Listen, this is what really happened. All those bad movies from The Happening onwards, they weren’t made by M. Night Shyamalan. The one responsible was his split personality, M. Day Shyamalan.
Bad jokes aside, while many are hailing Split as his “comeback film,” Shyamalan had, in fact, come back from his fall from grace a year ago. In 2015, he quietly made the psychological thriller, The Visit, and the film was released without much fanfare. The small-budget film is a clever little idea from which Shyamalan somehow managed to build an intriguing found-footage film. The fact that he dabbled in such a tired, old subgenre like the found footage, and still made it work, makes it seem like he was just warming up for a big return. It was clear he was having a lot of fun with The Visit that has a nice little twist that elicits more chuckles than shock or surprise. You’ll kick yourself for not realising earlier on, what is really going on with the weird grandparents.
Cut to the present and Split, with its surprise tagged on ending. It’s been sold as psychological terror/horror with perhaps a pinch of the supernatural. It’s clear from the trailer that it’s sort of a Psycho-meets-10 Cloverfield Lane. But Split is really something different altogether. It has an enormous secret at its core, and I’m not about to give anything away.
It’s Shyamalan’s trait as a writer-director that his heroes and heroines are damaged people with very deep psychological and emotional scars. They are people who wake up every morning with a certain sadness in their hearts, knowing that they’ve not yet fulfilled their potential or found what they’ve always been searching for. Dr Malcolm Crowe is haunted by a patient he had failed to help and now wants to redeem himself. David Dunn has lived an empty life because he hasn’t yet discovered his calling as a superhero. The reverend Graham Hess struggles with his crisis of faith because he cannot yet grasp the meaning of existence and why his wife had to die a horrible death.
In Split, Casey, played by the wispy Anya Taylor-Joy, is no different. She is an outcast, a misfit, whose damaged past and present inform her every action. Invited by her unwilling schoolmates to a gathering at a mall, she is later kidnapped, along with two other girls, by a man (James McAvoy) with 23 different personalities. Casey, who seems calm and quiet in the face of adversity, is yet another Shyamalan archetype whose pain is what gives her the steely determination to survive. She comes from a family of hunters and has learned to be patient and observe, as she does so with her captor, manipulating each of his personality to get an upper hand. It’s an edgy chess game between the two of them, or rather, between the five of them, as only four main personalities emerge from the patient with the dissociative identity disorder.
Although the story begins with Casey followed by the revelation of her past through flashbacks, this is largely McAvoy’s showcase. Split is every serious actor’s dream project. McAvoy gets to show off his chops, one moment playing a soft-spoken, almost elfin fashion designer, the next an uppity English governess, also a nine-year-old boy who loves Kanye West and a darker, more sinister man with a penchant for young girls. McAvoy takes to the task with glee, from subtle body language changes to even alterations to his voice and accent. It all culminates in an emerging 24th personality, something known only as The Beast, that is alluded to every so often throughout the film, providing the hook to the story.
While not nearly as gripping as Signs or even The Village, but still with enough machinations to inspire fascination – and despite being within the thriller genre – Split is pretty much a departure for Shyamalan in the sense that he is much less concerned with the emotional relationship between two people that has been central to almost all his films. In place of the human drama about communication and forgiveness that is present in all his films is the story of survival and the power of the feminine. Then there’s the transformative power of pain at the core of the story, as Kevin, the real identity, says: “The broken are the more evolved.”
By this time, if you’re thinking that Shyamalan must be making a movie about himself, perhaps you’re not that far off. Split is the mark of his rebirth as a hit-making director, bearing the scars of his “pain.”
And then there’s that tagged on ending.
Much criticism has been levelled at Split for its irresponsible depiction of dissociative identity disorder, previously known as multiple personality disorder. Hollywood has, indeed, never been kind in this respect. Sufferers of this rare mental illness are always depicted in movies as psychotic and dangerous. Norman Bates comes to mind, as does the John Cusack starrer Identity. I would also take this view, if it weren’t for Split‘s real ending that changes everything you thought you knew about the film. It’s the film’s huge secret that will make you jump up and cheer if you’ve been a long-time fan of Shyamalan’s. It also goes some ways to explain why the science in Split is so far-fetched, sometimes bordering on the ridiculous and daring to even suggest that dissociative identity disorder could explain away what we normally regard as the supernatural.
It is also Shyamalan announcing loud and clear that yes, he is really back this time and ready to give us more of what we’ve come to expect from him.