Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder
Split: How M. Night Got His Groove Back
Written Review by David Carter
Disclaimer: So it’s pretty difficult to talk about this movie without discussing the big reveal at the end, because it completely recontextualizes the entire movie. It’s a movie not built around its reveal, but the reveal is vital to what the movie is. Make of that what you will. I will say that by not being spoiled on the ending (and i’m a big combatant against “spoiler culture” so this was a tough call for me) it did give me a rush of excitement that I would have not have gotten otherwise. So my two cents is go in blind or simply just be blind to the ending.
I want people to read this regardless of spoiler-phobia. So, keeping in step with the movie, I’m going to SPLIT (wakka wakka, don’t forget to tip your wait staff!) my review into two distinct parts. No spoilers: meaning I won’t mention anything that wasn’t already given away in the first trailer, and I may allude to events later in the film (not the ending though) but not give them away. Spoilers: Open season on the whole movie! Ok on with show.
I don’t think M. Night Shyamalan IS a bad director or BECAME a bad director. I think M. Night Shyamalan is a tragic story of an artist who not only fundamentally misunderstood what made his art great (what his strengths and weaknesses were) but also an artist who sadly bought into his own hype. You gotta understand that Shyamalan hit it big pretty early on in his career. Unlike other 90’s wunderkind like Tarantino, Smith, or Anderson (Wes or P.T.) his style didn’t feel like this brand new thing. It was classical in nature. It was pretty clear that he was a devotee of Hitchcock, Spielberg, and Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone. So after making an atomic hit with The Sixth Sense, the praise heaped onto him kind of had him lean into those qualities. He became a maker of what film nerds and critics like to call “elevated genre” which is just a fancy way of saying “horror, action, sci-fi, romance, superhero and crime movies that appeal to people who don’t normally like those types of movies”. Unbreakable is a superhero story about the psyches and lives of broken people. Signs is a straight up War of the Worlds riff with faith layered on top of it. Honestly, The Sixth Sense is mostly just a traditional ghost story with its giant twist turning the movie into a magic trick. Unfortunately, due to his leaning into the highly technical, but also high falutin qualities, his movies started to falter. I’m not gonna go through all of them but there’s a reason his post-Signs (a movie I don’t even like very much) output are considered flat-out train wrecks. It’s because the bigger the budgets and scope got, the bigger Shyamalan’s ideas got. Problem is, Shyamalan is a “small ideas” writer/director. It’s why those first three movies work so well. Because the pitches are simple, he’s able to focus on the visual and tonal aspect he’s great at. That’s why I think post-Unbreakable, up until Split, my favorite Shyamalan joint is The Happening. Yup! The movie that people mocked mercilessly for years. I mean, it’s not hard. When you have the line “Why you eyein’ my lemon drink” or Mark Wahlberg’s over the top sincere delivery of two words, the movie becomes an easy target.
The reason I enjoy it so much is because it really does nail those old schlocky eco-horror films from the 70’s, while still having the guiding hand of a talented director. The movie’s not perfect, but that schlock zone is where I truly believe M. Night thrives. He was never a Spielberg, he was always closer to a John Carpenter. Someone who elevates genre in craft, not content.
In this regard Split is a solid piece of “elevated genre”.
Split is very simple. A man (James McAvoy in a show-stopping performance. Seriously, this is like 60% of the reason to see the movie.) with 23 distinct personalities, kidnaps three young women (Jessica Sula, Haley Lu Richardson and Anya Taylor Joy of last years The VVitch ) and holds them captive in anticipation for the arrival of a 24th (and extremely dangerous sounding) personality called the beast. That’s pretty much the whole movie. There’s some business with James McAvoy’s psychologist (Betty Buckley. A Shyamalan alum from The Happening) who’s aware of all of his personalities but isn’t aware of the dark deeds he’s getting into. She’s hoping to get to the bottom of his DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder) and do so with compassion and understanding. It’s a slight twist on the “doctor with murderous patient” trope most famous by the Dr. Loomis character in Halloween. Most of the movie is structured around the three women trying their best to outsmart essentially 23 people (only about 5 come into play reguarly) and escape from their holdings. Shyamalan adds a nice touch by having them be proactive and staying one step ahead of the audience so they don’t come off as victims (Haley Lu Richardson’s character even vocalizes this at one point). Theres also some mystery surrounding Anya Taylor Joy’s character (who’s the female lead of the film). Her arc is played out in the present and in flashbacks that are weirdly beautiful compared to the rest of the movie. I won’t get too much into how her story plays out but it does get into what could possibly be very off putting about this movie.
This movie is grade A, 100% schlock. Schlock has a history and reputation for carrying exploitation baggage with it, and this where most of the problems with Split lie. Although problems is probably a strong word considering that his use of exploitation is very intentional. I’m still not comfortable penalizing something that clearly a work of science fiction (keyword: fiction) for its portrayal of DID (a hotly contested diagnosis) when it’s clearly just riffing on something like The Wolfman. I completely understand that portrayal of mental illness is very important, but I feel like this movie is the wrong place to fight that battle. Where I do penalize it slightly is for some of the other places it decides to go. It ends up in a pretty cruel place without giving its full due to what it’s putting on screen. There’s an honest attempt to give it weight but 2 reveals simultaneously undercut it in different ways. Sorry for the vagueness but I think it’s worth mentioning for people who want to see this movie and need a primer.
Split uses tension and suspense to great effect and the classic, but goofy M. Night tonal shifts are minimized (they’re still there, but they’re played very well to comedic effect). McAvoy shines and like I said earlier, he’s the real reason to see the movie. At least until we get into SPOLIERS. So with that if you want to see Split, I highly recommend you do so and stop reading now and just know that M. Night’s back baby! If you’ve seen Split, had it spoiled for you, or want it spoiled for you read on.
So when it’s revealed that this movie is a secret sequel to Unbreakable, and a set up for Unbreakable 2, I completely lost my mind. It was one of the most thrilling experiences I’ve ever had in theater because it was a reveal that not only excited me (Unbreakable is easily my favorite Shyamalan movie) but also because it didn’t improve the movie for me per se, but changed my perception of everything I had just seen (like a good reveal does).
This sequel has been in the works since the inception of the Unbreakable script. James McAvoy’s character, “The Hoard” and his 24th personality “The Beast” was originally going to be the person Bruce Willis fights at the end of the film. This is alluded to in Unbreakable at least twice by my count. The first time is when you see the comic young Elijah (aka Mr. Glass) is gifted to by his mother. It shows a square jawed hero fighting a beast-like villain called “Jaguaro”. The second is when Elijah’s mother espouses her son’s teaching about how there are two types of villains for heroes to fight: the “Soldier” who the hero physically fights and the “Master Mind” and arch nemesis, who the hero has to match wits with. It’s pretty clear The Hoard (or at least a version of it) was originally going to be the physical threat of the film. Shyamalan decided to remove the character from script because it was too cluttered. Shyamalan in interviews has always talked about wanting to do a sequel to Unbreakable for years. As odd as it sounds, I think this was the best way to do it. Earn back the trust of the audience by making a film that is solid by it’s own merits, and then hit them with a curve ball.
Foreshadowing and marketing aside, I want to get back to that point of recontextualization. I think this reveal pushes all the stuff about DID even further into the realm of pseudoscience and science fiction. Which to me is a good thing. The movie is just making up some things about the condition that would be hurtful in a movie trying to have a definitive take on the condition. By setting this in a heightened reality comic book world, it puts it puts it solidly in Two-Face from Batman territory. The Hoard is Legion, meets Magneto, and that makes for a pretty compelling villain to watch. Which makes the movie stronger thematically. It’s about broken people and giving him a super villain monologue at the end about broken people being the only true humans puts it distinctly into the thematic canon of not only Unbreakable, but most of M. Night’s cannon. Many of his movies are about people nursing psychological wounds that manifest as physical traits or tangible details. Also, how often do you get a super villain origin story as the entire premise of a film?
Where this reveal hurts the movie is when it comes to Anya Taylor Joy’s character. The mystery around her character reveals itself to be a sexual abuse narrative. At first I thought this was actually done pretty well. The abuse isn’t ever shown on screen, just the scars, both psychological and physical. I thought this fit well as a compliment to McAvoy’s character and own damage, but when it’s revealed that the abuse is still happening AND it’s a comic book movie, it became a little too much. If the movie only had the reveal of the sexual abuse by itself, it still plays into the exploitation aspect, but at least it becomes commentary on how abused people continue to be abused. By putting the Unbreakable reveal on top of it, it devalues that commentary and just feels cruel at best, or a set up for Bruce Willis character to save her (a very capable and coping character) from her sexually abusive uncle in Unbreakable 2 at worst.
That aside, i’m excited for what M. Night does next. Whether it be Unbreakable 2 or some other crazy project he dreams up, i’m glad he finally understands what makes him such a special filmmaker. I just wish it didn’t take him about 15 years to figure it out. Lets hope his next movie is even better than this one.