Split’s release started many conversations about mental illness and its depiction on screen, as it tried to grapple with potent themes like abuse, resilience and human psychology.
But what M. Night Shyamalan is really trying to do doesn’t come through until the very end of the film – and maybe it’s 17 years too late.
Split isn’t a particularly groundbreaking movie, although it is very well-written and well-performed. James McAvoy is outstanding as he carries out the difficult task of portraying multiple different characters, sometimes switching between them in the same shot. Being used to seeing him in Narnia and X-Men makes his appearance as a brutal, fear-inspiring figure a shock – but his inherent ability to be endearing keeps us firmly rooting for Kevin and the benevolent personalities within him throughout it all.
Anya Taylor-Joy also does a wonderful job as the story’s heroine. At first, her character seems like the usual angsty teenage reject we’re used to seeing in movies. But we’re soon challenged on that assumption as her backstory develops and we begin to understand her past as an abuse survivor.
It’s worth noting that the film thankfully shies away from explicit sexual violence, and despite the occasional half-nudity of female characters, it didn’t come off as objectifying.
However, the question of whether or not Split is yet another horror movie to use mental illness purely to inspire fear is a complicated one. Although at first, the film seems to be unraveling some important issues, such as the unreliability of authorities while dealing with mental illness cases, the importance of scientific research, and the dissociative identity disorder (DID) controversy, it later spirals away from these important themes and instead relies heavily on what it must think the audience came for: violence, horror, and a hulking unbeatable monster.
After seeing the final seconds of the film, it becomes clear that maybe M. Night Shyamalan could have done better.
For an audience member who goes in to watch Split without being familiar with Shyamalan’s past work – namely, Unbreakable – the appearance of The Beast throws one off, as a psychological thriller turns into something of a supernatural horror film without much warning. In the end, Split just seems like a particularly well-executed, though rather perplexing, horror movie; one that’s devoid of most of the usual clichéd acting and character dynamics, not particularly rewatchable.
But to a returning fan of Shyamalan’s work, and someone familiar with Unbreakable, the last few seconds of Split quickly make all the odd-looking pieces of the film fall into place with a reference to Mr. Glass and Bruce Willis’ sudden appearance.
Because we’ve seen all of this before. In an interview with Empire, Shyamalan says: “People who come to see my movies, you’re coming to see a drama masquerading as a genre piece.”
In Unbreakable, released 17 years ago, David Dunn discovers that his inability to get hurt is an actual superpower. Unbreakable was revolutionary at the time, when superhero movies were not something Hollywood was interesting in pursuing.
In hindsight, using DID as a premise for a supervillain works seamlessly when you remember that Mr. Glass’ distinguishing feature was that he suffered from osteogenesis imperfecta.
Split, like Unbreakable, takes something that exists in the real world and turns it into a plot point. Its fantastical premise softens the blow of the incorporation of real-life diseases (although arguably not enough, when the media is so full of negative portrayals of mental illness), and the result feels a lot less like stigmatization, and more like a nuanced exploration of abuse, resilience, and the power of the human brain.
In the end, this story is about victims of different kinds, as both Casey and Kevin struggle with their past abuse, and perhaps even see themselves in each other.
The final scene, with Willis reprising his role as David, saying the name “Mr. Glass” as the news reports on Kevin’s escape and renames him “The Horde,” ties together two of Shyamalan’s films in a notably MCU-like manner.
Shyamalan might be seriously aiming for a franchise à la Marvel (his movies already share a quirk with the MCU: the writer likes to make a cameo in each movie). In the same interview with Empire, he stated: “I hope if Split is a success, I’ll have the opportunity to finish the story. I want to finish it, so this is the third one.”
It does seem like Shyamalan intends to push for a third film. But did Split come too late?
Seventeen years have passed since Unbreakable graced theaters, and though it’s something of a cult classic, and a must-watch for fans of old-school Shyamalan, it’s undeniable that most of the people who loyally followed his work have little love for him in recent times, with movies like The Visit, Devil and After Earth receiving very negative receptions.
It’s unlikely that theater seats were filling up entirely because of Shyamalan’s role in Split’s creation. Those who went to see it may have just been looking for a scary movie to watch.
Sadly, it’s quite possible that the final twist was lost on an audience that was either too young to remember Unbreakable, or had simply never gotten around to watching it.
But if Shyamalan really intends to make a third movie and connect Unbreakable and Split, then what will David’s relationship to Kevin and his personalities be?
The Beast’s driving principle is that people who have suffered and been broken are superior beings. David Dunn has literally never been broken. This would make him an interesting enemy for The Horde, as he is in defiance of everything they stand for.
So far, all we know about Mr. Glass’ situation is that he’s locked up in an institution for the criminally insane, after realizing that he is the villain of the story – the exact opposite of David, the hero. Perhaps Mr. Glass and The Horde represent the physical and psychological aspects of ‘frailty,’ respectively, that are in stark contrast to David’s indestructibility.
Is Split setting up a second villain for Willis’ character to go up against, over a decade later? Or would Mr. Glass and The Horde team up to defeat a man who is the opposite of them both?
It’s very likely that it would have been impossible to make Split back in 2000, but with Marvel’s enormous success in tying films together to make one massive franchise, studios may be open to giving Shyamalan a shot at his own version of a superhero (or supervillain) story.
We’ve also seen franchises like Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Jurassic Park return, to widespread success. Disney and Universal both seemed eager to collaborate and make the last words of Split happen, despite Disney owning Mr. Glass and Split being Universal’s.
These are certainly good signs for a third film. What remains to be seen, however, is how Split is received in theaters. The reaction of audiences to the last words of the movie may be the deciding factor in whether or not a new Shyamalan franchise is launched.
Who knows? Maybe we’ll be seeing a movie with James McAvoy, Bruce Willis and Samuel Jackson reprising their roles together sometime soon.