Ever since M. Night Shyamalan’s surprise success with The Sixth Sense and the twist ending that no one saw coming, his movies have been both highly anticipated and also scorned. For an artist, success on a first project is both a blessing and curse. The blessings are obvious, future projects will be funded and you already have an audience waiting for them. The curse is that whatever you create in the future won’t be same as that initial project, and future projects are more likely to be seen as worse, not better. It’s basically the “one-hit wonder curse,” and many bands, especially, have found it’s probably better to be moderately successful at the start and grow from there.
Much of the hype around Shyamalan has disappeared over the years, which is only good for him, I think. Twist endings work one time, and then the next time everyone’s expecting it and trying to outthink the writer or director, and if they correctly guess the ending, they somehow think they “beat” the artist and sometimes even declare the work as no good, simply because they were able to guess the ending. We’ve all probably been guilty of this mentality at least once in our lives, and it really makes no sense, as the audience isn’t supposed to be competing with the artist. At least most of the time.
That all being said, Shyamalan still loves his twist or surprise endings, but it has definitely garnered mixed reviews, sadly, much of them negative. I thoroughly enjoyed Signs, The Village, Devil, and Unbreakable, but thought The Last Airbender was one of the worst movies I’d ever seen. Other films like The Lady in the Water and The Happening, seemed as if they were meant to be clever, but didn’t deliver on that promised cleverness. Even though there’s been many of his films I don’t enjoy, I do try to give him a chance when I can.
(Spoilers ahead) The other day I borrowed Split from the library. Not only is it a Shyamalan film, it also stars James McAvoy who is a master of the acting craft. I’d previously seen trailers for the movie and knew it involved someone with a split personality, but not much else. It also looked scary, so I wasn’t sure if I was in for a ghost story like The 6th Sense or if it would be more of a general thriller.
Split is about a person with multiple personalities, all stemmed from child abuse, as is often the case. It’s a psychological disorder that some think is really demon possession or hallucinations, and some think just isn’t real. Real or not, this disorder has been used time again onscreen often to great effect, like in Identity starring John Cusack. Knowing Shyamalan’s love of twist endings, I wondering if the movie would end along similar lines.
The story starts right away, with little introduction to the characters. Three teenaged girls are being given a ride home by one of their dads, but someone comes up and knocks him out and gets into the driver’s seat. It is “Barry,” James McAvoy’s character, or as we come to find out his true name: Kevin. The man abducts the girls and locks them up in a basement somewhere. The plot follows a basic thriller of this type, with the girls making plans to escape and Barry threatening to assault them. A twist comes pretty quickly when the girls realize this man appears to have multiple personalities, one of them a woman, one of them a nine-year-old boy. Casey, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, immediately starts trying to outthink their abductor. She seems to know that ordinary ways of escaping aren’t going to work here. It’s mentioned that Casey’s a bit of a loner and through out the movie we see flashbacks of her life, memories with her dad and uncle that slowly bring us to the understanding that she was abused when she was younger.
Kevin’s personalities are at war with each other. One of them repeatedly sends pleas for help over email to his current psychologist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). She is a woman who firmly believes that multiple personality or dissociative identity disorder does exist, and most of her patients seem to share this affliction.
While watching, I noticed a lot of unusually angled shots and close shots that seemed vaguely familiar. It also seemed as if Casey had a slightly doe-like appearance, which was interesting considering all of her flashbacks on her abuse were about going hunting. Near the end, her hunting skills come in handy as the story takes a more supernatural turn: Kevin has a 24th personality: An indestructible animal-like person. It turns a bit slasher film once this “animal” show up. Casey is the only one to survive and it’s because the animal sees the marks of abuse on her body. Because of this, he considers her pure, like him, and even under her own trauma-induced supernatural transformation.
With all the animal talk, I did start to think that the girls were being held at a zoo, so was pleasantly surprised to have guessed that correctly. I didn’t guess the twist at the end, though, but found it awesome. We’re shown an average diner with a TV playing the news and talking about how this man killed people, and because of his disorder has been nicknamed The Horde. As a couple people are talking about it, they say it sounds a lot like Mr. Glass, a bad man from a few years ago and also the villain in Unbreakable. And there he is, Bruce Willis’s hero from Unbreakable sitting next to them.
Unbreakable is my favorite Shyamalan movie, though many find it slow. The ending of that film reveals it to be a comic book origin story. I’m not a huge fan of comic books and rarely read them, but I love movies based on the superheros from them, and it was great to see how such a story could play out in a not so cartoony world. Something about Bruce Willis’s quiet strength in the movie is thrilling. Split is now part of this same world and I understood why some of the shots and angles in the film seemed familiar–they were to look like comic book panels.
For me, Split was definitely a hit and I hope that Shyamalan continues to make more films of this nature. James McAvoy did a superb job playing Kevin, and much of the time I forgot it was him, so engrossed in his character was he. Like Mr. Glass, since Kevin believes he has super abilities, he therefore does. Thankfully, this isn’t how the real world operates, but it’s interesting that these two characters who have had such a hard life use that to justify their villainy. Now that does happen often in the real world. I’ve noticed in Korean dramas that there is also this tendency to portray characters who undergo trauma as developing special abilities. It works well for stories, but the message it’s sending is dubious, perhaps glorifying trauma and abuse to a status it doesn’t deserve. Victimhood isn’t something to crow about, it’s something to heal and recover from, a view which I think Shyamalan shares, as so far the victims of circumstance have chosen to become villains rather than heal.
Looking forward to eventually watching Glass, another of Shyamalan’s films in this comic book world. Sadly, looks like it’s promos call it the final chapter in this series.