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They say this one has a surprise ending

by Thom Yee

split-one

Split images courtesy of Universal Pictures

I’ve been a big fan of writer/director M. Night Shyamalan ever since his first movie. Well, actually, that’s not true, I’ve never seen Wide Awake, the Rosie-O’Donnel-led comedy he wrote and directed from 1998, nor did I even know about his 1992-released Praying with Anger until I bothered to look up his film credits. No, the M. Night Shyamalan I’m speaking of, the one we’re probably all thinking of when we dig into the rosier side of our movie memories, is the storyteller, the wunderkind, “The Next Spielberg”, the man who brought us The Sixth Sense. And… actually, I never saw The Sixth Sense either. ‘Cause somebody told me how it ends. I still look back on those early Shyamalan movies fondly, however, because even if I was never able to experience what it was like to sit in one of those theatres in 1999 — without any expectations as I beheld a gritty, suspenseful, unexpectedly well-told movie about seeing dead people with a monumental twist ending that would change everything — I had a pretty similar experience when I did see his follow-up, Unbreakable, the year after. Without anyone spoiling it.

If there’s one thing M. Night Shyamalan has been known for, it’s his twist endings, endings that usually manage to change everything about his movie’s initial premises, and as upending, senses-shattering, and ultimately fulfilling as many of his twist endings have been, it’s something you would have expected to grow stale if he failed to come up with something else. But instead he just failed entirely, and by now, possibly even more than his twists, Shyamalan is a director known best for turning out bad movies, some of which are so bad they have to be seen. But I wouldn’t know about that either. To be honest, I actually haven’t seen the majority of his movies. His Unbreakable remains a favourite, I was thoroughly impressed with his next movie, Signs, despite its obvious flaws in logic, I liked The Village more than most, and I was so excited about Lady in the Water (so excited!) because it looked like exactly the type of mythic yet intimate storytelling that I love. But then… nothing. Poof. No more M. Night Shyamalan for me. Critical response to Lady in the Water was so bad that I never did see it, and with every movie of his that followed dug deeper and deeper into the critical grave, seemingly cementing his place as a cautionary tale about rising too far too fast in Hollywood.

And now here we are, with Split, the first M. Night Shyamalan movie I’ve seen in more than ten years. Does it make up for past mistakes? Does it live up to Shyamalan’s best works? Is it a return to form for the once-renowned, now much-maligned director? Does anyone actually like when introductions end with a series of questions? Read on to find out!

What’s it about?

Three teenaged girls are kidnapped by a mysterious man (James McAvoy) who suffers from dissociative identity disorder (DID). That’s about it.

OR IS IT?

Believe it or not I actually struggled quite a bit with writing that synopsis. See, I normally like to provide longer synopses than what you’ve just read (well, “like” is probably a strong word for it), but everything I attempted to add to that single sentence seemed only to add unnecessary clutter to what’s really a very clean premise, and especially with Split, revealing much more than what’s above pretty quickly gets into giving the whole movie away. There’s a lot going on inside of Split and it flows at a very deliberate pace, and so to get the most out of it, it’s important to learn and discover as the movie dictates, every detail adding another layer to your arsenal of understanding.

One notion I will disabuse you of with Split is that it might deal with the topic of mental illness with any scientific accuracy (that’s a strangely severe-sounding term, “disabuse”, don’t you think?). While that much might seem obvious given the horror/thriller bent of the movie’s trailers and marketing materials, we exist at exactly the right moment of outrage culture that someone somewhere will find reason to take personal offense at broad social issues like how a movie dramatizes multiple personalities. To be clear, I’m not in any way trying to minimize the impact of mental illness or the importance of our understanding of mental illness, but come on. You weren’t really thinking you’d find a softly considered approach to dissociative identity disorder in a horror movie by M. Night Shyamalan, did you? I mean, the whole kidnapping angle is a dead give away.

Is it any good?

Split is a weird movie, and not just because of how odd and disarming it is to see an actor like James McAvoy so convincingly portray four (of 23 [or more?]) distinct identities. It’s thrilling but never very exciting, it’s tense and horrific but rarely all that scary, and I honestly expect there will be a large contingent of viewers who get very little from watching it. In fact, purely as a thriller on its own, I would expect a lot of people to not get why people like me like it, not nearly as much as we seem to at least, and purely as a movie about girls in captivity who need to figure out what’s going on before they die, I would say last year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane is notably better.

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Face of a final girl.

The first and biggest problem with Split is its characters and how they develop throughout the movie. McAvoy does a fine job playing four clearly different people between his multiple personalities, but none of them is especially well drawn or evolves beyond the scope of what they seem to be. None of the four personalities come off as downright stereotypical, but there are no real surprises to be found in who they are or what they do. Beyond McAvoy himself, two of the three kidnapped girls leave no impression beyond the physical and are almost literally written out of most of the movie, while our protagonist, played admittedly well by Anya Taylor-Joy, doesn’t have anywhere near the sort of agency someone like Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle has in (once again) 10 Cloverfield Lane. There’s clearly a story being told about her, one in which it seems fitting that she’s more prepared for the situation than the other girls and more ahead of McAvoy’s multiple personalities than she should be, but her story never builds to a satisfying point, nor does it tie in or parallel McAvoy’s in a way that befits this type of movie. Marvel movies might be well-known for choosing the easy route in portraying their heroes and villains as precisely reflected opposites, but it at least remains a truism in almost any story with protagonists and antagonists that they should either in some ways be opposite sides of the same coin or they’re not explicitly because the story is screwing with that notion to make a different point, but Split does neither, and with what’s onscreen between the McAvoy and Taylor-Joy and how their final duel turns out, it’s a just a little too dissatisfying to let that point go.

You can draw conclusions about the multiple people in Split based on your own understandings and expectations, but there’s really not as much going on beyond the obvious as I would like to see, and especially when people do things that seem stupid (the same way people always seem to do at least one stupid thing in every horror movie), you’re left to conclude that they just are stupid people rather than understanding why they might have chosen to do things in that way. Once you find out what’s really going on in this movie, however, you soon realize in many cases that it might not have mattered if these people had done something smarter. And therein lies the rub. The perennial hallmarks of an M. Night Shyamalan movie at this point are two, and since I’ve already established that I liked this movie and it, therefore, can’t be bad, here’s where we talk about the twist and how drastically it changes things. Or rather here’s where I talk around the twist, because revealing it would ruin everything.

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Dressing up like a woman? That’s crazy!

All throughout Split, there’s something very strange boiling under the surface, and though the movie can be perceived and enjoyed as a reasonable example of the horror/thriller form on its own (despite me spending the last two paragraphs pretty much dumping on it), the movie is constantly hinting at something more going on, something perhaps greater than us all as we are. We learn not only about McAvoy’s situation with multiple personalities but of other unusual phenomena happening with people who have multiple personalities. In one case a blind person is mentioned to have developed a non-blind personality that seemed to be able to see, in another case only one of a patient’s personalities had need to take insulin for their diabetes. Things that don’t really make sense start to happen or at least are mentioned anecdotally, and yet the movie’s actual events stays firmly grounded, and so you start to speculate, often on ideas or theories that you know won’t work but become convinced of because you know this movie must have a twist. You squirm and twist in your seat trying to make sense of things, you crave for closure in a way that few movies can conjure, and that more than anything else is what I loved about Split. Because I was expecting a twist, I was more actively involved in the movie, more hyper-aware of what’s going on. I drew flimsier and flimsier conclusions of what could be going on or what’s probably really happening, and constantly realizing why they wouldn’t work. By its very nature as a mystery-thriller Split implores you to find the seams that will undo the whole thing, but because it’s a Shyamalan movie, your thoughts stretch further, you’re always on the look out for something telling, something odd in the background or in the way a scene is shot, or just something that feels off — that one missing piece that confirms your suspicion that one of the girls must also have split personalities or explains why some of McAvoy’s personalities seem to be jumbling together or proves this movie is actually taking place somewhere or somewhen other than what it seems to be. And, without revealing if any of those suspicions are relevant, I’ll just go ahead and tell you that whatever you’re thinking is almost definitely wrong.

So should I see it?

The ending of Split literally changes the whole thing entirely, and while that’s the furthest thing from a surprise when it comes to an M. Night Shyamalan movie, for me it was the most satisfying ending of any of his movies despite actually being one of the most shallow and easily placed. What’s more, it’s less a twist as much as a reveal, a celebration even, and it acts as a bit of a release to everything that just happened. It’s really a meta-twist in a way, almost as reliant on our knowledge of these movie as it is on our knowledge of what’s happening in this movie. It’s a real, real reward for long-time fans of Shyamalan’s work, and Split’s apparent success so far shows how many of us have been waiting for the writer/director to come back, but if you don’t get what I got from it, if you haven’t seen or don’t remember his movies as fondly as I do, it probably won’t strike you as something spectacular.

Thom’s Split final score

3.5

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 On the Edge

  • Man, McAvoy was ripped in this one. And you could tell pretty easily too, even before he took his shirt off, if you knew what to look for.
    • Yeah, I look at men’s bodies o see what kind of shape they’re in, so what, wanna fight about it?

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