Premise: Three girls are kidnapped by a man with a diagnosed 23 distinct personalities. They must try to escape before the apparent emergence of a frightful new 24th.
When I sat down to rewatch Split, the thing I was most curious about was if the surprise ending was what made the movie great in my mind or if it would stand on its own without that shock factor inflating a subpar or mediocre opinion.
I’m happy to report that Split holds up surprisingly well, thanks in large part to James McAvoy’s spectacular performance. Split is a suspense filled thriller that leaves the viewer squirming with (albeit PG-13) unease. Kevin’s Dissociative Identity Disorder means there are 23 personalities taking residence in his mind, fighting for control. This makes the tension in Split unpredictable and palpable as you don’t know what personality will “take the light” next or what said personality is capable of.
The movie doesn’t rest solely on the split personality plot line. One of Split’s biggest strengths is in the character of Casey, played by Anya Taylor-Joy. The movie slowly divulges some traumatic backstory for Casey that informs the strength she has to protect herself and her friends in her current predicament. I was really impressed with how Night tells this backstory to us. He demonstrates restraint as he introduces a simple hunting trip and then (through flashbacks) slowly develops it into something different and very upsetting. The way this informs the character of Casey and gives her a leg up on her captor and his personalities.
Betty Buckley plays Kevin’s psychiatrist in the film. The role is essential as it brings home the potential implications of Kevin’s personality disorder for humanity. However, I found the scenes with Dr. Fletcher to be where Split‘s momentum suffered a bit. Even though the character helped legitimize the more mythological elements to Kevin’s personalities’ story, I was much more interested in the story of the three captive girls. Whenever the movie switched to a Fletcher scene, I found my interest wavering just slightly.
SPOILERS FOR SPLIT
Of course, I can’t neglect the elephant in the room with Split. The surprise ending absolutely floored me when I saw it in the theater. Having been a massive M. Night Shyamalan fan in my youth (misguided teenage Matt proclaimed The Village to be not only a masterpiece but “Shyamalan’s latest masterpiece at that), my mind was blown when I started to hear the theme from Unbreakable play. I’m delighted that I had the experience I did because I had no inclination that Split was at all connected to Unbreakable.
It’s not just the fact that Split was a secret sequel to Unbreakable (arguably Night’s best film) that makes it so thrilling. The thematic connection between the two films is that they are centered around characters with extraordinary abilities but no purpose in life. David Dunn and Kevin Crumb search for meaning in their lives in each of their respective films. What makes the pairing of these films so compelling is that they reach similar conclusions but at different ends of the spectrum. It also sets the stage of the end of this trilogy with 2019’s Glass.
As a once big fan of Shyamalan who fell off as his films became increasingly terrible, it makes me happy that he could change course so drastically. With Split, M. Night Shyamalan delivered a film that is just as good as the films that made me lavish misguided platitudes on him in my youth.