WARNING: There is no way to completely discuss the good and bad of M. Night Shymalan's "Split" without getting into the real thematic meat of the movie. That means spoilers. So if you haven't seen the movie yet, bail now! I hope you come back to read and discuss with me once you've seen it.
There was a time when M. Night Shymalan kind of broke my heart. I thought at a young age that he'd be a new voice of suspense and power after I saw "The Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable" and "Signs." I know lots of people don't like "Signs," but its something I absolutely love. Its a polarizing movie sure, but it certainly worked for me. Here was a director that made smart suspense thrillers. Scary movies that had actual scary scenes in them. That was pretty rare, even a decade ago. They were calling Shymalan the next Spielberg. In fact, Shymalan said in an interview that he that some "secret of filmmaking" that only he and Spielberg knew. Even though that's a really conceited thing to say about yourself, I was ready for whatever was next.
Sadly, the next thing was "The Village," and when I saw that film the summer before entering high school, I despised it. I couldn't believe it. Rewatching it many years later recently on Netflix, I still don't think the film works as a whole, but there was at least some elements of "The Village" that worked. I wasn't prepared though, for the Shymalan shit-storm that followed "The Village." "The Lady In The Water" is bad. "The Happening" is bad. That horrid adaptation of "The Last Airbender" is bad. "After Earth" was bad. "The Visit" was bad. I thought Shymalan was officially done. He went from being one of the most exciting new talents of the 2000's to a self-parody and a joke in the early 2010's.
But then he makes something like "Split," and everything changes. I don't know if M. Night Shymalan got kidnapped in 2002 or simply took a fifteen year nap. But I refuse to believe the man who was responsible for "The Lady In The Water" through "The Visit" was the real M. Night Shymalan. Whoever that was can lock himself in a closet and never, ever come back. The man who made the tremendously satisfying "Split" is M. Night Shymalan, and dear god, I hope he's hear to stay.
"Split" begins with the end of a birthday party for Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), whose father is going take home, along with her friend Marcia (Jessica Sula). The trio sees that there is only one person left at the party, her name is Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy). Claire and Marcia take some time explaining that inviting Casey was a pity invite. That she gets in trouble at school alot and that she's mainly an introvert. Claire's father (Neal Huff) offers to take Casey home, she eventually accepts. The girls get into the car, and Claire's father begins loading all of her gifts into his trunk, there is a person approaching him off camera. He asks if he needs anything. We then cut to the girls in the car. Casey is in the front seat by herself. Claire and Marcia are on their phones. Its taking an awfully long time for Claire's father to get back into the car, and suddenly we hear a faint boom outside. A figure gets into the driver's seat of the car, Casey looks in the rear view mirror and sees Claire's gifts scattered outside, the man in the driver's seat is not Claire's father. We never see Claire's father the rest of the film. The man in the driver's seat puts all three girls to sleep. When they wake up, they are in a windowless room with two mattresses.
The man who abducted them is "Dennis," but the girls eventually discover that "Dennis" is one of twenty-three different personalities of their abductor (James McAvoy). Sometimes he's a woman named "Ms. Patricia" other times hes a nine-year-old boy named "Hedwig." Sometimes he's an artist, other times he's a book-smart philosopher. We never know just who is going to walk through that door to check on the girls. Apparently, the girls are there because they are going to be food for a ritual of The Beast. Hedwig has drawings of The Beast in his room. The Beast is big and it is menacing. But we get vague descriptions of it. The girls try to work together in order to get out of their captivity. Casey in particular bides her time, and we see various flashbacks of her life, learning to hunt with her father (Sebastian Arcelus) and her Uncle (Brad William Henke). This is one thing that separates "Split" from many similar movies. The characters in captivity are smart, they don't just accept their fate. They are constantly trying to save themselves. Its shocking just how great it is to see smart characters in a movie like this.
Let's talk about James McAvoy for a little bit. Its safe to say that he is the anchor of this movie and he's got the most difficult job in the entire movie. Playing several different characters in one can't be easy. So credit has to be given to McAvoy. Every single time he is a different personality, its a completely different person emotionally. He's ultra freaky as Dennis. But when he's laugh-out-loud funny as Hedwig. The auditorium I was in erupted in laughter every single time he was Hedwig. There is a moment when Hedwig is dancing in front of Casey and its one of the freakishly hilarious moments I have seen in a movie in awhile. McAvoy embraces every single personality, really etching in every detail. Its some of the very best work he's done in quite awhile. In fact, everybody does good work. Anya Taylor-Joy, who was such a discovery last year in "The Witch," delivers another stellar performance here. I hope she is here to stay, because she's got real talent. There is another major character in the movie, named Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). She's a psychiatrist who has been seeing "Barry," (McAvoy's seemingly main personality) for awhile and is trying to help him live with his condition. She has no idea that he has captured three girls. Buckley does good work here, and her character evolves throughout the film, Buckley never misses a beat.
Let's get into the last half hour or so. Eventually Fletcher tries to help the girls escape, and she ends up dying at the hands of The Beast. Claire and Marcia die at the hands of The Beast too. Who is The Beast? Not exactly what you think. The Beast is another personality, but unlike all the others. When "Dennis" becomes The Beast, he grows muscles, his veins pop out, his pupils grow large. We hear Dr. Fletcher discuss how bodies can change when shifting personalities and even a blind woman was able to get herself to see again through one of her personalities. I don't know if this true, but it certainly raises the stakes in the film. The Beast gives "Dennis" superhuman abilities. Casey finds a shotgun, and because she used to hunt with her father, she knows how to use it. Casey put two barrels in The Beast, but he doesn't go down. Right when The Beast is about to get to Casey he notices marks on her shoulders and chest.
You see, Casey's father died of a heart attack. So her Uncle became her guardian. Her Uncle is revealed to be a nasty man, who molested Casey growing up, as far as we are concerned, repeatedly. The Beast sees her scars and decides not to kill Casey. He wants to feed on the "unpure" of the world and he believes Casey knows true innocents due to her abuse. "Dennis" then leaves.
It gets around to the end of the movie. I thought to myself how much I loved the tension and atmosphere of the movie. I loved the smart screenplay. I loved the performances. I thought "Dennis" not dying from two shotgun blasts was a little farfetched, as was his reasoning for sparing Casey. But I still liked the movie enough to recommend. It was still the best Shymalan movie in quite awhile.
But the film isn't over. We see "Dennis" one last time having a conversation in the mirror with "Hedwig." Turns out, they can't believe they survived two shotgun blasts either. "Dennis" tells "Hedwig" that they are going to show the world what they can do...
The screen cuts to black and the title "Split" fills the screen. A familiar piece of music begins to play. I know that tune I thought to myself. Then I asked myself, is that theme from Shymalan's "Unbreakable?" There is one more scene before the credits. We pan around a diner, where TV reports discuss a man with multiple personalities kidnapping three girls, killing two. The report calls the man "The Horde." (a nickname McAvoy's nickname gives himself, too). A person at the diner mentions that it reminds her of another criminal with a nickname, but she couldn't remember them. Then a voice says "You're thinking of Mr. Glass." That person is David Dunn. Bruce Willis himself. Reprising his character from M. Night Shymalan's "Unbreakable!"
Oh my God! It makes perfect sense. In the cinematic superhero climate we are living in right now, it only makes sense that M. Night Shymalan would revive his very own "superhero." In fact, Shymalan has talked about returning to "Unbreakable" for many years now. But I just figured he pulled a Tarantino and that we'd never get a sequel. I wouldn't call "Split" an official sequel to "Unbreakable." Put they clearly share a universe. I only hope now that Shymalan does the right thing and gives us another chapter. Will we see David Dunn face off against The Horde? I really hope we do. I hope Shymalan wouldn't just cheat us to give himself a great "twist" ending once more. Plus, there is still so much of Casey and "Dennis'" past that is still in the shadows, only giving Shymalan ammo for another good continuation to this. Please Shymalan, give us this.
Shymalan was once a man who relished the twist endings, but the greatest twist of seeing "Split" tonight was that Shymalan is out of the cinematic doghouse. He's back. I hope moving forward that he continues to make smart and engaging thrillers as this one. I hope he expands on the universe he is creating. Will David Dunn and The Horde eventually meet Cole Sear? Or Father Hess? Or come across The Village? Okay, maybe Shymalan shouldn't go THAT far, but the point is that I hope he expands the story he is telling here. Don't just wet our appetite, give us the full meal. Especially since you've done such a good job with "Split." If you loved Shymalan's old work. If you love good, tight thrillers. Go see "Split." Shymalan is back, thank God!
FINAL GRADE: A