than detracts from the verisimilitude of Shyamalan’s narrative. Intertwined with the story of the three teenagers’ captivity at the hands of Kevin-as-Dennis is the gradual revelation of a key part of Casey’s past. This revelation isn’t hard to guess, nor is it part of the film’s surprise ending: it’s an emotional track that artfully mirrors Kevin’s own journey of accepting what has become before and preparing for what he must face next. The timing is critical, and Shyamalan’s is spot on.
West Dylan Thordson’s score is also consistently engaging and augments the emotions on the screen. From the distorted textures of the film’s “Opening” seconds to the pathos-cum-transcendence of cues like “Meeting the Others,” Thordson creates a sonic universe that beautifully deepens the unfolding story without ever becoming heavy-handed.
Let me reiterate—you’re about to encounter the film’s major spoiler.
Okay, you’ve been warned.
Split is the secret origin story of a supervillain who exists in the same universe as Mr. Glass and David Dunn from Unbreakable (2000). I’m a particularly avid fan of James Newton Howard’s score for Unbreakable, and as that flick’s memorable central theme started to play during the shot of Kevin-as-Horde going over his wounds in front of the mirror, I felt a few seconds of complete confusion. “Has Shyamalan lost his mind?” I wondered. “Why would he re-use the music from Unbreakable in a completely separate--” And then the title popped up, the scene changed to the diner, and the camera slowly panned in on David Dunn, as portrayed by Bruce Willis. A truly thrilling cinematic moment.
Unbreakable was a remarkably low-key superhero movie that went out of its way to avoid explosions, extended action sequences, fires, and even yelling, as a way of bringing a new degree of realism to the superhero genre. Split takes that same concept to a whole new level. Viewer expectations significantly inform the film experience: usually when we watch superhero movies, we’ve already made a mental checklist—conscious or not—of certain beats and signature moments we’re expecting to see. Expert practitioners, like Christopher Nolan in the Dark Knight trilogy, may subvert or rewrite some of these expectations, but in the end they must still deliver on enough of them for us to feel “satisfied” that the kind of movie we’ve seen matches the mental territory we’ve already staked out. This automatically puts the audience at one remove from the characters in a superhero origin movie, who (save for a few select meta-fictional exceptions) have no awareness of the type of narrative they’re in. Split manages to elegantly sidestep this distancing effect by taking us through the awesome, terror-inspiring and mind-bending journey of what it might really be like to evolve into a supervillain. There’s no genre conventions to adhere to, because, like Kevin, we have no idea what’s about to happen next, no preconceptions of the kind of story being told.
The similarities in tone and structure between Unbreakable and Split are also satisfying. These films feel aesthetically consistent; the latter is clearly not a gimmicky concoction trying to derive its power from association, but a thoughtful offshoot that apparently came to Shyamalan during Unbreakable’s writing. Both narratives feature central characters coming to momentous realizations about their identities, and wading into the waters of their new abilities with equal parts trepidation and gratitude. Remember the deranged relief felt by Mr. Glass, as played by Samuel L. Jackson, when he realized he’d been right all along, that he wasn’t “a mistake”? David Dunn’s everyday sadness lifted when he began to behave in accordance with his true purpose of protecting the innocent. Likewise, Kevin’s agony of personalities constantly vying for their turn in the spotlight comes to an end when the Beast takes over, or, at the very least, the anguish and confusion of his multiple-IDs is relieved through the primal vigor (the zoo location fits in nicely) of this new entity.
I’m particularly intrigued by the way both films explore the effects of their protagonists’ discoveries on teenagers close at hand. One of Unbreakable’s most quietly potent scenes is the one in which David slides a newspaper across the breakfast table to his son Joseph and nods, confirming that Joseph was correct and David really is a superhero. This was the understated closing of a dramatic arc which had previously seen Joseph hold up a loaded gun to his dad and threaten to shoot him to prove once and for all that he was superhuman. The parallel in Split is striking: Casey Cooke also points a loaded weapon at the protagonist and must similarly make a fateful choice. In her case, the scenario has been dramatically foreshadowed by an earlier occurrence of attempted confrontation with her abusive uncle, which makes her present decision that much more believable. When the Beast/Horde realizes that she, like him, is broken, and spares her life, there is a lovely moment of profound insight in Casey’s eyes. Those same eyes promise a coldly determined, fierce course of action when we see them in the police car and she’s being informed that her uncle has arrived. I appreciate Shyamalan’s subtlety in that scene.
Another parallel is how both David and Kevin come to grips with their natures by either accepting or rejecting stories told to them by other parties (Mr. Glass in David’s case; Dr. Karen Fletcher in Kevin’s). Shyamalan is paying tribute to the power of mythology and Story writ large to help us make sense of our lives. Films like Split lend credence to the cause.
Not every aspect of this film will appeal to viewers. Obligatory pun: Split’s concluding twist may prove, um, divisive. Ending aside, some folks may simply find themselves becoming impatient at the slow build. All those tight shots in cramped, poorly-lit quarters may induce claustrophobia. The dialogue may at times come across as overly stylized or pretentious.
That wasn’t my experience. When Horde yells out, “The broken are the more enlightened, rejoice!” I felt a chill, because of the line’s implications not only for him but for Casey. It’s also a sentiment that neatly reflects Shyamalan’s own reality, having had to navigate a number of highly publicized critical failures and thus likely becoming a little “broken” himself along the way. Mistakes enable learning, even if it’s the rediscovery of lost or suppressed skills, and in Split it is exciting to witness Shyamalan reveling in a rededication to his chosen art form.