Franchise Evolution: The Unbreakable Trilogy, part 2: Split (2016)
Previously in the Unbreakable Trilogy: Despite mediocre reviews, 2000’s Unbreakable was a pretty sizable hit for M. Night Shyamalan, who then went on to experience years of diminishing critical and commercial returns culminating in bombs like Lady in the Water and The Last Airbender. By the early 2010s, it seemed like his career was all but over.
But then in 2016, Shyamalan wrote, directed, and self-financed the supernatural thriller Split, which cost virtually nothing to make and became his first outright hit in a generation, and everyone hailed it as a return to form. And then the early reviews for Glass came out, suggesting this particular comeback might be short-lived.
The central character of Split is Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), a teenager who’s treated as a bit of outcast by her peers, including Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula). They’ve invited Casey to a get-together purely out of obligation, and as they’re about to give her a ride home, a strange man (James McAvoy) jumps in the car and sprays them all with some sort of knockout chemical. When they wake up, they find themselves locked in a windowless room by the man, who soon tries to drag Marcia out to “dance” for him. But before she’s taken out, Casey whispers to her, “Pee on yourself,” which apparently triggers their captor’s OCD, and he releases her.
Later, the three girls overhear their kidnapper outside talking to a woman, and they cry out for help, only to learn the “woman” is their captor, now wearing a dress and speaking in a British accent. This is, of course, a big WTF moment for the girls.
Meanwhile for Casey, the situation triggers a series of flashbacks to when she was a little girl being raised by her single father and his brother John. The three go off on hunting trips together, and things take an ugly turn when Uncle John wants Casey to take off all her clothes so they can “play” together, which is presumably where the “pee on yourself” advice originated. This leads to an incident where young Casey holds a shotgun on her uncle, but is too scared to shoot him, and in another flashback, we learn that Casey’s father died, leaving her in the custody of her molester.
Back in the present, the girls’ captor, identifying himself as “Barry”, goes to visit his psychiatrist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). Even though Barry sent Dr. Fletcher an email saying he needed to meet with her immediately, he insists he’s “better now”. It’s revealed that Barry is just one of many personalities living inside a man named Kevin Wendell Crumb, who developed dissociative identity disorder (DID), formerly known as multiple personality disorder, due to abuse suffered as a child. Over the course of the film, we learn there are 23 identities living within Kevin, including Dennis, who initially kidnapped the girls, and Patricia, the woman with the British accent.
Fletcher is an expert on DID, and believes that patients can exhibit different physical characteristics and conditions depending on which personality is in control. The conceit of this film is that despite all existing inside the same body, one personality can have illnesses that other personalities don’t have, or one personality can be blind while the others have sight, and so on.
Meanwhile, the girls in captivity are visited by another of Kevin’s personalities: Hedwig, a nine-year-old boy with a lisp who warns the girls that a “guy is coming for you” to do “awful things”. Claire tries to escape through the air ducts but is caught by Dennis and locked in a closet. Later, Patricia takes over and decides to make a meal for the girls, and Marcia also attempts to escape, but she too gets locked up in a different closet. And all the while, the girls are constantly warned that “the Beast” is coming for them, who’s a “sentient creature who represents the highest form of humans’ evolution.”
Barry goes to see Fletcher for another unscheduled session, and she knows about the Beast, who’s supposedly the 24th personality lurking inside Kevin, even though he’s never been in control of Kevin’s body before. Barry says the Beast can climb walls, and he has super-thick skin. Later, Fletcher gets suspicious, and with the help of one of her technically inclined friends (played by Shyamalan in one of his most pointless director’s cameos yet), she figures out that it hasn’t been Barry coming to see her, but rather Dennis pretending to be Barry.
She pays him a visit at his home, which is some sort of gated underground facility. Inside, Dennis warns her that the Beast is real and “on the move”, and he’s all about “the eating of the impure young”. Fletcher decides this is a pretty good time to take her leave, but on the way out, she happens to stumble upon the closet where Claire is being held. But before Fletcher can do anything, Dennis hits her with that same knockout spray.
Dennis then goes to a train station, and leaves flowers on a train platform. (The prevailing fan theory is that Kevin’s father died in the same train derailment seen in Unbreakable.) Climbing aboard the train, he takes off his shirt and begins transforming into the Beast.
Meanwhile, Fletcher wakes up and writes something down, but the Beast has returned, and he uses his apparent super-strength to crush her to death. Casey finally frees herself, only to find Marcia has been disemboweled, and the Beast is actually a cannibal who’s in the process of feeding on Claire.
Casey finds the paper where Dr. Fletcher has scrawled the name “Kevin Wendell Crumb”, along with “Say His Name”. The Beast then attacks, revealing that he actually can climb up walls as promised. Casey says his name, and he reverts to the real Kevin, who has no idea who Casey is, and still thinks it’s 2014. He realizes he’s done something horrible, and tells Casey to get a shotgun and kill him while she still has a chance.
Unfortunately, before she can get there, the Beast comes back and gnaws on Casey’s leg for a bit. She’s able to hide inside a steel cage, and in an echo of the flashback where she tried to shoot her uncle, she fires the shotgun at the Beast, but it doesn’t stop him. He’s about to rip apart the bars of the cage so he can feed on her, when he suddenly sees that her body is covered in scars; Her shirt got ripped off, revealing that she’s been coping with the abuse at home via cutting. The Beast declares that she’s “different from the rest” and “the broken are the more evolved,” and so he decides to spare her and he runs off.
Later, someone comes along and finds Casey in the cage and leads her out, and she passes through a tiger exhibit, and it turns out the girls were locked up in the maintenance section of the Philadelphia Zoo the entire time. The police arrive and Casey is told that her “guardian” is here, who’s presumably her molesting uncle. She gives a police officer a meaningful look, indicating that the abuse is about to come to an end.
Meanwhile, the Beast is hiding out and mending his wounds, and all his personalities are talking to each other, promising to show the world exactly what the Beast can do.
The credits start to roll, when suddenly we get a scene scored to the music from Unbreakable. People in a crowded diner watch a TV news report about Kevin Wendell Crumb, who a reporter identifies as a murderer who takes on the traits of all the animals in the zoo, and is now being called “the Horde”. Some random woman speaks up, saying (in a totally natural and unforced way) that this is like “that crazy guy in the wheelchair that they put away 15 years ago. And they gave him a funny name, too. What was it?” And then Bruce Willis as David Dunn suddenly appears in the frame and says, “Mr. Glass.” And just like that, Split turns out to be the second film in the Unbreakable trilogy.
The film is entertaining and suspenseful, but unfortunately still shows signs of M. Night Shyamalan’s creative decline over the years. Split, despite coming 16 years after Unbreakable, feels much less self-assured and a lot sloppier from a narrative point of view. If you compare the synopsis above with that of Unbreakable, you can tell the earlier film is much tighter and focused, whereas Split meanders quite a bit and has plenty of scenes that go nowhere and feel like filler.
The movie gets bogged down by endless conversations between Dr. Fletcher and Barry/Dennis, and Dr. Fletcher and one of her colleagues, plus a scene where Fletcher appears at a conference via Skype to give a presentation about Kevin. All these scenes seem to exist to establish one fact: Kevin’s different personalities can manifest different physical characteristics. We get this point early on, and the movie keeps making it over and over.
I’m not sure the flashbacks with young Casey were needed, or revealed anything about the character that couldn’t have been accomplished by simply having Casey open up about her uncle to one of her fellow captives. It feels very much like we’re being shown childhood trauma just to play upon our sympathies and make the film feel deeper than it really is. Because despite these flashbacks appearing to set up Casey as a hardened survivor who will use her past experiences to outwit her kidnapper, ultimately it comes to naught, as the villain is defeated simply by Casey happening to rip her shirt off.
Still, the film is enjoyable enough, and unlike Unbreakable, it isn’t afraid to engage in some dark humor. James McAvoy is a riot to watch, particular in his little boy personality of Hedwig, who delivers the movie’s funniest lines, such as when he awkwardly kisses Casey on the lips and then declares, “You might be pregnant now.” But more impressive here is Anya Taylor-Joy, who does much more with much less dialogue; she can communicate volumes without saying a word, and Shyamalan takes full advantage of this.
I would rank Split somewhere in the mid-range of Shyamalan’s career, alongside The Village and After Earth (a film widely derided as a Will Smith vanity project, but which isn’t half bad). Split was hailed as a return to form for the director, but it doesn’t approach the heights of his first three breakout successes of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs. Frankly, we’ve been seeing the “split personality killer” trope for decades now, and Split doesn’t really add much of anything new or fresh to its portrayal of the condition.
Coming up in part 3: The Unbreakable Trilogy comes to an end in Glass, due out this Friday. Early reviews suggest the film is pretty underwhelming, but it seems worth the price of admission just to see Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson reprise their roles from Unbreakable. Stay tuned for part 3 of this article, coming… soon-ish.