Like most M. Night Shyamalan movies, the true purpose of Split isn’t revealed until the final moments of the film. But this time it’s not some wild plot twist or magical coincidence. No, it’s something much different. Something totally removed from the narrative of the film. Something so cynical, so lazy, that as the credits began to roll I felt like the victim of a cruel prank.
(For those of you who care to experience the prank firsthand, stop reading now; spoilers ensue.)
I hate to escalate things like this, Jeff. It feels like I’m ratting out a classmate to the school principal. But, as the head honcho, the buck stops with you. At least it should. And I’m writing to plead with you: make this stop.
No, I’m not talking about M. Night Shyamalan’s career. Believe me when I say that I take no pleasure (as many would) in chipping away at what remains of his reputation. But it’s impossible to talk about this film – and what happens in its final few seconds – without talking about the man and his career. Which is fair, I think, because thing that happens at the end is explicitly about him and his career. Not the story, not the characters—him.
I’ve been neither a devotee nor hater of Shyamalan’s work. The Sixth Sense didn’t surprise me much (which is bad news for a film that exists only to surprise) and I’ve always been befuddled by the appeal of Unbreakable. In my casual estimation, his best film has been Signs, which genuinely frightened me, and I’m even willing to defend The Village. I couldn’t bring myself to despise Lady In The Water the way most people did, and The Last Airbender was atrocious in such a familiar way that it was hard to pin the blame entirely on the director. So I’ve always been willing to give Shyamalan another chance. Just like you, apparently. I think it’s his unfulfilled potential that fascinates me; he always seems just a few steps away from doing something great. There is something about his eagerness to manipulate the audience that I find admirable; why else do people go to the movies?
So I was quite excited to see Split. The premise was classic Shyamalan: girls kidnapped by a weirdo with multiple personalities; one of those personalities may or may not be a demon (or something). Fun, right? But instead—
Maybe my memory of his previous films has gone foggy, but, with Split, he seems to have regressed as a filmmaker. There are individual shots that are self-consciously cool, images that would look great on One Perfect Shot, but a film is not a series of images, it is the aggregate of those images, and the real artistry of a movie is how those images interact and give meaning to one another. Shyamalan is like a foreigner who has learned the native language one word at a time; he possesses an impressive vocabulary, but has no sense of grammar or structure of verb tense. Indeed, there are sequences in Split that unfold in such an illiterate manner that they seem like the work of a student filmmaker; someone just learning what a camera is supposed to do, how information is supposed to be conveyed.
But that sort of sloppiness can be easy to overlook if a film’s purpose it true. Unfortunately, Shyamalan’s illiteracy extends to the morality of the film, too. Here we have a thriller about semi-naked teenage girls held hostage by an eccentric maniac, and, rightfully, Shyamalan indulges playfully in the tropes of that sub-genre. But Split is also a movie that references, multiple times, child sexual abuse. And, in one horrifying scene, even shows us the disturbing prologue of a five year-old girl’s sexual encounter with an uncle. It’s a sequence that plays out in typical thriller fashion, a slowly-dawning discomfort that builds to repulsion, and, I’ll admit, it’s very effective—but the problem is, this isn’t a quiet drama about the consequences of trauma or an empathetic character study, it’s a Hollywood movie about a whimsical serial killer with super-powers. I don’t mean to imply that such topics should be off-limits to certain filmmakers or untouchable in the context of a certain genre, but I simply felt like the film, up to that point, hadn’t earned the right to use such dark issues to advance its plot, and there was, therefore, something utterly tasteless about it all.
Worse yet, all of those muddled principles are amplified in the climactic confrontation between killer and Final Girl. I’m assuming you’ve seen the film, so you know the scene I’m talking about: our protagonist is cornered by the lunatic, she’s about to be eaten or whatever, and he manages to tear her shirt off, revealing numerous scars on her abdomen and shoulders, the handiwork of her abusive uncle. The lunatic pauses, and then plainly states (as everything in an M. Night Shyamalan screenplay is stated) that, like him, her victimhood makes her powerful. Which I guess isn’t a totally reprehensible ideological stance, except that she has no agency in demonstrating her power as a survivor, she just sits there passively, observed, judged (with her shirt torn off). Yet another “strong female character” who is only strong because the male antagonist acknowledges that she’s not weak. For me, that nuance drained the film of the moral credibility with which it was attempting to give depth to all the slasher-flick goofiness.
I mean, Christ, I’ve had worse times in movie theaters. And despite all of this, as the last act wrapped up I was willing to give Split a couple of stars (one each for James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy, to acknowledge the efforts they make to overcome the facile, sometimes laughable screenplay). But then—those last five seconds of the film, the big secret revealed, and it turns out that this entire thing was, quite literally, a set-up. Not a narrative set-up, mind you. A fraud, a con.
Here’s how the whole thing wraps up: we find ourselves in a diner; a television blares, and we learn, from a line of dopey newscaster dialogue, that the killer, who remains uncaptured, has been nicknamed The Horde; we pan slowly down the lunch counter, where, sitting there on a stool, enjoying a club sandwich and hot cup of coffee, is David Dunn, aka. Bruce Willis, the unbreakable hero of Shyamalan’s long-ago hit Unbreakable, who, we must assume, will now do battle with the villain we have been following throughout this film. Which means that Split is not actually a movie at all; it’s the backstory for another movie that does not yet exist, that, having paid fifteen bucks to watch this one, you may or may not care anything about.
That the characters in Split have suffered and died merely to enable this clash is sort of depressing, isn’t it? What does any of it mean? Is this simply how popular entertainment works, now? The serialization and continuation of everything. No endings, anymore? Just teasers for the next, better chapter? Is Split the embodiment of Fuck You, It’s January!?
Clearly this pissed me off, Jeff. But I wonder, now, about my own culpability in this culture of unoriginality. My complicated nostalgic attachment to comic book movies is well-documented. And I’ve often defended the stingers in those films as akin to the previews you find in the back of comic books that show the next month’s cover. But this felt bigger than that. More intrusive. A desperate attempt by the director to remind us that he once made films that were more interesting than this one.
But, okay—one star. To keep with the theme of multiple viewpoints occupying the same body, I’ll give Split one star on behalf of my self-doubt.