(Warning: This article contains plot spoilers)
M. Night Shyamalan has undergone an identity crisis. The writer, director, and bit-part ‘actor’ of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs and The Village came something of a mid-career cropper.
With his subsequent movies failing to impress, Shyamalan went from being the new master of suspense and king of the twist to more or less persona non grata, even among his once-committed followers.
But rarely, if ever, has a career been resurrected by so little screen time as the final minutes of Shyamalan’s not-quite-so-bad-then-suddenly-amazing Split.
The film starts in queasy teen fanboy wish-fulfilment territory, as three nubiles are abducted and imprisoned by a disturbed man harbouring within himself 23 – or perhaps 24? – different personalities (an intelligently unhinged turn from James McAvoy, relatively subtle where others may have been tempted to go OTT).
And for pretty much 90% of its running time, Split is just that, an above-average thriller. But then M. Night brings to the party the most powerful, most frightening, most pulse-poundingly effective personality of all .. the real, old school M. Night himself!
Yes, the truth is already out there – but let’s just call these four frames ‘Rescue’, ‘Redemption’, ‘Regeneration’, and ‘Revelation’. So what do we see? A zoo – the girls were held in an abandoned area of a zoo, complete with tigers.
We see a survivor, Casey, in an ambulance. There is a real feeling of quiet repose in this scene. The first human contact after a crisis is usually in an ambulance, or a hospital. The simple rebuilding blocks of “yes”, “no”, “OK”, help the victim put the rest of their life on pause and forget that someone – yes, probably them – will have to pick up the pieces.
Then a cop mentions the uncle – self-harming Casey’s “guardian”. There are lots of toothbrushes and, later, the word “amalgam”. And Kevin, the multi-personality guy, has regenerated into… something else. The rules of his ongoing internal power play have changed somewhat. He/they ask the all-important question: “What do we do now?”
And then, in the diner, watching the news on TV, a customer recalls something that happened some years ago, also in Philadelphia… a guy in a wheelchair… Wait a minute… that theme music!
Almost at a stroke, M Night has rebuilt his fanbase and rediscovered his niche as a guy whose next film you actually want to see. For those in the know, Unbreakable (2000) was and still is the greatest comic book movie of all time, ever; the revelation that Split has been a sequel to it all along is Shyamalan’s best twist in a long time, making us look at what we’ve just watched in a new light.
And although you may have noticed some recent activity from Marvel and DC, Split reminds us that the superhero genre – with its mythic storytelling, epic scope, effective long-form strategies, and conflicted characters to live and die for – is in safest hands with Shyamalan.
Yes, he’s back. And he’s not Dunn yet.