Before I go any further, I’m just going to go ahead and rip the bandage off and reveal what we all wait for with any of M. Night Shyamalan's films: the twist. If you just hate spoilers, then I highly suggest you come back to this article later. Although, reading about the twist before seeing Split may actually make the movie way more interesting.
MAJOR SPOILER ALERT . . .
Split is linked to Shyamalan's 2000 blockbuster Unbreakable. Seems pretty dope, right? I must stress, however, the word "seems."
Shyamalan has made it no secret that he’s been open to the idea of making a sequel to Unbreakable—and why shouldn’t he? Unbreakable was one of his higher grossing films and one of his stronger efforts in storytelling. Unbreakable was singular at its time when Hollywood was tentatively dipping its toes into comic book universes. And it remains singular to this day for its meta structure (Samuel L. Jackson narrating the formula for comic book heroes and their archenemies while he himself turned out to be the Lex Luthor to Bruce Willis’s Superman) and for being a drama with a patina of comic book sheen, not the other way around.
So, yes, a sequel to Unbreakable would’ve been just splendid—if only it didn’t come in the form of Split.
James McAvoy leads Split as Kevin Crumb, a man with dissociative identity disorder (DID) juggling 23 personalities. Kevin kidnaps three teenage girls in order to use them as human sacrifices for his emerging 24th personality, ominously monikered "The Beast." Kevin’s therapist is focused on not seeing her patients as broken or ill, but rather as extraordinary in the sense that people like Kevin could be the key to the untapped potential of humans.
Split draws from the findings of the now-infamous Dr. Bennett Braun, founder of the International Society for the Study of Disassociation, who asserted that personalities, or alters, within someone with DID can discretely suffer from things like high blood pressure. In Split, for example, one of Kevin’s alters, Jade, actually has diabetes, but Kevin himself doesn’t. As for The Beast, he turns out to be, you guessed it, virtually unbreakable, a manifestation as the ultimate protection against anything that could harm Kevin emotionally or otherwise.
During the climactic standoff between The Beast and final-girl Casey (The Witch's Anya Taylor-Joy), he’s shot twice, point-blank, but is largely unharmed. Casey’s life is spared for the dumbest of reasons (more on that in a moment) and The Beast escapes into the night. The end of the movie shows a diner full of people glued to the news report of what transpired, including how the perpetrator was indestructible. One of the diner’s patrons asks her friend something to the effect of, "Say, wasn’t there something in the news awhile ago about a crazy terrorist in a wheelchair looking for someone unbreakable?" Insert camera close-up of David Dunn (Bruce Willis’s character from Unbreakable) who informs the woman that the man’s name was Mr. Glass.
Cue credits and eye rolls.
I’m not salty at the prospect of an Unbreakable universe, quite the contrary. The way Shyamalan set Split up hints at the possibility of Dunn meeting his most formidable foe in The Beast. If that movie happens, I’m all for it, but for now we’re left with Split as is, a sloppy lean-to on an otherwise decent house.
The main problem with Split is that it’s neither a thriller like The Sixth Sense nor an origin story like Unbreakable. It wanders somewhere in between, rendering it ineffectual. Split’s most damaging stress point is The Beast’s raison d'être. All the suspense Shyamalan painstakingly crafts leading up to the reveal of The Beast instantly falls flat when we learn that the reason why the girls were kidnapped as an offering to The Beast was that, as carefree teens, they didn't know what suffering was, unlike someone juggling 24 personalities. Remember when I said there was a dumb reason why the heroine Casey was spared? It was because The Beast saw she was a cutter. Throughout Split, there are flashbacks to Casey’s life that reveal she’s been molested by her uncle, which explains why she’s so withdrawn and, apparently, cuts herself.
That’s right, the main character walked away scot-free because, in essence, she wasn’t free.
It’s a paper-thin foundation on which Shyamalan loads the bulk of Split, causing way too many cracks in the plot to ignore. What made The Beast so sure the other two girls weren’t going through something, too? Why did he have to go through the trouble of kidnapping them in the first place—couldn’t he have just stalked them down without bringing them to his dungeon that turned out to be the basement of the zoo where he worked? Why did he kill his therapist when she was one of his main allies, save for the whole snatching up teen girls?
Split could’ve worked as more of an origin story like David Dunn’s in Unbreakable, but we know next to nothing about who Kevin is or exactly what the traumatic incident was that led him to developing 24 personalities. In truth, we know more about Casey than Kevin, but not by much. Split spends the majority of its time nudging the audience that something terrifying is on the way, and as it turns out was hardly the case.
By marrying Split to Unbreakable, Shyamalan only highlights the failings of the former. Unbreakable introduced two well-developed characters in a highly original format, while Split delivered all of the above half-baked, at best. If Shyamalan is working on a third film for the Unbreakable universe, here’s hoping he picks and sticks to a genre—and that it won’t take another 17 years to hit theaters.