So, last night I got done watching M. Night Shyamalan’s Split. And, somewhat incredibly at this point in the director’s career, it’s actually really good. Not great, thanks largely to a handful of typically Shyamalanesque problems, but for a genre movie opening in January it’s far better than you could reasonably expect. In it, James McAvoy plays a kidnapper with dissociative identity disorder, Kevin, who harbours 23 distinct personalities and three captive teenage girls.
I’ve been thinking about Split almost constantly since. Which is odd, because it’s not a particularly cerebral movie. By the end, it’s pretty clear exactly what happened and why. But it is a movie with a twist. Several, in fact, and a big reveal at the very end, which is absolutely what people are going to be talking about long after they’ve forgotten the particulars of the movie itself. I didn’t see it coming at all, and it was honestly kind of amazing, especially for someone like me who’s familiar with the rest of Shyamalan’s work. We’ll get to this soon.
In the meantime, here’s another movie I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last 24 hours: 10 Cloverfield Lane. It’s really good, too. It’s also the movie Split most reminds me of, for a number of reasons. Both are low-budget, small-scale psychological thrillers set in claustrophobic subterranean locations. Both are associated in some way with smarty-pants filmmaking – the trademark Big Twist of Shyamalan, in the case of Split, and the mystery box marketing of J.J. Abrams in the case of 10 Cloverfield Lane. And both are movies that go completely fucking bonkers in their final acts.
This isn’t exactly unique. Lots of movies go off the rails towards the end. But both Split and 10 Cloverfield Lane go off the rails in very specific, similar ways that are a) tonally at odds with the rest of the movie and b) in service of some larger sense of continuity. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a tighter, more effective suspense movie, but Split, in its totality, is a better movie experience, thanks largely to that aforementioned final reveal. To properly explain what I mean by this, I’m going to have to spoil the entirety of both.
Let’s start with 10 Cloverfield Lane. The premise here is that John Goodman’s weird rural survivalist character has built and fully-stocked an underground bunker for use in the unlikely event that a global calamity makes the earth’s surface unliveable. And would you believe it, but just such a world-ending catastrophe has taken place – or, at least, this is what he tells our heroine, Michelle, who wakes up in the bunker after having been “rescued” by him. The central dramatic question here is whether or not Howard (Goodman) is telling the truth, or if he’s just a garden-variety nutjob. Turns out he’s both. In the final fifteen-or-so minutes, Michelle kills Howard, escapes the bunker, and realises that he was right all along: but the previously-unspecified disaster is in fact a full-scale alien invasion. The title suddenly makes a bit more sense, if nothing else.
This is an incredibly abrupt tonal shift. The movie transitions from being a slow-burning chamber piece to a sci-fi action movie as Michelle plays peekaboo with the extra-terrestrials. A lot of people hated it. I didn’t, but I thought the movie would have been better served without it. I wrote the review, and then more or less forgot all about it until last night.
Split is immediately sillier. Shyamalan is taking all kinds of liberties with the rules of DID and basically just making shit up as he goes, but the persistent theme is those who suffer from the disorder being a more advanced version of ordinary people. The idea is that those who suffer incredibly traumatic abuse unlock the ability to compartmentalize aspects of their personality in order to better deal with it. In the movie, Dennis, the obsessive-compulsive persona, came into existence because Kevin’s mother would abuse him less frequently if his room was kept clean and tidy. He’s a person Kevin created to defend himself against something that, as a child, he couldn’t properly understand. Split takes this further. One of Kevin’s personalities is diabetic and has to take insulin shots; the others are not, and don’t. The movie is positing the idea that not only are these personalities psychologically-distinct, but they have different neurochemistry and physiology. They are quite literally different people living inside the same body. Which is absurd pseudo-scientific horseshit, of course, but it’s played fairly straight. What’s important to take from this is the idea of someone with DID’s various personalities being reflections of their experiences and environment, because it’s going to be doubly important in a minute.
Split’s suspense-building ticking-clock device is a hypothetical twenty-fourth personality whose arrival is apparently imminent. The other personalities refer to him as “the Beast”, and describe him as a literal man-eating monster with superhuman strength and impenetrable skin. And when the Beast eventually arrives… that’s exactly what he is. This is, again, absurd, far more so than even the rest of the movie up to that point. There’s a very big difference between playing fast and loose with facts and stepping fully into the realm of overt science-fiction. By the time McAvoy is shirtless and crawling along walls, you realise whatever the movie has become is something distinctly separate from what it originally was.
You remember what I said about Kevin’s personalities being reflections of his environment? Well, the next twist is that Kev’s underground lair is the maintenance area beneath a local zoo, and the Beast personality is an amalgamation of the traits of various animals that are kept there. Holy fucking shit. That’s bonkers. You can see the problem here, I’m sure – it’s not that any of this is inherently a bad idea (other than positing trauma-induced mental illness as a superpower, which is actually an inherently terrible idea) it’s just that it completely betrays the established tone of the movie. When you place Split alongside 10 Cloverfield Lane, the similarities are really obvious. They both do this. They both start in similar territory and then end up in completely different similar territory. It’s bizarre.
But I said earlier that Split is a better movie experience. Why is that? Because Split has one extra surprise. At the very end of the movie Shyamalan cuts to a diner. Kevin is still at large, having spared our heroine and escaped, and the local news are releasing facts about him. Because of his DID, the press have dubbed him “the Horde”. One of the patrons points out that this is reminiscent of another maniac who was on the loose several years ago. They can’t remember his name. And at this point Bruce motherfucking Willis shows up to remind everyone his name was “Mr Glass”. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Split is the sequel to Unbreakable.
This is a fantastic reveal for two reasons. The first is that it’s just fun for those in the know, and it opens up a ton of possibilities regarding a Shyamalan cinematic universe, or at the very least a series of really off-kilter, non-traditional superhero stories. I’m completely in on this idea. He should do it. The second reason is that it completely re-contextualises the entire third act of the movie. Kevin’s wacky transformation is no longer an egregious betrayal in tone – it’s actually a supervillain origin story that perfectly abides by the rules established in Unbreakable.
People have quite rightly pointed out that this isn’t really a twist, and in a sense they’re right. But I’ve also seen people suggest that having this fact spoiled won’t hamper your enjoyment of the movie, and I disagree with that strongly. Part of why this moment was so resoundingly effective for me (and, to be clear, I literally applauded it) was because I felt as if Shyamalan had once again let me down. To have that moment, to realise he knew what he was doing all along, doesn’t just restore faith in him as a director and a storyteller, but it reminds you of what it feels like to be genuinely surprised at the movies. I left Split feeling legitimately elated. And it wasn’t just because the movie is really good – it was because I’d been properly hoodwinked. For once I felt like the movie was smarter than I was. And that’s a really refreshing feeling because so many movies these days are so incredibly dumb.
Anyway. If you’ve read this far I’m assuming you’ve either seen Split or have no intention of ever seeing Split, so let me know what you felt about it in the comments. Is Shyamalan officially back? Do we even want another superhero franchise? Get it off your chest.
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